We have seen that attention is scarce, making the proper allocation of available attention the crucial challenge for humanity. As we will see later, digital technology can be used to help with this, but in the present, the primary effect of digital technology has been to misallocate attention.
The Internet is exponentially increasing the amount of available content; most of the content produced by humanity has been produced in the last few years . As a result, it is easy to be overwhelmed; our limited attention is easily absorbed by the increasing amount of content. Humans are inadequately adapted to the information environment we 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. For hundreds of thousands of years, when you saw a cat there was an actual cat; now, the Internet can produce an endless stream of cat pictures. In 2017, the average person spent roughly two hours on social media every day .
It is not just the explosion in the quantity of information – it is also that the dominant companies through which we access this information, such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, are generating most of their revenues by capturing and reselling our attention. That is the essence of advertising, which is their business model. Advertisers literally buy attention for their message – in order to grow, they invest in algorithms designed to present captivating content to their users, in order to capture more of their attention. News sites like Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post do the same.
Capturing attention is much more easily accomplished by appealing to the parts of our brain that find kittens cute and react with outrage to perceived offenses. Conversely, the companies responsible for these systems are not incentivized to recommend to you to close your computer, to put down your smartphone and spend more time with friends or to go outdoors and clean up the environment. The financial markets closely track metrics such as number of users and time spent, which are predictors of future growth in advertising revenue. Put differently, the markets that drive the predominant way we use digital technology to allocate attention reflect the interests of investors and advertisers, which are often orthogonal to individual and community interests. As we will see later, the problem runs even deeper, as it is impossible to construct proper markets for attention.