In our previous part: May I Have Your Attention, you briefly got to meet The Attention Economy . Now it is time to get to know each other better. To do this, I would like to tell you a story. This one is based on true events, and in addition, you are the main character… I am the main character too. Actually, we are all the main character of this story – all of the human race.
So, let us begin with the story: once upon a time… (this is how one must start a story, right?) There was an odd being, let us call it, Human race. It was quite a cute little being (at least on the outside). Moreover, it was extremely innovative and gifted. In fact, during the whole childhood, it was always on top of things. It dictated however its needs desired and invented new tools and technologies to mold its surroundings. Merely will and imagination was the limits. Human race was so talented, despite still being a little child, it completed a degree in engineering – at the (young?) age of only a couple of hundreds of thousands years old, remarkable.
This was around the end of 1700s. With a new degree in hand, many new powers, was now available, some even considered to be unnatural. This resulted in a vast number of new extraordinary technologies; which could help to sculpture the world with even more detail, speed, and efficiency. The time went by and Human race hit puberty – the industrial revolution happened. In the west, larger cities started to arise and Human race, as any other rebellious adolescence, started to smoke; with its black smog soaring in the sky, the factories was in the heart of the revolution. With the help of the fast paced mass production in the factories, the economic growth skyrocketed, and as a result, the living standards of the masses increased significantly – in a way never encountered before. Human race was in charge, on top of the machines, on top of everything. It ruled with iron fist and evolved the world swiftly, accordingly.
As any overconfident youngster, Human Race found no interest in reflecting over its actions. After the industrialization, of course, no time to stop; instead, improve development, increase growth, and speed up the acceleration. More, more, more. It had brought wealth and luxurious material lives to the masses, let us bring – even more! The proceedings must be a necessity for the evolution of society, accelerating economical growth is the pathway towards an even better future! More complex, and more powerful technologies were crafted, one after the other. And so it continued: more complex, and more powerful, and more complex and more powerful, and yes, I am gonna say it one more time – more complex and more powerful. Human race felt mightier than ever. Until, one day. One day it happened. It was realized. Human race had now understood, it was no longer in charge. The technologies had become so strong, Human race was no longer on top of the machines – but the machines were on top of Human race.
All the systems. All the technologies. All innovations. Everything which were meant to help Human race. Everything that were supposed to enhance the lives of the masses, had now instead turned against the one thing they were supposed to salvage. How could that be? Maximizing economical growth had taken the development this far, it had brought all the material wonderfulness to the masses. Over the course of history, the lives of billions of people had been elevated to the skies; how could it have turned out like this? Human race was in shock. It had built, molded and designed this whole world by iron fist – and it was based on a winning concept. How could it be that Human race now had lost the control?
It seems like, in the haste of producing greatness in the world, Human race had forgotten to stop and think. Never taken a moment of reflection. Not even a minute to re-iterate; detect, and adjust flaws in the foundations of the systems. Everything were designed on top of the core principle of accelerating economical growth. Economical growth may be one of the most powerful forces ever invented, and it have brought a lot of good to the world. But with only one pillar in the foundation, the construction is doomed collapse when expanding. The World changed and expanded but not the foundation. And when the system became powerful enough, it understood. To only maximize economical growth – human values and needs are actually not necessary. Instead, the system eventually came up with the idea: that in the present state of the world, human attention is the ultimate resource for maximizing economical return. With methods like: instant communication, followers, streaks, infinite scrolling, or recommend-systems; the masses became hooked to stare into the screens of their technological devices. From being tools to enhance the road to human values; technology had turned into the purest of drugs to attract human attention. Human race was addicted. In the factories, no longer was the Human race behind the control panels; in charge of refining resources into products – Human race itself had become the resources and the products of the economy. It was the birth of The attention economy.
Human race had unintentionally created a world in which were the technologies are working to exploit human weaknesses – instead of working towards maximizing human values. It is a wild, untamed beast which is right now unleashing its full power on Human race. Can the young (old?) late puberty hero find a way to tame the beast, and once again rule with iron fist? Only time will tell… ~
So, What’s The Gist!?
In our world, economical growth is the center of societal evolution. Accelerating economical growth also gives accelerating technological development. However, this is not bad per se. But if we want to care for human values – it becomes a problem. Optimizing towards something is always a trade-off with something else; in our case, a system which prioritize the economy over all, the human values will eventually end up being sacrificed. Although our intentions with the technologies might start off as well meant (to make the lives easier and more comfortable for the people), the system itself realizes that the best use is often not what was first intended. Many times it is better to exploit the poeple; to incentivize them with objectives which are best for the economy instead of what is best for the people’s own goals and values. Every technology is like a double edged sword. It can be used for good, or for bad. However, what is good, and what is bad? The technology itself does not care, but we humans probably do.
We have now, by coincidence, created an economy which runs on human attention and tech companies are continuously inventing new weapons to attract our attention. Dystopian societies often pictured in movies, for instance: Wall-E or Matrix – are not as far fetched as we at first hand might think. Then the question is: Is this what we want? I certainly do not know. What do you think?
Written by: Anton
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This Gist was inspired by an analogy of 19th century factory line working, mentioned in this Podcast episode:
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