You’re not at the mercy of the Silicon Valley’s evil gods.
Don’t get me wrong. There is plenty of warranted criticism that can be directed towards tech companies due to:
- Their problematic business model
- The methods employed to capture our attention
- The polarization created on social media.
But we are not as defenseless as we might think. At the heart of all these lies one of our most valuable assets: our attention. The commodity that’s being tossed around and profited off of.
While it’s inconclusive whether our attention spans have been shrinking, it’s certainly accepted by popular belief that they have. Talk to anyone nowadays below the age of 40 and they’ll lament how they can’t focus on reading a book cover to cover. Apparently, our subjective experience suggests that our attention is under attack.
And it’s true. But we play a role in that ourselves.
There are some things that aren’t in your control of.
- How the social platforms monetize our attention
- How the algorithm is programmed.
- Which psychological technique is employed to make us reach for our phones more often.
But how we choose to use our attention is not on that list. Like it or not, we’re willingly giving it away.
Social media’s biggest problem
To understand why social media disrupts our focus, we must look at how most social platforms operate. They’re incentivized to grab and retain our attention by their own business models.
The business models
The business model that is most profitable and used by social media platforms is based on advertising. You open Instagram, you’re shown ads. Advertisers pay Instagram for showing you the ads. Pretty straightforward. You get to use the platform for “free,” and Instagram makes a profit. Everyone is happy. It takes away from the user experience, but it’s harmless at face value.
The other model is based on data. This is when rights and ethical issues come into play. Although the service is free, you pay with your personal information. Where you go, who you meet with, your education, marital status, preferences and every aspect of your being that can be quantified, neatly packaged and sold as data to the highest bidder.
Given that our attention directly translates into money, intrusive practices have been developed to keep our eyes glued to our devices. Every little aspect of your experience is engineered to prevent you from directing your attention elsewhere.
We’re quick to shift the blame and consider ourselves as a helpless puppet, manipulated by the algorithmic strings of our devices. It’s naive to say the tech companies hold no responsibility. They’re profiting off our bad habits and addictions. They’re actively monitoring what makes people tick so they can show them more of that highly flammable material.
Tech companies like to point out that it’s an individual problem and they don’t hold any kind of responsibility. The truth is somewhere in between. Yes, it’s ultimately our decision how to interact with the technology itself. Mute notifications. Turn on Airplane mode. Opt-out of unnecessary emails. But it’s obvious there’s no one rooting for us to detach from these products.
It’s common practice now for every big social platform to include a digital well-being monitor to help you determine how much time you’re spending on the app and maybe limit the time spent there. It’s not an awful idea, but its effectiveness is questionable. A deeper problem, hinted at the beginning of the article, is the real one.
Distraction: friend or foe?
Even without Facebook or Twitter, you would still get the itch of wanting to escape from whatever you’re doing. Think about this for a moment. It may be Facebook’s fault for keeping you on the app, but in most cases it isn’t responsible for how you got there in the first place.
When you long into Facebook, your first thought probably isn’t “Damn, they did it again! They pulled me in with their well-crafted strategies. Quick! Better go back to work.” No. It’s more along the lines of “Oh yes, finally a sweet break from the challenging task I was just doing. Damn, that was hard. Unwavering focus for long periods of time sucks. Let’s see what Amy posted.”
Focused work is hard. It requires discipline. It’s painful. Stretching your abilities to try to understand a new concept or solve a difficult equation is no walk in the park. You may well be reading this article as a way to escape a difficult task. (Don’t worry, I don’t judge.)
Challenging tasks, or even boredom, will compel us to find a distraction. And where to turn to, if not towards the rectangle in our pockets, that doubles as a newspaper, TV and worldwide thought-publisher? If we’re not careful, we’ll end up giving away a priceless asset for moments of comfort.
What can be done?
What can we do to reclaim our attention and starve the unethical system of data-collection?
This is a multifaceted problem and it would be naive to claim that I hold the keys to our freedom. In turn, I’d like to propose some ways in which we can begin to reclaim our attention. Let’s start with the small steps and work our way up to the big changes.
Notice your own behavior
Breaking a compulsive habits starts by noticing it.
- When are you most likely to be distracted?
- What activities trigger your urge to turn away from what you’re doing?
- How do you respond to the impulse to check social media?
By knowing your default actions, you can begin to investigate them and perhaps change those instinctive patterns. You can learn to distance yourself from the impulse and accept that you don’t need to act on it.
Support ethical companies
Swift towards free and open source products, if you have the means. Stop giving your attention (and data) to unscrupulous people.
New business model
The best alternative to the “attention economy” would be a subscription-based business model. It’s definitely not perfect and has many known and unknown issues, but it would be a step forward from the current norm. One of the issues is that having important information behind a paywall could pose inequality problems, especially for those unwilling or unable to pay.
Of course, this is not something anyone can do, unless they’re building the next Twitter. Transitioning away from this way of doing things will require legislation and a shift in public perception. The more people understand the ethical concerns posed by the current model, the more they’ll support alternatives.
Adopting a new business model would solve the blatant ethical problems. Not your attention. If all services operated on a subscription model, do you really believe your attention would suddenly be yours entirely?
Imagine the world before Twitter, Facebook and TikTok. Or, if you’re too young for that, a world without these platforms entirely.
Do you think you’d suddenly transform into a productivity freak? Most likely, instead of browsing the news, you’d browse the items in your drawers for a quick spring clean (in the middle of autumn). Or you’d call a friend (the old fashioned way.) Perhaps these activities are not as “delicious” for our brains as watching cat videos, but we’ll take what we can get.
The change is painstakingly slow, but every step moving away from surveillance capitalism is a step towards take our
We shouldn’t withhold accountability from the tech giants. They have a lot to answer for. Their intrusive practices are not conductive to our well-being. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves by pretending we’re not enjoying all the opportunities to use these platforms as a coping mechanism for stress, boredom, anxiety or discomfort.
This article was inspired by Oliver Burkeman’s writing.