August 18, 2020

Attention Exploitation


Our attention is a scarce resource. In order to be able to do what matters, we must first be able to focus on what matters. Lately, in light of the new ‘attention’ economy, this has become harder in new and unpredicted ways.

Tech companies compete to capture our attention and draw us away from our true goals. We shrug off such harms as distractions when in reality they undermine the integrity of our agency. The web, social media and far-reaching internet connection are gifts of information and communication. But such gifts have come so quickly that we are now drowning in their abundance.

Today human experience itself has become a raw material. It is mined by large conglomerates in order to translate our individual preferences into collective data so that our behaviour can then be predicated and even shaped. Such behavioural manipulation ranges from the facile expropriation of Facebook profiles to coax us into buying a certain moisturiser to the more sinister identification and nudging of those ‘floating voters’ to influence democratic elections.   

We are always told ‘if its free, then you are the product.’ But what we do not see is that we have made a Faustian pact: we are manipulated, traced, and mapped all for the dopamine-filled, ease of scrolling, and buying the next ‘best tech’, all the while tech firms know everything about us, and we know nothing about them.

The ‘connected’ nature of the modern world has not only created new anxieties but also entrenched already present polarities. Each of us within our own echo chamber now hears and sees those images and messages that fit with our preconceived image of reality. Our fears are exploited to keep us addicted to our screens which only further the implicit vilification of what we take to be the ‘other’.

The ‘attention’ economy does have great benefits. But just as the industrial revolution flourished to the detriment of nature, the infosphere flourishes at the expense of human agency (especially of the youngest in society.)   

Each generation has to face new threats. The exploitation of human attention is ours.

What to do about it?

The challenges posed by the infosphere, at both the level of the individual and collective, are challenges of self-control and regulation. No one wakes up with the goal of spending eight hours on their phone. This raises the question, as an individual, what are your goals? What do you want to achieve today, tomorrow, this week, or next year?

The first step to reclaiming your attention is establishing your goals.


New technologies are designed to keep us aimlessly staring, tapping and scrolling. You can only stop this mindless wondering once you question ‘what do I actually want to achieve and is this in my interest?’ In practical terms, this involves setting up your day the night before with some basic goals. That is, get into the habit of planning what you want to achieve in the day.

Next, establish your own boundaries.   

You are not alone! We are all impulsive and weak willed. The majority of people now admit that phones are the first and last things they look at in their day. Indeed, on average people spend a third of their waking experience on their phone.

The only way to break the chain of distraction is deny oneself the possibility of getting side-tracked. Create a ‘tech-free environment’ that rewards self-control. Charge your phone out-of-reach in the other room at night, set a timer for how long you want to work undistracted, allow yourself only an hour of social media a day etc. Incremental changes have significant effects.

Third, reward yourself with something else. 

Reward yourself with an activity away from your tech. Escape the never-ending flow of informational rewards. Talk, walk, cycle, run, read, or just do nothing but have some tech-free time. It’s been said that ‘we shape our building, and afterwards, our buildings shape us.’ The architecture of our digital world similarly moulds us today. I think it’s time for a renovation.