Law in the Internet Society

My Mind is For Sale: The Attention Economy and Necessary Reforms

-- By ShahabPournaghshband - 05 Jan 2022

The Degradation of the Human Brain

Digital companies compete for our attention–for our willingness to stare aimlessly and repetitively at their digital products. James Williams, a former Googler and an expert on the digital world’s effects on the human brain, calls this the “attention economy.” When our attention and time create valuable data and advertising revenue, it becomes no surprise that the success of a digital company is measured on its addictiveness. This is no secret; just look at Nir Eyal’s national bestseller, Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products, which has been called a “must-read for everyone who cares about driving customer engagement.” Netflix CEO Reed Hastings also stated that in addition to Snapchat, he views sleep as one of his main competitors. This culture has changed the way we think and behave: petty distractions steer us away from real-life interests. If we cannot pay attention, we cannot think and form ideas. We cannot move forward.

Hoping for a Brighter Future

On a personal level, it is feasible to build healthy habits and set appropriate limitations on our technology use. Turning off notifications, for example, is a good place to start. My iPhone tells me that I received an average of 540 notifications per day last week, with a high of 1,000 on one day. Smartphones also allow us to place time limits on our screen time. Placing restrictions on this constant nagging will in turn limit the time we spend on our phones. I have also found that focusing on exercise and a healthier diet improve willpower, cognition, and general well-being, reducing the urge to constantly check my phone.

One can also throw the whole smartphone away, but I do not see this as a realistic solution that most, let alone many, are willing to endorse. We must realize that most people simply do not care about their data collected or privacy invaded. Just as we are intellectually aware of the health risks that come with fast food, soda, and alcohol, many are aware of the dangers of technology companies misusing our data. But most people continue to ingest these harmful substances, which we can attribute to convenience, comfort, and enjoyment. Users, similarly, are willing to give up their data and privacy for convenience of communication, entertainment, and connection with friends and loved ones. Although it does not require a tremendous amount of technical sophistication to go under the radar (indeed, all that is required is a $100 chromebook and an even cheaper raspberry pi), it is unrealistic to expect mass rejection of social media and similar services. We must recognize the realities of human nature–the “network effect” in particular. The network effect refers to the phenomenon where the more people that adopt a good or service, the more valuable that good or service becomes. Modern media has already engulfed billions of people worldwide. Admittedly, the inverse of this must be true: the network effect would similarly apply if people would begin to reject these services. But, again, convenience and comfort are too attractive for most. And the average user is certainly not wiser than a Columbia Law School professor, especially not if that user was brought up with these technologies from a young age.

The problems still stand. Netflix tells us what to watch, Twitter tells us what to read, and Facebook may even tell us who to vote for. Soon, these companies may tell us how to talk or treat one another. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens, claims that Facebook and Amazon can know that an individual is gay long before it is obvious to himself. And if this data is to come before the Iranian government, which is notorious for its persecution of homosexuals, who is to blame? The individual or the neoliberal technology companies and their ruthless pursuits of profit?

I am regretfully cynical about a brighter future for now. Masses will continue to trade privacy for convenience, especially with the introduction of the metaverse, which will make virtual connection seem like reality. I do not, however, claim that another future is impossible. Decentralization of data provides an ideal solution. The harms of the attention economy will be much less pronounced when a small number of companies no longer store the majority amounts of personal data. Decentralization of currencies and finance are increasing in popularity, and we would likewise benefit from decentralizing data storage and social media in general., a decentralized social media platform, is paving the way. It uses open-source code, so that everybody has the ability to understand the mechanisms by which it operates. It offers “military-grade” encryption and security against data breaches. Most importantly, data is also decentralized; companies can no longer employ tactics to chip away at our attention spans and cognition. Similar platforms can replace Netflix, Snapchat, and even search engines.


I fundamentally disagree with the idea that our society can easily drop “bad” technology like social media, Amazon, Netflix, and the like, and replace it with the “good” technologies of today. I do not, however, put my hands up and surrender. The world of web3 and decentralization is prospering, and we can hope that user-owned, decentralized networks and services will continue to gain wider approval. Another future is definitely possible, and decentralized platforms provide us with a scalable solution to the horrors of the attention economy.

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r4 - 13 Jan 2022 - 21:17:13 - ShahabPournaghshband
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