The Attention Economy

‘“Behaviour design can seem lightweight, because it’s mostly just clicking on screens. But what happens when you magnify that into an entire global economy? Then it becomes about power.” …

 The more influence that tech products exert over our behaviour, the less control we have over ourselves. “Companies say, we’re just getting better at giving people what they want. But the average person checks their phone 150 times a day. Is each one a conscious choice? No. Companies are getting better at getting people to make the choices they want them to make.”’


The feeling of time poverty is a ubiquitous part of modern life. Our consciousness is crammed with thousands of messages a day; interactions chase after us ceaselessly; we are permanently in conversation across global networks. The spate of recent books on productivity and focus – such as Daniel Levitin’s The Organised Mind: Thinking straight in the age of information overload  suggest we are feeling the pressure of this perma-busyness, and the burnout which accompanies it.


But are we actually busier?


Increasingly, we are waking up to the realities of the Attention Economy behind this modern phenomena, and the extreme sophistication of the behaviour design competing for our focus hundreds of times a day. Originating in 1930’s Behaviourism – the idea that all behaviour is really controlled by a system of incentives and rewards – and pioneered for years in the gambling industry, the Attention Economy today makes time the world’s most powerful currency in any number of industries. As The Economist’s 1843 reports, “[t]he experience that is being designed for in banking or health care is the same as in Candy Crush. It’s about looping people into these flows of incentive and reward. Your coffee at Starbucks, your education software, your credit card, the meds you need for your diabetes. Every consumer interface is becoming like a slot machine.”


The work of Stanford behaviour researcher B J Fogg anticipated – and indeed laid the foundation – for much of the addictive tech now so deeply embedded into our daily lives by recognising that technology would captivate only when the principles of psychology were introduced into its design; and that when motivation and ease became the central designing factors, it could powerfully change behaviour. With his theory, The field of Captology (Computers as Persuasive Technologies) was born.


Today that thinking is guiding the world’s fastest growing businesses: ‘When you get to the end of an episode of “House of Cards” on Netflix, the next episode plays automatically unless you tell it to stop. Your motivation is high, because the last episode has left you eager to know what will happen and you are mentally immersed in the world of the show. The level of difficulty is reduced to zero. Actually, less than zero: it is harder to stop than to carry on. Working on the same principle, the British government now “nudges” people into enrolling into workplace pension schemes, by making it the default option rather than presenting it as a choice.’


While the lessons of commercial behaviour change undoubtedly hold huge potential for positive social reform, the personal cost to productivity and mental health, for most of us, seems stark. And yet it is worth remembering the possibility of a 12 hour day. A new book by futurologist Mark Stevenson, We Do Things Differently: The outsiders rebooting our world is a whistle-stop tour of the remarkable things that people are actually capable of achieving with a good idea and some focused efficiency. He opens with the tale of Jamie Heywood: ‘an engineer without a single medical qualification… now seen as one of the most important thinkers in healthcare’ after crowdsourcing the world’s largest ASL lab to find a cure for his brother – and on the way, singlehandedly exposed the poor quality research that has for years been used to peddle snake oil to desperate sufferers. He is now redefining the future of clinical research with the online patient community enabling rapid, large scale drug trials at a fraction of the traditional cost and a new age of patient-led care.