Calculating returns on attention: How to disengage from a digital world that holds us hostage

Google recently made its ‘Digital Wellbeing’ app available to all devices meeting the Android One standards, signaling its commitment to fight technology addiction. But to truly understand the phenomenon of tech addiction, and why these measures are too little too late, we need to understand the new economic paradigm that we are all operating in — one that targets not your wallet but your attention.

Some of the smartest people in the world, hired by tech giants and advertising and PR firms, are no longer interested in grabbing a higher share of our money. They are coming up with sophisticated ways of capturing and monopolising something else — our attention. Our attention determines what we know, what we believe, what we think our choices are, and therefore how we act. By stealing our attention, marketers and propagandists are manipulating us and controlling our actions more effectively than ever before. It is crucial that we understand this new paradigm — the attention economy — and get as smart about the way we spend our attention as we are at spending our money. We need to find a way to calculate our returns on attention.

Representational image. Pixabay

Representational image. Pixabay

Think about the time you spend consuming free media. A report by App Annie, an analytics company, estimated that Indians spend about three hours a day on their smartphones. In 2017, Indians downloaded 12.1 billion apps on their smartphones, surpassing the 11.3 billion in the US, but true to form, we only spent $0.2 billion on those apps (while the US spent $15 billion paying for apps). Why are so many developers and corporations pushing their services if they don’t make money from the consumers? It’s because they don’t need you to spend your money.

The metrics that determine their success have to do with the attention you squander on their apps, and with the data you cough up.

It is the job of more traditional marketers to utilise that data to capture a larger share of your wallet.

In this, the tech companies are only heirs to traditional media companies that first monetised your attention. Think of television, and of how, within traditional marketing organisations, there are teams whose sole focus is on your attention, who earn promotions and payments for their services on the basis of their ability to capture it. Corporations don’t pay advertisers on the basis of products sold, but eyeballs grabbed, clicks and shares induced, and focus conquered.

But it is not just corporations that are hoping to catch your eye now. It is also celebrities, sports franchises, and, most significant of all, politicians.

Fandom is to the attention economy what subscription is to the traditional economy.

We Indians are great at being thrifty (see the stats on app spends above), but our cultural vocabulary is not equipped to deal with the attention economy. We will shrink from any sort of regular subscription putting a drain on our bank account, but we gladly follow celebrities and sports teams across social media channels, effectively agreeing to a periodic drain on our stores of attention.

And the hunger for our attention is insatiable. Bollywood does not only want us to watch their films, trailers and songs — they want us hooked on to gossip, like their Instagram posts, and complete their social media challenges. Sports teams are not content with getting us to watch games. They want us to obsess over transfers and selections, and auctions and boardroom battles.

This fandom is most toxic when it adheres to political figures. What benefit do we, common citizens, derive from being the fan of a politician? It is not like we have their ear, or any real influence over their decisions. The only thing becoming a fan does is it blinds you to the ways in which they take advantage of you. Who benefits from citizens putting aside their critical judgment to worship a leader? Only the leader, not the citizen.

But the media machinery, learning from the deep schism in US politics between rabid Republicans and deluded Democrats, is encouraging a similar kind of thoughtless fandom among Indians. Every time we have yielded up our attention and let down our guard before a politician, made them larger than life, we’ve been had — think of the Emergency, and of Demonetisation.

All these people — politicians, film stars, sports personalities — seem to be glamorous and powerful, but when it comes to attention, they are actually beggars for it. Without it, they will lose most of their power and influence. Recognising that they are the supplicants, and we are the wealthy, will help us be more selective in where we bestow the royal favor of our attention.

The big digital platforms are recognising that people are on to them, and are offering tools to help limit the amount of time you spend on them. Google unveiled a policy on ‘Digital Wellbeing’ at their I/O 2018 conference. Facebook and Instagram have released features that help you compute the amount of time you spend on the platforms, and set reminders once you cross certain limits. Apple, too, has introduced a helpful clock measuring time spent on your device. But all these have been available through third party apps like Space (earlier BreakFree) and QualityTime for years now.

Having tried them all to overcome my digital addictions, I know for a fact that just knowing how much time you spend on these platforms, or setting soft limits on app use, is not going to change anything. You may feel a little guilty at times, but you’ll soon find yourself glossing over those stats, or dismissing the notification that you’ve hit your usage limit without even having to think about it.

These measures will not work because they don’t address the root cause of our addiction — that addictiveness is baked into these apps.

We know this because Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, said it in so many words at an event in Philadelphia in November 2017: He said Facebook’s architects knew from the very beginning that they were in it to get us hooked, creating the ‘like’ system, each thoughtless click giving us a ‘little dopamine hit’, the neurotransmitter responsible for addictions. ‘It’s a social validation feedback loop… exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology,’ he said.

Where we pay attention has massive consequences for our lives. As Hannah Gadsby put it in her terrific stand-up act Nanette, we learn from the parts of our stories that we pay attention to. Maybe it is exactly this raid on our reserves of attention that has us turning naturally to traditions like mindfulness. Our defense must begin there — by becoming as mindful and skeptical of where we spend our attention as we are of spending our money.

We need to track our ‘returns on attention’. We need to ask what we’re getting for the time we spend, especially given how much of what we reap from time spent on social media is unhappiness — a 2014 study in Austria found that participants reported lower moods after spending 20 minutes on Facebook compared to just browsing the internet, and there have been multiple studies linking depression to social media use. We also need to ask how much of what we get is short-term — the naughty excitement of a new piece of gossip — and how much of it is truly long-term and contributing to our lives.

The very first thing to do is to mute all audio notifications (excepting phone calls). Further, we must use the tools, particularly in Android, that allow us fine-grained control over even visual notifications. Task switching is known to be terrible for our productivity, and notifications entice us to do exactly that. Do not forget that now individual websites can send you notifications via modern browsers, and you may have given permission to several to do so without realising it — search and block every site that is trying to send you a notification through your browser.

Next, set device-free times in the morning and in the evening. Remember how reading something the first thing in the morning and the last thing before bed was the best way to remember it? That is exactly what we do with our devices — training ourselves to chase down notifications the last thing before bed and the first thing in the morning. Just staying away from your phone till about 10:00 or 11:00 in the morning will go a long way to loosening the control it has over you.

Then, set a time in the evening, just 15-30 minutes, for mindful phone use. Start by asking yourself how you’re feeling, and why you’re turning to your phone (most of the time, we pick up our phones when we are bored and exhausted, hoping for a quick break that refreshes us). Then, pay attention to the patterns of your phone use, how you cycle through a bunch of apps or websites, checking for updates in each of them. Finally, pay close attention to how you’re feeling after you are done. Ask yourself: Are you feeling refreshed? Or only more exhausted? Daily examples of how you actually feel versus how you think you feel after phone use will help you increase the cognitive dissonance between your thoughts and your actions, which will help you break free. Also, seeing how you habitually cycle between apps will help you take hard measures to break those cycles, by either uninstalling apps or signing out of websites.

Lastly, think about the things and people that are harder to pay attention to, that don’t try to clamour for our regard but exist hoping we will notice. Think of our friends, our family, children, elderly people, pets; think about our driver, our domestic help, and the countless people who serve and support us; and think about nature. Should it be so hard to notice them, interact with them, and care for them? Do they have to be so incredibly interesting and new all the time? Perhaps the greatest crime these attention bandits are committing is that they are taking us away from all these, the sources of true connection with our world, and the sources of authentic happiness and value.


Updated Date: Nov 08, 2018 10:23 AM

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