The Brainstorm Long Read: from FOMO to nomophobia to anxiety, the true cost of life in the attention economy is significant

Saffron is the world's most expensive spice, even pricier than gold, earning it the moniker "red gold". Because it is both scarce and valued, demand outstrips supply, resulting in its hefty price tag. However, the value of any resource, be it saffron, gold or accommodation in Dublin, can vary greatly over time.

Take the case of salt. Historically, salt was often used as a form of payment – hence the modern word "salary" - but offering some salt, even that fancy pink Himalayan variety, in exchange for a pair of Nike 270s simply won’t work in 2019.

Furthermore, things which were not seen as resources historically can become highly valued and increasingly demanded in a given context. This has been the case with oil for nearly 200 years and it will very likely be the case with fresh water in the coming decades. And whether we realise it or not, it is currently the case with our attention.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, a study by European scientists show our attention spans are decreasing due to data overload

Throughout history, information and the knowledge it brought was a scarce resource. But in the 21st century, information has become abundant thanks to the Internet, yet humans' attention capacity has remained limited. Therefore, when there is an abundance of freely accessible information, attention becomes a scarce, highly valuable resource, and the attention economy emerges.

Although an increasingly popular buzzword, the concept of an attention economy is not new. Over 100 years ago, tabloid newspapers ran attention-grabbing headlines in a bid to increase sales and, consequently, charge advertisers more money. The subsequent introduction of television meant people’s attention commanded higher premiums. This year, for example, buying TV advertising space during Super Bowl LIII cost approximately $175,000 per second.

Dopamine is that hit we get when our tweets are liked, our photos are given a thumbs up or someone swipes right on our Tinder profile

The introduction of smartphones in 2007 was the ultimate game-changer, creating a wireless ecosystem where the attention economy could thrive and mega-corporations emerge. Google and Facebook, who own various other social media platforms such as YouTube and Instagram, currently have a combined market value of about $1.3 trillion, yet are just 20 and 15 years old respectively. What is perhaps more discombobulating is that these and similar platforms have amassed such colossal wealth by apparently offering users their services for free.

This is the attention economy in its purest form – an ultra-competitive, always-on, digital marketplace where corporations use sophisticated tools to vie for and capture our attention, enabling them to generate vast revenues through targeted advertising and commodifying our personal data. The attention economy is without doubt the most explicit embodiment of the maxim "if you’re not paying for it, you are the product!". It is an economy where the consumers are themselves consumed.

From RTÉ Archives, a RTÉ News report on the  opening of Google's European HQ in Dublin in 2004

There is no doubt that the attention economy offers tremendous opportunities such as connecting with others, accessing and producing content in real-time, sourcing products, joining support networks and galvanising social movements, as well as entertaining and educating ourselves. It also offers the seductive lure of self-monetisation, with social media influencer now a potentially lucrative career choice. Indeed, one of the richest YouTubers of 2019, Ryan Kaji, enjoyed an income of approximately $22 million. Frustratingly for poor Ryan, he cannot independently access his fortune, as he is only eight years of age. 

But there is a more malevolent side to the attention economy and the true cost of these free services is beginning to reveal itself at an individual and collective level throughout society. Given that this economy trades in our attention, competitors invest enormous time, money and effort to devise strategies to capture and keep it, leveraging decades of research from disciplines such as psychology, neuroscience, design, information technology and marketing to gain a competitive advantage.

We have smartphone apps designed to help us use our smartphone less

Central to this is dopamine, that powerful neurotransmitter which helps explain human's motivation, reward-seeking, and learning behaviour. Dopamine is that hit we get when our tweets are liked, our photos are given a thumbs up, or someone swipes right on our Tinder profile. Similar to gambling addiction, dopamine is the reason we keep coming back for more, even when we intuitively know it is not in our best interests.

Silicon Valley corporations such as Dopamine Labs develop applications which use artificial intelligence to grab users' attention and exert ever-greater influence on their behaviour, whether the goal is to get us to eat healthier, do more exercise, consume more pornography, or gamble more money. Technology itself does not have an agenda, but the corporations that use it do.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ryan Tubridy Show, 17-year-old Conor O'Flaherty from Galway asked his parents permission to quit school to try and make it online

Because technology is changing so fast, it can be difficult to identify and fully appreciate the impact it is having on us. We are unprepared and arguably ill-equipped to deal with such rapid change. Evolution, while amazing, is akin to biological hindsight, as it prepares us for the challenges and opportunities our ancestors faced, but not necessarily those which we may face.

But in recent times, there is a growing realisation that the true cost of life in the attention economy is significant. Excessive use of social media and other content platforms can lead to prolonged hyper-stimulation, lower concentration levels, sleep problems, relationship issues, reduced physical activity and poor time management, with younger users most susceptible. Apps such as Instagram, where users post images of their "ideal" lives, prompt us to compare ourselves with others in unhealthy ways, corroding self-esteem and self-worth.

We are progressively outsourcing our ability to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity to the smartphones we carry around with us like digital soothers.

The multitude of events we hear about through Facebook and the images of people we follow doing all kinds of fun activities, combined with the parade of potential soul-mates or "hook-ups" we are offered through countless dating apps, all feed our FOMO (fear of missing out) and increase anxiety. Nomophobia – the fear of not having one's phone – is an increasingly common phenomenon, with some people preferring the prospect of serious physical injury above the inability to use their phone. 

Constantly connected and bombarded with content and information, we find switching off increasingly difficult, with many of us waking during the night to check our devices and then struggling to return to sleep. Crucially, we are progressively outsourcing our ability to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity to the smartphones we carry around with us like digital soothers.

Then there is the broader issue of data privacy and surveillance capitalism, the sale of our personal information, including hundreds of data points, to organisations who seek to understand us better than we understand ourselves in a bid to influence our values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. Using this data, they can influence our identity, relationships, consumption habits, even how we vote. The Cambridge Analytica scandal and the recent fine of $5bn handed down to Facebook is an obvious case in point.

From RTÉ Six One News, a report on Facebook's $5bn fine over use of personal data

The attention economy is laced with contradictions. We have smartphone apps designed to help us use our smartphone less. We see people connected to devices yet disconnected from their community. There's Netflix producing insightful documentaries about the dangers of social media, while its boss Reed Hastings unapologetically declares that one of their biggest competitors is "sleep", a most essential human need. In the current version of the attention economy, it seems there is often a stark divergence between corporate goals and consumers’ wellbeing, with the deliberate design of attention-grabbing, dopamine-inducing algorithms at the heart of it.

It is perhaps because of this that social media has recently been compared to the Big Tobacco companies of the 20th century. Indeed, it seems that the phrase "to pay attention" has never been more fitting than it is today. Our attention is undoubtedly a huge price to pay. 

READ: Just how much of social media is enough?

READ: Why do we continually fall for fake stories and false claims?

As such, it is time that individuals, corporations, educators and governments give due consideration to the dynamics of the attention economy in order to figure out how we can best recalibrate our relationship with it and leverage its benefits, while avoiding its many serious pitfalls.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ