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The economics of attention

If the product is free, we are the product.”

That’s what I thought to myself when my mother asked how people make huge money from mobile applications and social media services. Also, she saw a certain famous social media CEO on the Forbes list of billionaires. Naturally, she was terribly curious.

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Indeed, how do they do it? We didn’t even pay for perhaps 80 percent of the applications neatly tiled on our phone screens. And yet here they are, yesterday’s high school geeks becoming today’s tech rock stars. If their products are gloriously free, how do they profit from it? We didn’t spare a dime as we spent the past hour scrolling through Facebook. So what’s their business model? What product fuels their economy?

As it turns out, we fuel that economy. Or at least our attention does. And ultimately, the data produced from our attention. In exchange for these free services—messaging, news, games, entertainment—we offer our precious attention instead.

Except that our attention is scarce and information has become so abundant. So abundant, in fact, that we would all be probably drowning in an ocean of them. Today’s newspaper has probably more information than all the publicly available data on our Spanish colonial era. From an economic standpoint, that makes the value of information extremely nominal.

But then, that would also mean that the value of our attention becomes more and more costly. Thus, the economics of attention. No one would pay for information you can effortlessly google for free, but someone would pay for our attention. Which is why they store data about us somewhere. Things such as our searches, locations, preferences, and even our thumbprints or faces. We are all economically feasible, so it seems. We have truly become the product.

It is particularly this abundance that has altered who we are now and how we behave in this stage of humanity. Picture a normal distribution pattern with its bell-shaped curve. Majority of the observations cluster halfway or in the middle between two extremes. That’s where most of the population is—in the middle, or rather, in the mundane and the ordinary.

But we now have been led to believe that there can only be a dichotomy: Either one is extraordinary or nonexistent; one can only be a success or a failure; either we care or we do not care at all.

“The normal distribution,” as technopreneur Alex Danco notes, “is vanishing.” He relates this to the shift in our global mindset from scarcity to abundance. It’s a paradoxical reality. We have never been as educated, cultured or blessed with access as a generation, but we are perhaps also the most dismissive generational cohort in history. Either we are nailing it in life, or we aren’t. Either this issue concerns you, or it doesn’t.

Artist and writer Jenny Odell has recently released a timely manifesto called “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.” She writes: “I am opposed to the way that corporate platforms buy and sell our attention.” Odell discusses how ours is a culture reliant on profits and “the bottom line,” and that today so much more is at stake.

“Life escapes our fingers,” she says, quoting Seneca. “We submit our free time to numerical evaluation, interact with algorithmic versions of each other, and build and maintain personal brands.”

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So much has been written about how modern technology affects our mental health. It has also become observable how the accessibility of information has turned us into a much more impatient society.

We need to be more aware about how we are commoditized and monetized—not so we can quit the internet and its miraculous wonders. Such drastic action isn’t necessary; revenue-generating isn’t evil. Rather, this is to make us more aware of how much we value that part of ourselves that we are willing to sacrifice in exchange for what our pocket devices can offer.

That we have become zombies in this attention economy is perhaps an extreme picture. We all have choices, don’t we? In fact, we have more of them than there ever was in the history of humanity. It’s just that, now, we are so quick to turn them over.

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TAGS: attention, economics, economy, IAmGenM, Michael Baylosis, product
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