Social Media and the Attention Economy

Artificial intelligence will radically change the economy. This process has already begun, but many blue-collar employees may soon see their livelihoods vanish.

A few years back, it was suggested that these poor folks shouldn’t despair, for there was a simple solution—they could learn to code. This advice was received with the enthusiasm it deserved.

A wave of unemployment, caused by AI, is drawing nearer. There have been more serious proposals for what to do, like universal basic income, but, at least in the United States, we aren’t treating the coming crisis with the gravity it deserves.

It may, it’s true, be premature to propose a solution. But a more thorough diagnosis of the problem might help us to see more clearly.

The Attention Economy

Rethinking Economics in the Digital Age

“The Attention Economy,” as it relates to the Information Age, is a phrase first popularized by Michael H. Goldhaber. In his 1997 article, “The Attention Economy and the Net,” Goldhaber emphasizes that the internet requires us to completely rethink what we know about economics.

He writes:

We are moving into a period wholly different from the past era of factory-based mass production of material items when talk of money, prices, returns on investment, laws of supply and demand, and so on all made excellent sense. We now have to think in wholly new economic terms, for we are entering an entirely new kind of economy. The old concepts will just not have value in that new context.

It is shortsighted, says Goldhaber, to apply old rules to this new paradigm. He uses the genesis of life on earth as an analogy. Before there was life, the chemistry, physics, geology, etc., could be used to understand virtually any phenomena observed on our planet.

Once the first organisms emerged, however, the application of these purer sciences to understand the behavior living things would be insufficient. We’d need biology, and, ultimately, psychology, to explain the far-less-predicable movements of foxes or people.

One could argue that history has seen a great many shifts—some, no doubt, as profound as the popularization of the internet—but the need for folks to buy and sell has largely remained the same. Such an assertion, to Goldhaber, is myopic.

We don’t, he writes, need to look into prehistory. In fact, a fitting comparison could be found just a few centuries back. When Columbus landed on the American continent, Europe was largely feudal. Upon his “discovery,” European leaders assumed that the New World would conform, economically, to theirs.

While colonization began along these lines, “the capitalist, market-based industrial economy, then just starting out, found the new soil much more congenial. Eventually it grew so strong in North America that, when it re-crossed the ocean, it finally completed its move to dominance in Western Europe and then elsewhere in the world.”

So while we are taught that economic laws are as unchanging as those of mathematics, history shows us that this isn’t the case. Just like the landscape, they differ depending on time and circumstance. The London of the Industrial Revolution looked markedly different, say, than the one that stood in the 14th century.

And the landscape of the Information Age is digital. The isolation of the factory worker or the peasant farmer is far from us. We can communicate with someone across the planet at the speed of light. Space and time have suffered a sort of collapse, and we now inhabit a global village. As the laws of feudal economy don’t obtain in the factory setting, surely the old ways of looking at money, in this radically altered landscape, must experience a major shift.

Information is Cheap

Since we are in the Information Age, we might assume that the new economics will based on the data that flows with greater speed, and with greater abundance, than every before. But it is this very abundance that reduces its value.

Anyone, the present author included, will tell you that you can write reams of content and publish it online without ever making a dime. Where, then, is value found on the World Wide Web?

Attention, which seems to be in progressively shorter supply, is the engine powering this digital machine. The ads, for example, on our social media feeds and on popular websites employ “rent” our attention from the popular platforms to which we’re drawn.

We want to see who’s doing what on Facebook, or read an article from The Guardian—we don’t log on to watch ads. These platforms, free of charge for us, offer our attention, cultivated by their addictive apps, as a product.

Marshall McLuhan lamented the “total lack of privacy” that characterized our transition into the global village. The processes he observed have accelerated, and exponentially. Indeed, our lack of privacy is fundamental to the attention economy.

Television commercials had only a fraction of the capacity to target audiences that Facebook ads do. Our data, mined with every click, allows businesses to target potential customers with unsettling precision.

This is made possible through in innovative direction, and quantification, of our attention. Before examining some of the psychic and spiritual consequences of the attention economy, at least as it has developed up to this point, it would be helpful to examine another one of Golhaber’s predictions—one he seems to have gotten wrong.

Babylon Refurbished

The End of Institutions?

Goldhaber, like McLuhan, observed the increasing lack of privacy in a world bound by media of mass communication. For Goldhaber, a “breakdown of organizational barriers” would be the ultimate result.

“Documentaries,” he wrote, “about the production of movies are common by now; a movie about a movie is just as accessible as the first movie.” There is a degree of “transparency” that changes our relationship to the star, the politician, or any other figure who has captured our attention. This collapse between the audience and the performer, evident in the popularity of podcasters, influencers, and citizen journalists, has effected an apparent democratization of the media landscape.

For Goldhaber, this would eventually result in “the breakdown of organizational barriers.” He was right that transparency would only continue to expand as the internet gained cultural dominance, but concluded that, “as a result, organizations will diminish in importance at rapid pace, relative to the importance of the individuals who are temporarily in them.”

He uses Harvard as an example, predicting that its buildings and locations, in a true attention economy, will be far less significant than those who teach in them, and “the networks of attention among them.” Since the figures lecturing in the building, not the building itself, is what draws attention, prominent academics could be at home, or at another university, without losing their audience. Ultimately, it will lose “all coherence, all distinctness from other universities or from any one of hundreds of other organizations which have audiences in common.”

Certainly, we’ve seen academics gain prominence on social media (Jordan Peterson, Slavoj Žižek, etc.)—a fame that has overshadowed the institutions at which they teach. And this paradigm has extended to other institutions as well.

Goldhaber cites Bill Gates as an example of the attention economy changing the meaning of wealth and how it’s generated. “A century ago,” he writes, “Gates’ analog would have been John D. Rockefeller.” Unlike gates, Rockefeller, whose wealth “consisted chiefly of oil fields, oil wells, tanker cars, refineries, and so on,” would possess the same net worth if he sold these interests.

This is “what monetary net worth is supposed to mean,” but Gates, a magnate of the Information Age, operates under a different set of rules. “The Attention Economy and the Net” is from 1997, long before the CEO left Microsoft. Goldhaber notes here that Microsoft, unlike Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust, was far more reliant (as are Tesla, Apple, and Facebook today) on the star power of its leaders:

If Gates were to decide to sell out and buy control of the XYZ Corp. instead of staying at the helm of Microsoft, as soon as he let this be known, his Microsoft stock would fall precipitously and XYZ’s would rise. His own net worth would plummet, at least temporarily, but such is the attention wealth he has, that as soon as he began to issue pronouncements from his new stage, XYZ’s stock would probably rise further, and Gates’ former monetary wealth might magically reappear. Despite the fact that the arena in which he made his mark happens to be business, it is already true that Gates’ actual wealth, and that of many like him, is less in money or shares of stock than in attention.

Corporations, then, when the information economy has achieved its full development, would be far less significant than those who serve as its figureheads. The same would hold true, we can assume, even of governments. Donald Trump, who understood the attention economy better than any candidate before him, could be seen as a foreshadowing of things to come.

But for institutions to recede in power and influence, supplanted by persons who are able to wield the power and wealth that is attention, there is, we have seen, a necessary infrastructure in which these new stars must operate. The influencer’s power and reach pales in comparison to the platforms on which their content is hosted.

“The medium,” to quote Marshall McLuhan, “is the message.”

Old Kings in New Clothes

Goldhaber should be celebrated for his insight. In 1997, the idea of a truly decentralized internet—free of censorship, messy and vibrant—seemed less like a dream than an inevitability. That it could be institutionalized, captured by the very bodies it was poised to kill, is a strange and sad development, one few would have predicted.

But the internet began as military technology. It has, indisputably, led to many to greater freedoms than virtually any technology since the printing press. It has also, paradoxically, given states a greater access to the private behaviors, activity, and communications of citizens than any tyrant of any previous age could have imagined.

Indeed, the erosion of privacy appears to be an essential aspect of the attention economy. Goldhaber points out, quite accurately, that money doesn’t have the power to buy attention. It can certainly help, but attention is far more effective at generating money than vice versa.

One who has attention already—a movie star, for instance—will be able to get a film financed, or find investors for a business venture, on the strength of their name alone. Those who search for this star online, who post about him in their social media feeds, etc., are the real commodity. Thanks to social media platforms, advertisers can identify the interests of potential customers, and target the demographics to which their product might appeal.

It is here that Goldhaber’s prediction breaks down. It is not the individual star, but the platform disseminating their content, that, at least for now, holds the greatest power to capture attention. These platforms have ties to governments around the world, and at times have been shown to do their bidding.

The Global Storefront

Toward the end of “The Attention Economy and the Net,” Goldhaber makes the following forecast:

Individual attention getters of all sorts will find it ever easier to get attention directly through the Web, without any corporate packaging necessary. They will also find diminishing advantage in trying to make use of money, since attention in a wider and wider a variety of forms, filling more and more of their needs will be able to flow to them either directly through the Web, or as a kind of adjunct to it.

The Web itself—or, rather, the portion of it which receives the most traffic, to which most have access—is a curated experience dominated by a handful of players. If influencers are to have an effective reach, they must cooperate with these new centers of power.

The institutions of Big Tech are decentralized, and have a greater reach than any brick-and-mortar establishment could. Their presence is felt anywhere with an internet connection.

The consequences for privacy, and for civil liberties, have been the topic of extensive discussion and debate. The way that this affects us spiritually, however, is perhaps more profound, and more troubling.

The Customer Fetishized

The authors of “Fetish, Magic, Marketing: Enchantment, Spells, and Occult Practices in Contemporary Economies” seek to demonstrate that “magical thought and action, supposed by modernist theory to be in decline, is foundational in marketing practice.”

A fetish, to define it concisely, is an object imbued with magical power. The authors of “Fetish, Magic, Marketing” relate the way that marketers make a fetish of the consumer, employing techniques that are identical, not merely similar, to magic.

Fetishized constructions of consumers as a “material embodiment of the market” are created by advertisers. As a magical object serves as link between the spiritual and material worlds, the fetishized consumer becomes a “boundary object mediating between the organization and an imagined market.” These consumer fetishes, constructed objects, become animated through corporate rituals, taking on a very real life in the eyes of their makers. Finally, these creations exert influence on the companies themselves, directing the actions of those who created them.

The authors, in the course of their research, documented the practice of videotaping customers. This activity is far more extensive than following a buyer around a story. A senior research manager at Upstate Care, a household care company, told them:

When I say we videotape everything, we videotape e-ve-ry thing. Whenever we’re talking to a consumer, whether it’s in their home or in the grocery store, if we get permission from a store to do consumer work, we’re videotaping…I purchased
a video camera for our team, because we videotape everything now.

Clips are taken from these tapes, helping to construct the image of an ideal consumer. A deductive process occurs—from these specific instances, a more universal picture is constructed. A certain customer segment becomes embodied, idealized in a figure put together from this raw data.

It is this being that needs to be targeted, to whom wares will be peddled. Their preferences, habits, and needs influence the direction of the companies catering to them. According to Diana, “a user experience manager at a software company”:

Personas are really powerful in our company. You take a consumer segment, and you give them a name and a face and you make that person come alive. For engineering teams this is really powerful…everyone understands the consumer.

It is telling that the term “persona” was originally applied to masks worn in Greek and Roman drama. The personae created in these corporate rituals exerts its power on the consumer as well as the company: needs are often created through advertising, just like goods are created through manufacturing.

The graven image of the consumer fetish possesses a greater reality, and a greater power, than the flesh-and-blood beings who serve it.

Conclusion: A Persona in Your Pocket

The tragic mask […] was a device for removing the actor, and the spectators, from the daily world they lived in, transporting them to a world in which the relationship between man and god was paramount.

Paul Monaghan, “Mask, Word, Body and Metaphysics in the Performance of Greek Tragedy”

The tragic actor, in donning a mask, became something other than himself. This mask, it might be said, acted as a kind of fetish, a “boundary object” mediating between several parties: the human and divine realms, the actor and the mythic character he portrayed, the performer and the audience.

The persona, then, serves to alter lived experience, making the participants, both actors and audience, part of a ritual in service to spiritual forces. I will address the relationship of technology to personae, and to tragic theater, in greater detail elsewhere—for now, an understanding of these personae as a mediating fetish is sufficient.

The smartphone is a mask, indisputably, behind which we engage with others. There is a frequent lament that folks aren’t able to appreciate what’s going on around them because they’re always staring at their phones. Countless apps feature filters that hide imperfections or enhance our physical attributes. And there’s a platitude that those who post the most, and seems the happiest, are those who have something to hide.

This mask we present to the world creates a fetish. This isn’t who we really are, but it is this image with which others engage, and to whom they direct their comments. The fetish we’ve constructed direct our lives, as well—the Advertisers use these fetishes to target consumers, and social media platforms allow them to target by age, sex, interest, and even to followers of individual accounts.

Let’s return, in conclusion, to the coming AI-generated wave of unemployment. If huge segments of the population are left jobless, their livelihoods replaced by AI, they could be subject to a new form of exploitation.

In this future, those who are unable to work might have something more valuable to sell. As more jobs are displaced by AI, attention may become an even more precious currency.

The unemployed may, in fact, not need any sort of universal basic income. If they don’t have to go to work, they can spend every waking hour on devices, where there behavior will be tracked, sold, and fetishized.

Many will become dependent, in this scenario, on personae for their income. Now, we commonly conflate our occupation with our identity (i.e. “I am a construction worker,” “I am a nurse.”); for those in thrall to their personae, this confusion is destined to become even more pronounced.

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