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  • I think there's something very profound and maybe irreversible happening to human

  • attention in the digital age. I think it's more than just distraction, and it's more

  • than even just addiction. It could actually be the defining political and moral challenge

  • of our time. I want to start with clearing the ground with

  • an observation that Herbert Simon made in the 1970s – “when information becomes

  • abundant, attention becomes the scarce resource”. This is an observation that I think we're

  • only just starting to understand what it means for human life and society.

  • This whole environment that has emerged in the last couple of years to compete for our

  • attention in scientific, systematic ways is often called the attention economy.

  • If you think about the goals that you have for yourself, your life, today, this week,

  • this yearthey're probably things like, I want to spend more time with family, I want

  • to learn how to play the piano, I want to take that trip I've been thinking about

  • and reflect on my lifethese are real human goals.

  • But if you look at the goals that technologies have for usthey're not usually these

  • thingsthey're things like - maximise the amount of time we spend with them, time

  • on site, or the number of clicks, the number of times we can scroll or tap, the number

  • of page views or ad viewsthings like this.

  • There's a deep fundamental gap here, between the goals we have and the goals our technologies

  • have for us. And so, I think there is this kind of inconvenient truth that we either

  • kind of ignore, or maybe don't know about a lot of the time, which is that the attention

  • economy, by and large, is not on our side. Its goals are not our goals. We trust these

  • things to be GPS for our lives, but really they're directing us to these petty engagement

  • goals. And this is very well known by the people

  • who create themthe CEO of Netflix a little while back said in addition to Snapchat and

  • YouTube, one of their major competitors was sleep. Steve Jobs did not let his children

  • use the iPad, right? Broadly speaking, what's happened in the

  • last couple of decades is our knowledge of psychology, and particularly our non-rational

  • biases, these vulnerabilities in our brain, you know, non-rational dynamics of decision

  • making, we've developed an enormous catalogue of these things, and at the same time this

  • system has emerged on the internet – a system of measurement, message delivery, optimisation

  • and experimentationand these two trends have come into conversation now in the attention

  • economy. What this means now is that this industrial-scale persuasion is now the primary

  • business model of our first really major global communications medium.

  • And this isn't widely talked about. We still call companies like Facebook or Google social

  • media companies, but they're not selling social media, they're selling our attention.

  • But I think another factor that makes this so urgent is this power to shape people's

  • attention, to persuade people to one end or another, is increasingly centralised in the

  • hands of just a few people, in a few companies, in one state, in one country.

  • It's a weird irony that the whole point of the internet was that it was decentralized

  • in its infrastructure, but then the platforms that have emerged on it have been so so centralized

  • so that literally there are people who would probably fit in this room who have their hands

  • on levers that can control the attentional habits of over 2 billion people on Planet

  • Earth. What I realised when I was working at Google

  • is, looking across at the industry, at the state of the attention economy and how little

  • it was being talked about it society and then feeling its effects in my own life, honestly

  • that there was more technology around me than ever before but it was harder somehow

  • to do what I wanted to do - I felt we'd made the same mistake that Aldous Huxley talked

  • about when he was lamenting that the defenders of freedom in his own time had failed to take

  • into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.

  • I want to suggest that if we're at all serious about promoting freedom or autonomy in the

  • digital age, it's really urgent for us to look at this situation and to start taking

  • into account our infinite appetite for distractions. I think what that would entail is starting

  • to assert and defend our freedom of attention.

I think there's something very profound and maybe irreversible happening to human

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B1 attention economy freedom appetite infinite urgent

Is Our Attention for Sale?

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    Summer posted on 2020/08/28
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