Surviving the attention economy

For those of you who live in New York City: do you remember taking the subway before it was blanketed with startup ads? Can you recall the moment when pastels and offer codes started to outnumber for-profit colleges and injury attorneys? 

It’s not that I’m trying to pinpoint the chronology here. It doesn’t help much to know that our old friend Dr. Zizmor retired in 2016, or that Casper launched the subway advertising arms race that same year. Instead, I want to recall a slightly less sociopathic information ecology, and I want to use it as a point of comparison – something to hold up next to the augmented reality casino we currently inhabit. 

A lot of people are talking about the “attention economy” right now. They were talking about it years ago, too, but the term keeps getting bigger and heavier, like a mudslide absorbing everything in its path. The attention economy is A.I. and Fyre Fest and Trump and online fascism and internet addiction and the death of journalism all at once. It no longer makes sense to talk about daily life in terms of online or IRL. There are a lot of dense theorizations out there for this brave new world, but I think the subway car is just as good a place to start thinking. 

1. Direct to consumer

Why do people buy the stuff in the subway ads? Sometimes on a packed C train I try to picture the kind of person I would be with a sleek electric toothbrush and USB-equipped rolling luggage. These things aren’t necessities, and they definitely aren’t cheap, but they offer a glimpse of the kind of put-togetherness that’s always slipping through millennials’ fingers. Plus, they’re stupidly easy to buy. Time is money, and so is certainty: this is the disruptive promise of the consumer-facing startup.

The thing is, time has been feeling pretty weird lately and I’m less certain than ever. The kind of “frictionless” experiences that were supposed to simplify my life are instead giving me a strange momentum. Sometimes I grab my phone to check the weather and end up an hour later with my back in knots and my mind in a black hole. The scariest thing is actually ending up with room in my day for some “time well spent.” Even with a clear afternoon and no obligations, I feel my brain reaching for the comfort of my feeds, my messages, my role as a user.

If our habits are more plastic than we think, our attention itself is a finite resource. Demand for “mind share” among brands is rising while consumers’ attention spans (the “supply” in this case) are actually getting shorter. Casper hopped on the subway in 2016 because cheeky illustrations and discounts were cheap ways to generate interest at the time. Now that the market is more crowded, advertisers are burning truckloads of VC money to achieve the same return: Fiverr’s cruel jokes, Casper’s puzzle games, and Policygenius’ fake poems all point to the rising cost of eyeballs.

As easy as this is to grasp in the abstract, it’s not making life any less disorienting. Understanding the microeconomics of content marketing only goes so far when your brain is being used as an open pit mine. 

2. Millennial mind share

Becoming something more than a user means first untangling the web of power relationships that got us here. This is something Malcolm Harris does really well in his book Kids These Days, which describes how institutions at all scales have agreed to squeeze every drop of productive mental energy out of our generation. He breaks down the neoliberal political economy of attention into actual experiences: small children filling their hours with homework and testing, teens learning to medicate their distraction and depression, college grads building personal brands and juggling freelance jobs to pay down their debt. In Harris’ telling, the intellectual abstraction of a dwindling “attention supply” becomes a concrete political question with obvious stakes.

The contradictions of the attention market are right there in the train. The ads are selling states of mind we no longer have the time to achieve: meaningful rest, unblemished experiences of nature, a sense of domestic organization, and so on. But they’re fishing for our attention, too, and exacerbating the information overload they purport to solve. When read that “millennials are killing X,” we should keep in mind that millennials are spending every minute of life in a mode of uncompensated, entrepreneurial multitasking. Our consumption habits likely have more to do with how we allocate our maxed-out cognitive capacity, and how well businesses play to that reality, than they do with vague generational preferences.

It’s also worth reminding ourselves that capital will always try to sell us solutions to the problems it creates. Meditation apps advertise peace of mind. Screen time-tracking has become a selling point for the iPhone. In hailing consumers as solely responsible for our health, marketing puts the onus on us to correct psychological harms that we didn’t ourselves inflict. As Harris describes, there’s no way to opt out of participating in the new economy – only new ways to invest in ourselves as human capital. 

3. Cognition, public health, and “wellness”

One step toward breaking this cycle might just be spreading the idea that the attention economy is a public health crisis. I’m not a medical researcher, but it feels safe to say that the typical millennial’s productivity requires an immense amount of cognitive work. These uncompensated tasks are all sources of stress, which has a well-documented correlation with adverse health outcomes. We could acknowledge that by looking more closely at how networked labor increases “allostatic load,” which is the term health experts use to quantify a total stress burden from disparate experiences.

I think this framing gives us a way to recognize that the gig economy and the attention economy are not separate phenomena, but related features of a single, predatory economic system. The concept of a stress load also makes clear that different populations are variably affected. I may be at one level as a neurotic white guy doing freelance work, but my own privilege means I don’t face serious stressors like intergenerational poverty, housing insecurity, or environmental racism. Each of these oppressions is its own health crisis, never meaningfully addressed by public policy, which the attention economy exacerbates even as it adds new stressors. In a thread last year on what she called “black burnout,” poet and essayist Tiana Clark wrote: “Yes, we are all so damn tired & in debt, but that painful exploitation is stratified across various identities & to ignore that splintering is just as damaging as acknowledging that we all feel like commodities, which for black people wasn’t a simile, but a reality until 1865.”

The market response to attention-related stress is also difficult to resist. Tons of “wellness” or “mindfulness” businesses have bloomed in the last decade to treat attention-related burnout, from meditation to CBD and supplements. It’s not wrong by any means to take advantage of this stuff. But with its individual orientation and its discourse of self-care, the wellness sector essentially addresses the symptoms of cognitive stress while hiding its root causes. Meanwhile, the investors in “direct-to-consumer” startups are the same people profiting from every other element of the attention economy. Wellness capitalism isn’t designed to heal people and communities, but to maintain an optimal balance that keeps users (a.k.a. workers) in their most productive, precarious state.

Maybe we are starting to put more of these pieces together. I’m not sure I’ll be able to get through Shoshanna Zuboff’s 700-page “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” but she seems to comprehensively describe how platforms mine our private experiences in order to then manipulate our behavior. Even without restructuring the web, there are a lot of other stressors we can work to alleviate through the public sphere. There’s Medicare for All to pass, employment laws to defend for gig economy workers, and a housing package in Albany which could bring rent control to the whole state when the rent laws expire in June. People are working very hard to bring these goals to reality. More and more, the most important fight is to get people’s attention. 

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