The Attention Economy

There is a very common complaint–usually voiced by an older person with “know-it-all” pretensions–about “kids these days.” Although that complaint has echoed through history (ever since Socrates, actually), today it tends to focus on the ubiquity of screens…the inescapable elements of our digital world.

It is certainly true that we now occupy an unprecedented environment, and there’s really no telling how or whether it is warping the young of the species. (If I had to guess, young people were different post-Gutenberg than they’d been pre-Gutenberg–and I would wager that some folks weren’t all that happy with that change, either.) The way we socialize the young into constantly changing cultures is inevitably evolving, and determining whether the changes are healthy or damaging is pretty speculative.

We just don’t know.

That said, a recent essay in the most recent Hedgehog Review, addressing that issue, was alternately annoying and thought-provoking. It was titled “The Great Malformation: A personal skirmish in the battle for attention.” After reminding readers of the often-quoted African proverb that “it takes a village to raise a child,” the author indulged in the all-to-common verbal handwringing:

The villagers are too often found behind closed doors, watching television or surfing the Internet. When they do appear in public, they are increasingly prone to do so with portable electronic devices in hand, phoning or surfing or tweeting their way through virtual realms, leaving the village streets full of moving bodies but emptied of human presence. This same retreat from shared physical spaces is observable even—or, rather, especially—in the inner sanctum of the home, where brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, parents and children, are increasingly found alongside each other yet absent to each other, cocooned in mesmerizing solipsism, ghosting even themselves and their own lives. The human race is on its way to becoming seven or eight billion perfect societies of one, each bound in what Stephen Colbert once called “solitarity” with other human beings, somewhere or another—who knows where—who themselves are busy absenting themselves from their families and homes. Where are the children being raised in such a world heading? What are they being urged to care about, cultivated to do and to be? What conception of the human good, if any, is implicit in, supported by, or coincident with this sort of upbringing?

I nearly stopped reading. Agitation about something we all know, without reference to data that illuminates what’s occurring, is just another version of “get off my lawn.” But the essay then took a different direction, arguing that today’s screen fixations come from an intertwining of culture and economics. The article is lengthy, and much less superficial than the cited paragraph suggests.

A few observations that struck me:

The market economy torn free from the rest of cultural life some half-dozen generations ago has now turned upon its parent and consumed her. The work of the polity that Aristotle regarded as most crucial—the acculturation of successive generations—increasingly occurs as the unplanned aggregate effect of corporate profit-seeking, in a direction that few regard as genuinely good for the next generation. This novel experiment in socialization raises anew the concern that we might prove unable to keep our republic (as Benjamin Franklin put it), or even our humanity….

As industrial capitalism matures, it gradually colonizes large swaths of the culture, whose evolution is then subject to being steered by the same decentralized and unplanned processes that serve up the other benefits and burdens of capitalism…We are accustomed to this arrangement and not generally awake to its perversity. When we enter the sphere of getting and spending, our activity is shaped by the pursuit of profits, and unlikely to cleave to any compelling conception of the human good. Presumably we do this in order to gain the resources we need to pursue genuine goods in the remainder of our lives. When the market swallows this remainder and seeks to reshape it to maximize profits, it becomes an impediment, not a contribution, to human flourishing.

This cultural revolution could not have come so far so fast without tapping into a very personal resource, located in the inner realm of conscious experience: human attention. There is growing recognition that attention has become an exceedingly valuable and hotly contested commodity.

From radio and television, to advertising, to video games…it’s hard to argue that today’s culture hasn’t devolved into a competition for eyeballs and clicks. And it is worth asking ourselves what the long-term consequences of that devolution portend.

A brief blog post cannot do justice to the essay’s lengthy analysis. It’s well worth reading the entire article.

I don’t agree with everything in it, but it’s a provocative read.


  1. And before market capitalism has completely captured our attention and redefined common good here comes AI down the road for its currently unknowable effects on our attention. It appears the process of change may itself be changing faster than our ability to identify or assimilate it, but perhaps that has always been the case.

  2. We can only hope that, at some point in time, we can shed our screens and spend some time with nature. There’s a wonderful world out there!

    HAPPY MOTHERS DAY to those of you who are mothers, or step mothers (even the evil ones), or Godmothers, or foster mothers, or single men raising children trying to be both father and mother.

  3. It is not new. This started during “our time” and has been building. Check out “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, 1985 – different screens, same capitalism.

  4. We’ve been monetized.

    Why? We have lost the main life drive of survival and now struggle for perfect comfort and safety.

  5. Our “free market capitalism” has become a joke recently and is devolving quickly into protectionism across the US and Europe. It’s capitalism for you, but not for me. The end of the post-WWII rules-based order is collapsing with the rise of China and Russia.

    Reflecting on my childhood, I recall always being out and about, from dawn till dusk, only returning home for meals. As the article rightly points out, many capitalists lament the difficulty of attracting our youth to their establishments. Tattoo and smoking parlors seem on every corner, while bars, nightclubs, and live venues have faded into the past.

    The number of years of tech advances has shrunk from 7 to 4. Your tech becomes obsolete every four years. Despite all this, our youth is still the moral compass of the US. The difference today from when I grew up is the connectivity. My world was in my neighborhood. Today’s youth have access to the world. Society is flattening out. Their neighbor lives in China, Europe, or the Global South.

    This change threatens the oligarchy (top-down control) and competition. Protectionism will not be received well despite the propaganda saying otherwise. Wars against others are not perceived well. CIA manipulation won’t work. Banning TikTok’s 170 million users because of Israel is a huge mistake and will backfire.

    Personally, I don’t see the changes as threatening. I see desperation among the ruling class, who are irrelevant and out of touch. The propaganda media is trying to hold it together for the oligarchy, but they’ve already lost. The kids are learning it’s not about race, but it’s about class. This was the lesson MLK, Jr. learned, causing his early death. Politicians want to purge Marxism from college campuses, but kids have smartphones. LOL

  6. We have been monetized to a degree we know nothing about. Our online personal data gets gathered and sold for profit, often without our knowledge or consent.
    It is sad to watch people of all ages, walking with earbuds in their ears, no eye contact (intentionally blocking out potential interactions?) avoiding not only people, but the sights and sounds of the world around them. They may not value what is most significant in their lives in a very real physical way. What they don’t see, hear, feel or smell that has evolved as a survival mechanism, may degenerate or completely disappear from our consciousness. Then what? Are we being entertained to conformity, oppression and ultimately to death? I won’t be around long enough to see the outcome. I feel sad for the future of my progeny.

  7. Yes, get out and bird, or do any of the many other things that require noticing what MOTHER Nature has provided that does not have to be counted. Well, if you want to count birds, or bird species, enjoy. Garden, indoors or out, check out butterflies, hike, read a book, or two, etc.
    Capitalism is not our unmitigated friend. Nor is Tech. They both need careful monitoring, imho.

  8. The Attention Economy=The Behavior Economy.
    They want our attention so we will buy things, vote “right”, conform. Behavior.
    So what? What could possibly go wrong?

  9. All technologies have their life enhancing aspects and their deleterious effects.

    The real problem is that we believe that “entrepreneurs” are to be trusted (but not government regulations).
    Vapping was “just to aid in quitting smoking” – right! So now the next generation of nicotine addicts is being raised with their Vap Shops.

    Further back in time, we lauded the “entrepreneurs” when they fired everyone and moved their textile plants to the South. Then those Southern workers were shocked when they were fired and the plants were moved to Asia. No one thought about the workers in either locale.

    With the fictional Gorden Gekko and the actor President Reagan extolling “capitalism” and greed, we forgot the point that unbridled capitalism is pernicious. Only a regulated capitalism, where not only small entrepreneurs but also the public are protected, can be the boon to society that we were told.

    Even the “good guys”, like Vint Cerf who co-created The Internet and Tim Berners Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, seemed to have missed the potential down sides of their otherwise beneficial creations.

    As Sheila likes to say – its complicated.

    Happy Mothers Day to all!

  10. Dear Moms and Dads,
    How did the Kinsey Institute come up with its data without violating someones son or daughter? How did this scandal rock the world of psychology?
    Yes we need safety for our kids, some beyond belief of what we know of the past and could happen in the future.,of%20these%20acts%20were%20filmed.

    Pray for a better world.

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