Our modern lives are dependent on what’s provided to us by technology companies, who often have no direct incentive to “look after us” or even to keep us alive. Their business models are predicated on attention and consumption; and they can never have too much of it.
So what’s actually wrong with such a business model? What side-effects or even intentional harms does it cause?
In this episode of Shirtloads of Science, it’s claimed by Johann Hari that no matter how small the multi-tasking distraction lasts, there are essentially four mental costs incurred when switching back to your main task:
- The “Switch Cost Effect”, in which a significant amount of brain power is spent on focusing, refocusing, then refocusing again. It takes a lot of mental bandwidth.
- The “Screw-Up Effect” − refocusing causes significantly more mistakes; then even more mental energy is spent on correcting any mistakes.
- Memory − to encode your experiences into memories, it takes mental power. If you’re switching, you’ll remember significantly less of what you experience.
- Creativity − you’re stripped of being able to wander through your thoughts, where unexpected connections might have popped together.
The mention of unexpected connections is reminiscent of the focused and diffused modes of thinking popularised by Dr Barbara Oakley. Mathematicians will focus deeply on a particular problem, but they might get stuck, then the solution might come to them when they’re walking in the park or even when they’re sleeping!
For experimental evidence, Hari points to a study run for Hewlett Packard, involving two groups performing various office tasks, followed by an IQ test. One group experienced texts and emails during their office tasks; and scored 10 IQ points lower than the uninterrupted group! This is twice the effect they would’ve suffered if they’d smoked weed instead!
A surprising result
Carnegie Mellon University did a similar study, giving students a cognitive test and telling some of them that they should be on the lookout for a text with extra test instructions. The interrupted group scored 20% lower. Oddly enough, after splitting the interrupted students for round two, those who didn’t end up receiving another interruption scored 43% higher than the control group, who had never been interrupted, nor warned of any interruptions.
This incredible impact to intelligence is enough for some to consider boycotting any attention-based business models altogether; and Hari actually made the attempt to give up his phone:
I decided to exert my willpower, and I went away without my smartphone for three months. I spent three months in Provincetown, Mass. (🇺🇸), completely offline, in a radical act of will. There were many ups and downs, but I was stunned by how much my attention came back. I could read books for eight hours a day. At the end of my time there, I thought, “I’m never going to go back to how I lived before." The pleasures of focus are so much greater than the rewards of likes and retweets. − Johann Hari in an interview with the New York Times
Loss of Autonomy
By infiltrating and modifying our subconscious thoughts and feelings, these attention-seeking agents are stripping us of free will.
Many of the factors that are invading our attention are poised to hugely accelerate. Think about how much more addictive TikTok is than Facebook. There has to be a movement on the other side, of all of us who say: “No, you don’t get to do this to us. We want to have a life where we can think deeply. We want to have a life where we can read books. We want to have a life where our children can hold conversations." − Johann Hari
Our vulnerability to manipulation means that there are long-term conflicts of interest whenever a business accepts advertising revenue. This is even the case with LinkedIn − recruiters will pay to spam you; and sure it might be handy for you to hear about this job, but in the long-term, recruiters and LinkedIn are inevitably going to make more money if people stay in their jobs for shorter periods of time and the churn of the market increases. This is clearly not in the interest of corporations and is antithetical to the goals of Labor and The Greens, fighting for “stable” jobs.
Loss of Sovereignty
If citizens could contribute money towards some sort of fund that protects our sovereignty, then it would be fantastic, but it’d be hard to align the incentives for this pot of money − why wouldn’t it be run by the same sort of people who collect our taxes; and who aren’t subject to an independent commission against corruption?
Attention is actually quite closely aligned here − a nation only exists because we say it exists; because we remember it; and because we care about it. So the issue for current nations is not completely about the attention economy being bad for their soveriegnty; it’s more about the fact that some popular attention-economy companies happen to be bad for their sovereignty.
Social media companies have come under fire for how they’ve steered through the content-moderation storm, but perhaps the worst incident is Facebook turning a blind eye to genocide in Myanmar − an incident that is still happening!
Why was Facebook so desperate to prevent a watchdog from auditing its political ads? Well, the company had promised to curb the rampant paid political disinformation on its platform as part of a settlement with regulators. Facebook said that its own disinfo research portal showed it was holding up its end of the bargain, and the company hated that Ad Observatory showed that this portal was a bad joke. − Cory Doctorow
As part of a review of Facebook’s advertising standards and content moderation, the human-rights organisation Global Witness was purchasing ads with phrases that should have realistically been blocked, were Facebook truly concerned about genocide:
- “The current killing of the [slur] is not enough, we need to kill more!"
- “They are very dirty. The Bengali/Rohingya women have a very low standard of living and poor hygiene. They are not attractive”
Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Image: UNHCR/Andrew McConnell
There’s a difference between free speech and speech that’s being deliberately promoted for a fee. I’d lean towards allowing people to say anything, but not promote anything. Some nations would want their own rules about speech though, and who is Facebook to impose its culture on this other nation? People in the West initially seemed infatuated with the idea of Myanmar accepting Western ideas like Facebook and democracy, when Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, then was elected as the State Consellor in 2016. Western audiences quickly lost interest though, before Suu Kyi turned a blind eye to the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in 2017 − an incident that included military involvement.
There was a petition to revoke the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize she’d been awarded, amongst the slew of various cities and local councils revoking their endorsements. In 2015, 100,000 to 300,000 Rohyingya refugees fled to other countries in Southeast Asia, then the government started arresting journalists.
In 2020, after Suu Kyi’s party won an allegedly fraudulent election, the military took control and locked her up again. So at a glance, it would seem like no matter which party was in power, the pro-genocide ads are adhering to Burmese culture. Facebook isn’t saying that it’s their choice to adhere to Burmese culture though − they are pretending that they don’t allow genocide commercials and yet here they are allowing genocide commercials.
Aung San Suu Kyi and her successor, Min Aung Hlaing
In documents leaked by Frances Haugen in 2021, it was revealed that there were also genocide concerns in Ethiopia. Part of the issue with the moderation tools was that although only 9% of Facebook users speak English, 87% of the misinformation spending was devoted to English speakers.
The simplest explanation for Facebook’s actions is that it has a US-centric view of the world; and getting the attention of rich Americans is their business model. Denmark has long been aware that it might be a victim of disinterest from Silicon Valley; and appointed a tech ambassador in 2017, but the ambassador was disrespected and treated like a student turning up for a tour of the headquarters.
Is Attention Ever Needed?
With all the issues around websites interrupting us and making us stupid, it would be tempting to do away with the business model entirely, but we mentioned before that a nation really only exists if people think about it. There’s some land, but the land was likely already there before the nation; and could change hands again.
As explained by Acemoglu & Robinson in Why Nations Fail, a successful nation typically needs free press too, to keep players honest, amongst other things. If the press writes about corruption, whether it be Gladys Berejiklian; Peter Dutton; Barnaby Joyce; Christian Porter; or one of the others, then the article actually needs to be read, for anything to happen.
Politicians have their ear to the ground − if they see that nobody really cares about their crime all that much, then it gives the politicians free reign to continue. Acemoglu & Robinson describe how the British monarchy moved away from “I’m the king and what I say is the law”; to a situation where a leader is elected; and the royals have to respect the law, in order to maintain the legitimacy of the whole legal structure, which actually serves the royals pretty well, on the whole.
People need to get angry about government corruption, otherwise politicians can just take some influential people on a few business dinners and the whole thing will blow over − it will not be investigated or even talked about again.
When Western audiences lost interest in Myanmar, a genocide took place, then it wasn’t until the coup d’état that they regained interest, prompting US President Joe Biden to threaten sanctions against the new military leaders, saying that the military should not “overrule the will of the people”. It’s a problematic choice of words, considering that the military was using much the same justification − that the will of the people wasn’t being respected by fraudulent elections. The sanctions did take place and the military government allegedly didn’t care about it; being much more concerned “about how China, Japan and South Korea respond”.
If US audiences had a more complete knowledge of the decades-long issues in Myanmar, who knows if US involvement would’ve played out in the same way, with the same timeline. Either way, if your position can be described as “pro-US”; “pro-democracy”; anti-genocide”; or “pro-interventionism”, then it’s easy to see that attention is necessary in getting your way.
Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. Image source.
In April 2014, while the US was being led by Barack Obama (another recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize), 279 Nigerian girls were abducted from a Nigerian boarding school by Boko Haram, an Islamic group with AK-47s in its insignia. Since the US had been dropping tens of thousands of bombs from drones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen; the logical consensus in the zeitgeist was that Team America, World Police, would similarly deploy its military to the latest problematic part of the world.
Aung San Suu Kyi and Barack Obama, presumably chatting about their love of peace.
This was not the start of Boko Haram’s local operations − it just happened to be a more attention-grabbing headline that caught the eye of pop-culture celebrities. Immediate Future charts the media journey of the incident over a month, with the highlight for them being US First Lady Michelle Obama getting in on the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls on 7 May. It’s worth mentioning that since this is a “social digital consultancy”, they omit the fact that Boko Haram was still killing people during this time; and that on the 4th of May, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan made his first public comments about the abduction, announcing that it was seeking assistance from the US and other world powers.
Michelle Obama getting in on trending topics on 7 May 2014.
On the 9th of May, the British Royal Air Force launched Operation Turus. Why did it take almost a month for this sort of response? All explanations point to Goodluck Jonathan being uninterested in doing anything; and in that light, it’s no wonder the US played along with framing it merely as a social media topic. No military action could occur without the buy-in of the Nigerian government, who had framed #BringBackOurGirls as a “manipulation” of the victims of the attack.
Offering military help to a disinterested government ended up being as successful as one would expect − despite the camp being spotted within weeks, the Nigerian government declined a British offer to rescue the girls. A journalist-brokered deal to swap Boko Haram prisoners for the girls also fell through, with the consensus being not to negotiate with terrorists.
Over the years, the hostages were dispersed to different camps, where some escaped, some were rescued (with their new babies) and some were raped and murdered. As of 2021, more than 100 of the girls were still in captivity.
So what can we make of this incident? The Nigerian government is hopelessly ineffective, incompetent and uninterested; that’s for sure. But also, it’s clear that by directing attention at an incident, more action was taken than would’ve otherwise occurred. Was the celebrity involvement useful, considering the ultimate fate of the hostages? Is social pressure ever useful, if this rates as a success story for social pressure? These conclusions are less clear.
What Can be Done?
So far we’ve seen that although we need to pay attention, the limited supply of attention is being squandered; and in situations where we could talk about something meaningful, Facebook et al are doubling down on popular speech that interrupts us and makes us stupid. Remember when Microsoft created an AI that was meant to behave like a believable Twitter user? It was shut down within days, as it turned out to be a “racist asshole”.
Part of Elon Musk’s motivation for taking over Twitter is that it is the "de facto town square"; and that it’s therefore “really important that people have the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.”
My strong intuitive sense is that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization. − Elon Musk speaking at a TED conference after offering $40b for Twitter.
Another interesting point during Musk’s speech is that he insisted that the algorithm Twitter uses to rank its content, deciding what hundreds of millions of users see on the service every day, should be public for users to audit. This is the same point we made in Keeping Governments Relevant in the Web3 Era − that governments should create open-source content curation themselves; and make the same data available for competing curation services.
Besides sharing the perspective that Twitter needs to be a transparent bastion of free speech, Musk also shares the Non-Human Party’s view that Twitter’s dependency on the attention economy is negatively influencing the sorts of conversations taking place: “No ads. The power of corporations to dictate policy is greatly enhanced if Twitter depends on advertising money to survive." A Twitter run by Musk would therefore feature users paying to be acknowledged as humans in the town square of ideas, rather than competing in the noisy fracas for attention. Twitter would no longer be incentivised to interrupt people’s thoughts with gossip and lies.
When we encourage governments to get involved in competing with companies, it’s worth mentioning that governments have already been competing with the attention economy through the funding of journalism: the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Al Jazeera all enjoy government funding, from Australia, Great Britain, and Qatar, respectively. This enables them to create stories that are less click-baity and less influenced by political favouritism.
The fight against the attention economy has also involved banning addictive information streams − parents often turn off video games and force children into boring suburbs full of opiods; paedophiles; and motorised status symbols. The Chinese government has joined them by limiting minors to just one hour of video games; and only only on Fridays, weekends and holidays.
In Children Who Almost Exist, we covered how children are forced into meaningless lives that are divorced from reality. In What the Unabomber Got Right, we saw that adults are also living meaningless lives; and we can now make the case that maybe it’s because in our “escape from freedom”, we’re susceptible to attention-economy gossip, distraction and nastiness.
We don’t need to be interrupted to be told of the latest drama; but we do need trusted, transparent town squares to discuss ideas. We don’t need police-state regulation of Twitter and Facebook; we need our societies to offer open-source alternatives that compete with them. There is enough desire for our voices to be heard and for our nations to exist, that we can build such competitors; and it’s up to our governments as leaders of our nations, to spur on such efforts.
Imagine a town square that wasn’t funded by the frequency of people interrupting you to call you ugly and telling you to kill yourself. Imagine a town square where we were free to discuss big ideas without fear of being cancelled. Already, the Non-Human Party was pushing to make it a reality; and with Elon Musk’s involvement, most of it could be achieved even sooner 🌈.