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Opinion: We are the commodity in attention economy

Eyes & Ears

Posted online

Can I have your attention, please?

Here’s a truthful answer: Yes, but get in line.

It seems our individual attention is more in demand than ever before. If you’re like me, you’re feeling this pull. It started almost a decade ago, as the Information Age, aka Digital Age, began to take hold.

With so much information so quickly accessed via technology at any time and place we choose, a new commodity has emerged. We are the commodity. Our choice is the moneymaker.

The phenomenon has created what some have called the attention economy. You know how it works: The smartphones we hold in our hands, and all the other digital screens we view, are direct and easy ways for companies, primarily in the digital media space, to gain market share. They want and need as many clicks, likes, shares and views as they can get from us, but they must puncture our conscience to do so. And then their valuations reach the billions.

Our attention has value like never before. But some in the technology and social media industries are speaking out against the trend.

A former design ethicist at Google is among them. Tristan Harris has delivered a TED Talk, titled, “How a handful of tech companies control billions of minds every day,” in which he lifts the veil.

“Right now, all of our technology is only asking our lizard brain, ‘What’s the best way to impulsively get you to the next tiniest thing with your time?’”

Lizard brain? Have we devolved to this?

But first, what is a lizard brain?

Psychology Today explains it best as “the seat of emotion, addiction, mood” and other mental processes. And the part of our brain “in charge of fight, flight, feeding, fear, freezing-up and fornication,” according to a 2014 article by Dr. Joseph Troncale.

See the connection to all our social media activities?

Human relationships lived on a screen are reduced to reflexive moments. We’re called to immediate decisions: What do you think of this picture? What is your opinion of that polarizing statement? There’s no time for reflection when the social media masses are awaiting our judgment, right?

We’re flung to narcissistic behaviors, unhealthy comparisons and vain approvals. It’s no wonder – there are just so many things staring back at us, each one demanding our attention.

“It becomes this race to the bottom of the brain stem and who can go lower to get it,” Harris says in his TED Talk.

I feel it. And I’m concerned it’ll bankrupt our society. I’m particularly speaking of the next generation that we work with and do business with – part of the generation I’m raising at home to be productive, smart and well-rounded individuals.

I’m afraid if we don’t invest in a new way, there’s an empty spiral awaiting them.

I also see it changing the way we do business currently. Verbal conversations are all too easily sidelined for a one-directional email or text. The technology is great but leaves room for error, misinterpretation and it changes the act of actual conversing. The great value of communication is the giving and receiving for understanding, as well as the facial expressions and body language that serve their own purposes.

Here’s the good news: There is business opportunity in this.

I see and hear about new technologies designed to take our thinking patterns along a more thoughtful path. I’m encouraged by Google’s Digital Wellbeing Initiative and the effectiveness of Apple’s Screen Time app.

Those are just scratching the surface. We need more technology designed with accountability and management in mind.

However, if we choose to continue investing in this attention market, others suggest taxing the mining of our attention for profit. Now, that will take some real thought to structure.

Never mind, I just got a notification.

Springfield Business Journal Editor Eric Olson can be reached at


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