The attention industry has become a key structuring force in the economy, but on a wider scale an essential element of how we use our time, how we build our values, how we organize our lives. Books and paper had to be bought, presently information is virtual, penetrating every moment of our lives, through every screen, and is managed on the world scale by very few hands. How far can this go?
The really scarce commodity is the attention of the human being.
(Microsoft CEO, 2016)
Control spread via attention economies, mass media and influence industries based on psychological methods of behavior modification.
(Hazel Henderson, 2019 1)
We are facing a convergence of cross-reinforced crises: the environmental catastrophe, the explosive inequality, and the financial chaos which precisely keeps the resources from helping us to face the dramas. The major problem is not the global crisis in itself, but in our incapacity to face it. How many COPs did we already have? What is happening with the Sustainable Development Goals? Do ESG proclamations help? The central issue is the governance crisis, our difficulty in getting organized. Politics, in governments, international institutions or corporations, continues centered on pointing out culprits – always the others – not on building solutions. For the citizenry, the main effort has been to keep our minds busy. The “don’t look up” syndrome is based on the huge attention industry.
How fast things are changing. We always had family, workplace and neighborhood gossip do go around, and Sunday mass to keep us straight. Then we had Roosevelt chats on the radio, mass-communication of a sort. Then TV, then the internet, then the global mess: “If we ask ChatGPT about the leading technologies driving this revolution, he will mention Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning; robotics and automation; internet of things; 3d printing; blockchain; virtual reality and augmented reality; 5G networks; quantum computing; big data and cyber security.” 2
Saying this is mind-gobbling is a precise comment. Our attention is invaded by all our senses, we are glued to all types of screens. I can try to read some sensible paper on an issue that interests me, but I will have little screens popping up, making a mess of my efforts to concentrate. It is not economic interests trying to call my attention to useful things: it is the economic battle for my time. And it is not just Industrial Revolution 4.0, it is another system. The global mass-connectivity is generating another civilization. No General Motors or Toyota are at the center of the world most valuable corporations: Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, Amazon and a few others manage what we hear and see, and with invasive private information are creating a new attention economy.
These corporations in turn are controlled by the asset-management giants: BlackRock, for example, manages US$10tn, while the federal budget of the United States is on the order of US$6tn. BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street manage assets nearing the value of the US GDP. High-tech, information and money have come together:
We are the receiving part of the business. We were citizens, of a sort. We have become mDAUs (monetizable daily average users), the unit of account used in the Twitter purchase negotiations with Elon Musk. The Unctad Digital Economy Report 2021 gives us the general image: “The largest such platforms – Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet (Google), Facebook, Tencent and Alibaba – are increasingly investing in all parts of the global data value chain: data collection through the user-facing platform services; data transmissions through submarine cables and satellites; data storage (data centers); and data analysis, processing and use, for instance through AI. These companies have a competitive data advantage resulting from their platform component, but they are no longer just digital platforms. They have become global digital corporations with planetary reach; huge financial, market and technology power; and control over large swathes of data about their users.”
The Report stresses that we have been helpless in facing this new domination power, recognizing that “current global institutions were built for a different world, that the new digital world is dominated by intangibles, and that new governance structures are needed”, to face the ”competing vested interests associated with the capture of rents from the use of digital technologies and data…With data and cross-border data flows growing more prominent in the world economy, the need for global governance is becoming more urgent” 3 Measures are being discussed: Nuisance call firms would face fines of up to £17.5m and internet users would be able to limit the appearance of pop-up cookie consent boxes under a government overhaul of the UK’s data rules. Yes, it is being discussed.
Who pays for these huge fortunes generated at the top, in the high-tech corporations and social media? We do, of course, and the key mechanism is marketing, a clearly insufficient word for the world-scale manipulation of attention of humanity. The costs of marketing are part of the price we pay for every product or service. We pay them to convince us. They sneak into everything we are doing, frequently interrupting us to say that they are offering us this film or program for free, when the costs are included in the prices. “Johnson & Johnson is another world-famous brand that manufactures medicines, hygiene products and medical equipment. Today it is one of the most competitive markets. Therefore, in 2017, the company spent 27.7% of its revenue on marketing.” Marketing has become a huge industry in most sectors:
It has been so pervasive that we have come to consider it natural. It is not. It costs us a lot of money in the prices we pay, but the distraction they are permanently creating, the fragmentation of our attention time, is another cost. The logic is absurd, for the more one company spends on marketing, the more the other companies in the field have to spend, and the resulting cacophony is what we have to watch and to pay for. In fact, for the things I need, I do not need the chatter, I will get information, not marketing. And for the things I do not need, I would gladly be left in peace. Are we morons to have to hear or see the same messages hundreds of times, and with some silly music?
With the new technologies, each dollar put into marketing reaches billions of persons at very low per capita cost (the mDAUs), but the overall cost, and in particular the resulting manipulation, is huge. Working on my computer or cell-phone, I cannot move around without having to accept cookies or authorize anything they ask me – no one has the time or patience to go over the long small-character pages describing what we are authorizing – and this has led to the huge private information industry that supports behavioral marketing. I by mistake bought a kosher product in the supermarket, only to be flooded with tourism to Israel messages. And we all know the last thing the world needs is more consumerism.
ProPublica shows the gun business marketing: “Critically, gun makers also use Google’s tools to track the activity of visitors to their sites and target users with ads as they browse other websites and apps. The websites of gun makers such as Glock, Daniel Defense and Sig Sauer use Google products called Floodlight and Spotlight to facilitate this process, which is called retargeting. Advertisers typically pay a premium for retargeting since those ads are more likely to lead to a purchase or other action. Google allows retargeting of gun ads when they are placed via one of its ad exchange partners and end up on a site that accepts weapons ads, according to Google’s Aciman.” 4 The last thing we need is more guns. But the business of the global attention industry is to get as much attention as possible, so as to make more money on ads, whatever the ads are promoting.
The ultra-processed food pandemic is impressive. “Produced by a handful of multinational companies, UPF is created to be cheap to produce and transport, with industrially derived substances replacing costlier ingredients and ensuring long shelf lives. It is also designed to make us buy more – essential in a system where businesses must keep growing to satisfy their shareholders each quarter. Global consumption is rising fast, especially in middle-income countries.” 5 Is this our choice? The Guardian suggests we blame business, not consumers.
We do need serious information, in particular considering the dramas we are facing. Does this interest journalism? “Additionally, the business of journalism is an increasingly less lucrative industry. Most revenue comes from digital ads running on news sites – so rather than selling the news to consumers, it’s the time and attention of consumers that is being sold to advertisers. Furthermore, some of the best quality content is locked up behind subscription-based paywalls.” 6 Does this make sense?
A simple example of what journalism should be discussing: “More than one billion adolescent girls and women suffer from undernutrition (including underweight and short height), deficiencies in essential micronutrients and anemia, with devastating consequences for their lives and wellbeing.” 7 Well, this doesn’t get maximum mDAUs in the algorithms. In the US, three corporations, Amazon, Google and Facebook are responsible for 50% of ad business, two-thirds digital.
The convergence of global connectivity with commercial and political interests generates industrial-scale manipulation. Robert Reich: “The leading shareholder in Warner Brothers Discovery is John Malone, a multibillionaire cable magnate. (Malone was a chief architect in the merger of Discovery and CNN.) Malone describes himself as a “libertarian” although he travels in rightwing Republican circles. In 2005, he held 32% of the shares of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. He is on the board of directors of the Cato Institute. In 2017, he donated $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration. Malone has said he wants CNN to be more like Fox News because, in his view, Fox News has “actual journalism”. With soft irony, Thomas Piketty comments that “the control of the quasi-totality of medias by a few oligarchs can hardly be considered as the most elaborate form of free press”.
The strong spirituality so generalized in the world could hardly escape its commercial and political use. In the US, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days holds an endowment fund of US$134 billion. ProPublica shows that “the endorsement of political candidates by religious leaders from the pulpit has grown increasingly brazen, aggressive and sophisticated in recent years”. 8 In Brazil the episcopal movement with TVs and online access has resulted in fortunes, but most of all it leads to an impressive religious showbusiness pushing commercial and political agendas.
We should not underestimate the absorption of the time of our lives – it is our most important non-renewable asset – by videogames. Billions of users, mobile entertainment, reaching different generations – the average age is 38 – dominantly male (59%), the industry really gets us by the eye-balls. Here again we find Amazon, Apple Google, but also Tencent and others in Asia. The use has become obsessive for so many, breaking us away from culture, art, creativity, and the free time to let our attention roam.
This short overview aims at calling our attention – precisely – to the key issue that we are losing control over our attention, and this means the time and sense of our lives. Max Fisher, in his The Chaos Machine: how the social media rewired our minds and our world, has brought a detailed description to the degree of control the system allows: “The fact that they managed to analyze and to organize billions of hours of video in real time, and then direct billions of users by the net, with this level of precision and consistency, was incredible for the technology, and demonstrated the sophistication and power of algorithms”. 9
Technological progress is positive in itself. The digital revolution opens huge opportunities for humanity, but not in the hands of corporate giants. Attention is the key element of what we are, of what we chose to be. I do like to have my mind roam a bit, and a global system of pushing our minds around according to global interests has become a huge challenge to face. Free to Choose, was what Milton Friedman thought was being created. Get off my back. And may I suggest what you can do with your cookies?
1 Hazel Henderson, Steering our powers of persuasion toward our human future - 2019.
2 TicoTimes - March 18, 2023.
3 UNCTAD, Unctad Digital Economy report 2021 - p. 10.
4 Craig Silverman and Ruth Talbot, Google says it bans gun ads: it actually makes money from them - June 14, 2022.
5 The Guardian, Editorial, August 13, 2023,Blame Business, not consumers.
6 Visual Capitalist - July 29, 2022.
7 UNICEF- Undernourished and overlooked - 2023.
8 ProPublica, Religion as a Business - Nov. 14, 2022.
9 Max Fisher, The Chaos Machine: how the social media rewired our minds and our world - Little, Brown and Cy., New York 2022.