The Attention Economy: How We Are Forfeiting Our Most Precious Resource

The transition from the Industrial Age into the Information Age has caused a dramatic shift in the inner workings of the world economy. The fundamental elements to which we are attaching value are drastically changing. In the Industrial Age, we would provide labor in return for money. People worked in factories, performing value adding processes to create physical goods which were to be sold at a price higher than that of the materials, rent and labor costs that went into producing them. The labor may have been non-stimulating and repetitive, but nonetheless, one received a paycheck for producing something tangible. In the Information Age, people are now giving away their attention and personal information to organizations, which are making record profits by packaging together and selling to advertisers all the data that they collect.

On the surface, it is easy to misconstrue services like Google and Facebook as being free to a user. But no company becomes a global superpower by giving away its products and services for free. Most people are unable to differentiate the online services’ true costs vs. their apparent costs.

We are actually all employees of Google and Facebook, except we don’t receive monthly paychecks from them. The collective personal information that we all provide freely to these companies is worth magnitudes more than what we receive in return.

These centralized databases create incredible information advantages for those who have access to them. Having an information advantage is a key to beating out competitors and being successful in business. Normally for a brand new business to come along and replace a long-established competitor, they require an information advantage. The new business needs to know something that their rival either does not know or has mistakenly undervalued.

This is often in the form of them employing a new game changing technology or process, known as a disruptive technology or disruptive innovation. Examples of this type of near instantaneous technological take over include when digital cameras replaced film cameras, DVDs replaced VHS tapes, and how streaming media is now replacing physical media.

When businesses in different sectors started utilizing the Internet, it led to huge changes in the buying of consumer goods (Amazon), news sources (Huffington Post) and how we watch movies (Netflix). These next generation companies did not have to fight tooth and nail to secure customers from the previously established giants in their respective industries, they simply made their competitor’s products and services obsolete.

But what does this mean when a select few centralized organizations hold information advantages not only over other companies in a specialized market, but entire populations of people?

The result is that they gain the ability to outperform everyone else and amass great amounts of wealth. Social media companies, which employ only a handful of people, are now worth more than entire automobile manufactures. Along with your personal information, the other valuable product that these companies are are selling is your attention.

The true currency of the world has always been a person’s time. In addition to trading their time in the form of labor for a paycheck, people are now forfeiting the remainder of their time (in the form of their attention) to corporations for free!

All the media giants are fighting for your attention. Websites employ algorithms whose sole purpose is to keep you viewing their site for the longest time possible. These companies then sell your attention to others who want to either shape your opinions by selling you a story, or access your wallet by selling you a product. Since you have already told them everything about yourself when you accepted a license agreement for some random application on your smartphone, they can now target you with personalized advertising.

A worrisome result of this is the creation of bubbles where one is only ever fed information which supports their personal biases. Thus people are kept in individualized bubbles, were they are only shown the media which they are statistically known to respond to.

Automation and outsourcing resulting from a globalized marketplace are reducing the cost of traditional labor, further shifting investment for value adding processes away from production and into sales and marketing. Online marketing has less fixed costs than tradition marketing, allowing for a great increase in profits for those who work in the industry.

The Internet combined with online news/entertainment organizations and social media create a low cost infrastructure which can be used to pipeline individualized advertising to potential customers. In the form of a smartphone, you carry with you a billboard which already has your almost constant attention.

A company does not necessarily even need to pay for advertising space, but instead can just create some attention grabbing story that the media can then broadcast for their own benefit. The story does not even need to be true, as long as it promotes a company’s product while simultaneously drawing traffic to the news website, which then in turn profits from showing advertisements. While this is a win-win situation between the content creator and content distributor, the consumer ends up being the loser.

We are creating an economy where people trade away their lives working minimum wage service sector jobs, while simultaneously receiving zero compensation for the remainder of their attention/time which is being taken up by social media. In some cases, these individuals attention is being sold back to the very corporations where they work.

The media’s desire is no longer to earn your trust and business. They no longer need it. All they desire is your instantaneous attention. Thus the media sacrifices substance and nuanced thought, and instead tries to tap into your primal triggers of outrage, sex and fear. All that they really care about is that fraction of a moment that they have your attention, and can receive a commission for placing an ad within your field of view.

Given enough followers, an attractive woman can make thousands of dollars per picture she posts on Instagram, by simply placing a sports drink somewhere within the shot.

What is this causing? People are becoming brands. But to gain popularity (attention) and earn wealth, many are focusing on attracting the lowest common denominator of viewers. Instead of producing well thought out ideas and holding the attention of their viewers for extended lengths of time, they are instead just vying for random snippets of a person’s attention. It could be in the form of a thirty second YouTube commercial, a single Instagram picture, or a provocative Facebook post.

None of these things in themselves take much time to consume or process, but collectively they are interrupting every moment of our lives. While the instantaneous delay may be small, the collective cost is enormous. An interruption alone can cause a loss of productivity exponentially larger than length of the interruption itself.

So what does this mean for the people who covet their time and have preserved the mental capability of being able to process more than a single Tweet? It means that they can have their own information advantage over others, by having developed the ability to understand complex relationships. It means that should be able to make calculated responses to stimuli, while everyone else is simply reacting to whatever is placed in front of them. They will be the only ones left with the ability to produce true art, science and prose. Let’s just hope that there will be enough other people left capable of appreciating it.

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