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We have seen that attention is scarce relative to the great problems and opportunities facing us, making proper allocation of available attention the crucial challenge for humanity. As we will see later, digital technology can help meet this challenge. But in the recent past the primary effect of digital technology has been to misallocate attention.
The Internet is exponentially increasing the amount of available content. Most of the recorded content produced by humanity has been produced in the last few years, a natural result of fast exponential growth in the creation of data (Marr, 2019). As a result, it is easy to be overwhelmed. Our limited attention is easily absorbed by the increasing amount of content tailored to piquing our curiosity and capturing our attention. Humans are inadequately adapted to the information environment we now live in. Checking email, Twitter, Instagram, and watching yet another YouTube clip or Snapchat story provide ‘information hits’ that trigger the parts of our brain that evolved to be stimulated by novelty, social connection, sexual attractiveness, animal cuteness, and so on. For hundreds of thousands of years, when you saw a cat (or a sexy person) there was an actual cat (or sexy person) somewhere nearby. Now the Internet can provide you with an effectively unlimited stream of cat (or sexy person) pictures. In 2019, the average person spent nearly two and a half hours on social media every day, part of a staggering 10 and a half hours spent on some sort of media consumption, or more than 60 percent of all waking hours (Kemp, 2020; "The Nielsen Total Audience Report," 2020).
Importantly, the dominant companies that we use to access this information, such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, generate most of their revenues by capturing and reselling our attention. That’s the essence of advertising, which is their business model. Advertisers literally buy our attention. Today, in order to grow, these companies invest in algorithms designed to present highly targeted, captivating content, thereby capturing more of our attention. News sites like Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post do the same.
It is much easier to capture attention by appealing to the parts of our brain that find kittens cute, people sexy, and react with outrage to perceived offenses rather than asking us to read a long-form essay or work through an argument by independently weighing evidence. The companies responsible for these systems lack financial incentives to persuade you to close your computer, put down your smartphone and spend more time with family and friends, read a book, or go outdoors and enjoy, or even clean up, the environment. The financial markets closely track metrics such as number of users and time spent on a platform, which are predictors of future growth in advertising revenue. In other words, the markets that drive the predominant way we use digital technology to allocate attention reflect the financial interests of investors and advertisers, which are often orthogonal or even antagonistic to individual and community interests. As we will see later (see the section on “Missing Prices” below) the problem runs even deeper, as it is actually impossible to construct proper markets for attention.