Everyday Economics

The attention economy

Keeping you glued to your digital devices is the primary goal of internet companies. This has had many unwelcome consequences.

The attention economy

My grand mum spent two-third of her time reading without needing specs ever - not even in her 80s. Specs are such a rarity in black-and-white pictures. Although the main reason probably is that fewer people got their eyes tested earlier, it may also be so because there were no screens, and so no strained eyes back then. Look at us now. Our screen time starts on waking up: we check our phones first thing in the morning. This goes on until just before we get into bed at night. That we might be addicted to our phones and devices sounds outrageous but is perhaps not an exaggeration. Then there are cases of extreme behaviours. Newspapers report of lives lost to accidents involving screens, selfies and earplugs. Long hours of device use are giving people aches and stress. The makers of the famous Tiger Balm now have a special variant of the ointment for neck and shoulder pain, seen in heavy users of smartphones and other handheld devices.

Are we consciously choosing to spend so much time staring into our screens, or are we being manipulated into this behaviour by profits-chasing companies? Habit-forming products, as anybody who has opened a pack of potato chips knows, induce repetitive behaviour. Online products work on the same idea. Algorithms track our browsing histories and they then push content that we are likely to click on. The longer we spend browsing, the more money websites make in advertising and other revenue, including by monetising the data they collect from our browsing histories. That is why they constantly direct at us clickbait likely to get our attention instantly - suggestions on videos to watch, news to read, people to friend or follow on social media - and then keep us engrossed for as long as possible. Favourite one picture of a cute animal and an unending stream of baby animal images and videos follows. Accept a friend request from a school classmate and hear from the entire batch, and then batches senior and junior. Why do internet companies want our attention so badly?

In the attention economy, consumers don't always pay with money. While broadband is not expensive, and most websites can be accessed without charges, the fact is that nothing on the internet is free. Consumers pay with their time and attention, often without even realising. If you had planned to spend 10 minutes on social media, you'll find you gave it a lot more than that, which inevitably means cutting down on time for other, perhaps more important, stuff on your to-do list. The wealth of tech billionaires is actually made of hours of precious time consumers are giving away unconsciously - plus, their personal data that the internet constantly accumulates. Every time you click to confirm that it is you in a picture, you help the company collect more data for generating a stronger profile of you that it can then monetise.

The attention-economy companies are driving all sorts of changes, many of which we don't fully understand. In large countries, there are allegations of manipulation of people's political views and electoral results. Since algorithms push content designed to conform to our search patterns, they can deepen our biases and block out diverse information that could open up our views. This can make people's minds and choices narrower than they would be capable of otherwise. If songs from Bollywood's black-and-white era seem far more hummable, it's probably because music companies these days want us to spend ever more time with our devices. Difficult-to-hum tunes make people play songs on their devices and deliver fatter profits to the music owners and the online music players. The 2013 film 'Her' captures the attention economy -and its unintended consequences - at an extreme. In the film, Theodore Twombly, the character played by the gifted Joaquin Phoenix, ends up developing a romantic relationship with Samantha, an artificially intelligent virtual assistant personified through a female voice (dubbed by the attractive Scarlett Johansson), only to have his heart broken by her. Once the Samantha algorithms learn to fall in love with one user, she falls in love with scores of other users - at the same time.

That the tendency for consumption behaviour to be guided by emotions exploited by sellers and advertisers is old hat. On the internet though, emotions can quickly turn to hysteria, causing damage to individuals and/or society, but delivering profits to internet companies. Incidents involving mobs mistaking random individuals to be criminals, leading to law-and-order situations, are usually triggered by an item of fake news going viral. Sensational news items are deliberately floated to draw huge traffic and profits, such as the news story after demonetisation was announced in 2017 which claimed that the new Rs 2,000 note being introduced came fitted with a 'nano GPS chip' so that it could be tracked if taken outside the country. An extreme example of the lasting effects of viral links on behaviours is the rejection of the Rs 10 coin by small towns and villages in the western parts of the state of Uttar Pradesh. People in these areas simply don't accept these coins despite multiple clarifications from the authorities. In another recent case, misleading viral links forced government authorities to issue clarifications repudiating a purportedly 'leaked order' on changes to the dearness-allowance norms for salaries and pensions of government employees. The forged leaked order caused much needless confusion before the authorities issued the clarifications. Traffic builds up within minutes across the internet, taking viral links far and wide. Unsuspecting people, often out of boredom, forward such links into their networks, unwittingly helping these companies make money. What do they get in exchange for all the attention they pay? That's the question we should ask ourselves every single time before we look into our screens.

Puja Mehra is a Delhi-based journalist and author of 'The Lost Decade (2008-18): How India's Growth Story Devolved into Growth Without a Story'

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