Why focus, like time, is moneyIn an age of constant distraction, your attention has become a valuable commodity. What is it worth, and how much of it are you giving it away?Article by Mark van Dijk - 30 October 2019 - Read Time: 3 min
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Can focus be commoditised?

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings was recently asked to name his company’s biggest competitor. He said ‘sleep’. His answer may be a signal to what is becoming a problem in the always-on, always-connected, always-updating modern world: we’re living in an exhausting attention economy, and focus is now a prized commodity.

Attention is a limited resource. You only have so much of it. After all, you could be doing something else right now. Instead of reading (or, let’s be honest, skimming) this article, you could be checking your email, scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, opening another browser tab, responding to a WhatsApp message, doing some work…

‘Distraction appears to be (at the level of the collective) a life-and-death matter.’

Attention economics sees awareness and recognition (and acting on them) as integral to economic decision-making. It’s something companies have to acquire if their marketing is to be effective. And because human attention is a scarce commodity, it applies economic theory to information management.

But attention and distraction are nothing new. Newspapers were publishing clickbait headlines over a century ago – ‘Woman jumps off Brooklyn Bridge – survives mad leap!’ wrote The New York World in 1900 – while eye-catching advertisements have been yelling ‘Look at me!’ for even longer.

The internet age, and mobile devices especially, has simply made the competition more intense.

Screening for distraction

Smartphones hit the market in 2007, and the impact on your attention was almost instantaneous. In 2008, the average 30-second TV ad during the SuperBowl (American TV’s prime eyeball event) cost $2.69 million. By 2018 that cost had ballooned to $5 million. TV ads had to up their game: today, 45% of US adults are ‘two-screening’, watching TV and checking out their smartphones simultaneously.

The idea of a distracted, two-screening sports fan idly checking Twitter while a $5 million TV advertisement begs for their attention is the attention economy in its purest form.

Everybody, from marketers to app developers to online platforms to your employer and your family, is competing for your attention, creating an economy in which consumers themselves are being consumed.

Those competitors are investing enormous time, money and effort to capture and keep your attention, and they’re using the latest tools in marketing, design, psychology, neuroscience and information technology. Users (that’s us) are now incentivised through a variety of tools and tricks.

One of them is user experience (UX) devices like gamification, where gaming reward mechanisms are used in non-game mediums. The thinking being that, if your boss really wanted you to get that report done quickly, they’d have given you points to score and levels to beat.

Another, more insidious mechanism is a UX trick called Dark Patterns, which grab and hold your attention, manipulating you into doing (or buying) things you didn’t mean to.

The art of doing nothing

Of course, people are pushing back against the attention economy. While the Dutch concept of niksen (literally: ‘nothing-ing’) is encouraging people to switch off completely, artist Jenny Odell is evangelising for complete distraction. In her book How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Odell draws attention to the fact that there are smartphone apps designed to help us use our smartphone less.

Odell argues that the attention economy has stripped human identity down into ‘a consistent and recognisable pattern of habits, desires, and drives that can be more easily advertised and appropriated, like units of capital’. She’s worried about why all those companies are so desperate for your attention, and what they want to do with it once they have it.

We’re all driven to distraction by #FOMO, and our attention is being commoditised to turn us into personal brand builders, she argues. ‘In a time that demands action,’ Odell writes, ‘distraction appears to be (at the level of the collective) a life-and-death matter.’

So it’s OK if you haven’t read this article all the way through. We get it. We lost your attention somewhere along the way. But hopefully when you left us, you shifted to something more worthwhile, and not to an attention-grabbing platform that only wants you for what your attention is worth to them.

Mark van Dijk
An award-winning writer who has written for publications ranging from Sports Illustrated to the official magazine of the JSE.

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