The Attention Value Problem

Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.

José Ortega y Gasset, Man and Crisis (1962)

What is your attention worth? What is its value?

I ask because the nature of attention in the networked age seems to me contradictory.

On one hand, it’s more prized than ever. Human attention has become one of the world’s most sought-after commodities, and the companies that coordinate its supply and demand are the most influential in the world.

On the other, the internet-connected populace seems more spendthrift than ever, surrendering attention for little in return.

In this essay, I’ll argue that your attention is worth a lot, probably more than you currently account for. With the help of a motley cast of concepts, including a dual-definition of value devised by 18th-century economists, I’ll try to show how the powerful economic incentive to harvest our attention necessarily creates incentive for the harvesters to simultaneously reduce attention’s usefulness to us, the public. If all goes really well, the contradiction raised above will be resolved, and everyone will feel really great about the time spent here 😀

This site is in no way monetized, with nary an ad nor Donate button to be found, so all I ask that you pay is, maybe you guessed it, attention.

What’s Value?

Value is a difficult idea.

The question of how it is created certainly vexed the classical economists. It was clear enough to them that the value of an object was, at least in part, a function of its desirability in exchange. How much value, measured in currency, would that object fetch from a counterparty at a hypothetical market? This variety they called value in exchange.

Intuitive though it was, this definition seemed incomplete to the likes of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. That true value would arise wholly from subjective “willingness to pay” was unsatisfactory and gauche – something important was missing. Surely an object’s utility holds some sort of value even if no one is waiting to purchase it?

If a tree falls in the woods and no one but the bears notice, does it make a sound? If you raise a pig but there’s no pork futures market, does it have value?

The classical economists decided yes, the tree does make a sound, and yes, there is value independent of exchange. To make it so in their theories, they wrote of a parallel definition: value in use.

Value in use is an inexact concept and entirely subjective. Unlike value in exchange, it lacks a standard metric. Ricardo, in his Principles of Political Economy wrote, “Value in use cannot be measured by any known standard; it is differently estimated by different persons.” For now, we can think of value in use as utility, happiness, or other non-commercial benefits that, through use, the object bestows on its possessor.

Value is a difficult idea. Splitting its definition into two concepts makes it somewhat more comprehensible. Value in exchange is the going price, subject to supply and demand, denominated in currency. Value in use is the unitless, subjective utility that accrues to the holder of a good or commodity.

Despite the clever parsing of value by the classical economists, making further definitive statements about value remains a task reserved for greater minds than my own. However, we can make some statements about the relationship between the complementary definitions of value, statements that will allow us to finally return to the value of your attention.

Hold or Sell?

If a commodity in your possession has a higher value in exchange than value in use, you will exchange (sell) it. If the relationship is the other way around, you won’t. Consider this our bedrock baseline.

Imagine that you own your dream car, and if you don’t have to imagine, I congratulate you. If I wish to purchase your car, I will have to offer you a price that is above the car’s value in use (to you), that is, the happiness and enjoyment and all-around goodness that owning the car affords you. If you and I never reach that tipping point, no transaction will occur.

My initial offer is 100 USD. From here, in order to make the transaction, I can pull two levers: increase the value in exchange of the car by increasing the amount I will pay OR (inclusive) decrease your perceived value in use. I could say, “You know, they are coming out with a new model next year that has much better gas mileage, and also, your neighbors told me they think that your bright orange Range Rover with yellow flames on the sides is an eye sore.” In addition to offering more in exchange for your car, I’ll also try to convince you that its continued utility to you is low.

Bad Attention Bargains (and why they look good)

For your car and indeed most goods, use reduces exchange value (sometimes to zero). The more miles on a car, butts pressed into a couch, years since a building was constructed – the less value that good will fetch at the market. I have some non-zero willingness to pay for an apple, but not if you’ve already eaten it. There are exceptions, but for the most part, accumulated use degrades exchange value.

The attention economy is unique in the sense that the exchange-use relationship flows the opposite way: accumulated exchange degrades value in use. The more our attention becomes fragmented by the delights and demands of digital advertising (and the ad platforms that serve those ads to us), the less useful we find it to be.

Here’s how I understand the different levels of effect:

The first order impact is given by simple opportunity cost: in any moment we are paying attention to one thing, we are not paying it to anything else – this is not new nor particularly unique to attention. The second order is more pernicious (as second orders tend to be): over time, our ability to purposefully direct attention erodes. The third order threatens to render the whole process imperceptible: because awareness of a change in attention requires attention to be turned back unto itself, our capacity for awareness itself is damaged.

As we repeatedly exchange our attention for curated news about friends or about the world as we wish to see it, the quality of attention we can pay elsewhere diminishes. We have more trouble staying focused, or perhaps we find it harder to find joy in a world that does not organize itself in alignment with our unique preferences and predilections.

These negative effects, which persist even when the “Do Not Disturb” toggle is flipped on, are due in large part to the amazing plasticity of the human brain. I’ll tread carefully here, because any discussion about neuroscience will rapidly take me out of my depth, but numerous studies have shown how sensitive our neural circuitry is to repeated stimuli. Online ad platforms are adept at creating stimuli which promote shallow, easily repeated engagement – in other words, tremendous breath with little depth. Because most of the information we consume on a daily basis comes through these media, our brains undergo physical and chemical changes to establish as a baseline the rapid-fire cognition needed to digest a feed or manage notifications. But nothing is free, and this adaptation means that we have more trouble paying quality attention to the aspects of life that do not stimulate us along the newly-established neural super-highways. 

It’s worth emphasizing that, while slowly and surreptitiously degrading the quality of your attention probably wasn’t the original intent of the advertising platforms, it’s been for them what you might call a welcome side effect, sort of like the side effect of that well-known blood pressure medication, sildenafil. The bug has become the feature.

As we continually consent to the extraction and exchange of our attention, the bargain looks better and better. Here, the decision about whether to hold (use) or sell (exchange) follows the same logic as the car: the less valuable you perceive your attention to be, the more likely you’ll be to surrender it to an ad exchange.

Even as the quality of the attention we can bring to bear is decreasing, what is offered in exchange keeps getting more personalized and more pleasurable. The cycle quickly turns vicious, and users find themselves in a runaway positive feedback loop: the value in exchange (with advertising platforms) continues to rise (more personalization and prediction-powered delight) while attention’s value in use elsewhere (reaping the rewards of extended focus) continues to fall.

Attention: Pay Here Before Exiting

To reiterate and expand upon some of the points from the prior section, in case your attention slipped: the advertising platforms upon which the consumer internet runs want your attention so they can show you ads, bought and paid for by brands all over the world. These platforms want your attention so badly that they are willing to degrade the quality of your attention over time. Why? Because when that happens, the user experience they offer looks better by comparison. Also, they don’t need high-quality attention to show you ads; in fact, the ads are probably more effective if you’re not too focused on them. Lastly, because you need to pay attention to realize what’s going on, the ad platforms can be reasonably confident you won’t.

I hope I’ve established that the value of your attention in the hands of the global advertising platforms is quite high. It is at least sufficiently high that it forms the basis of the consumer internet’s dominant business model.

But what of value in use? Returning to the question initially posed, what’s your attention worth? What’s your attention worth to you if you were to use it?

Here, we’ll struggle with the same intractabilities of measurement that Smith and Ricardo did, but:

I posit that the value in use of your attention is astronomical and the non-transferable utility of your attention, nearly boundless. Attention is all of time, endeavor, care, and focus – some of the scarcest and most precious resources we wake up with each day. High-quality attention is the price of admission to life’s greatest rewards. I worry that the internet-connected society is paying ever more of its attentional currency in exchange for the cognitive equivalent of baubles and trinkets that make us dumber (I’m imagining whatever is diametrically opposed to Baby Einstein).

In Conclusion

I write this essay as someone who has made concerted efforts to opt out of the attention economy and has seen most of those efforts fail miserably. Lest you think I’m out here on my high horse, while writing, I probably picked up my phone 100 times for reasons I cannot articulate (okay, some of it was to check election results). I CTRL-Tab’d over to Gmail at least as many times to see if I’d gotten that one email I’m waiting for.

I believe that paying closer attention to attention could yield powerful understanding for how to live a full life. If that is true or even partially true, we should scrutinize those forces which erode the quality of the attention we are able to pay. The decision to build or use products that inhibit the human ability to create, to think about complex concepts, to do things that are hard, to form close relationships – those very human activities that require sustained periods of high-quality attention – the decision about how to allow these products into our lives should be made with clear eyes.

This year has been the year of “unprecedented uncertainty.” Even with clear eyes, the thick fog of a stormy future makes navigating by our familiar stars and seeing what’s on the horizon extraordinarily difficult.

To whatever happens next, to whatever we make happen next, let’s resolve to pay very close attention.

Epilogue Pt. 1: Somebody Do Something!

Advertising people know it’s bad form to highlight a problem without then offering a solution. So, what’s to be done?

Unfortunately, like Howard Stark, I’m limited by the technology of my time. Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say: I’m limited by my grasp of the technology of my time. My online Python classes are going great, thanks for asking, but I fear I’m still far from solving the attentional crisis with my for-loops and if-else statements.

Here are three ideas for what could be built:

  1. Increase perceived value in use of attention. Bring attention quality to the front of people’s minds the way that Fitbit has done for steps and Oura has done for sleep. How can we get to an attention-quality metric like Sleep Score or Recovery Score (WHOOP)? The mischief that gets measured gets managed (or something like that). Build product that nudges people to take better care of their attention and use it at times in the day when it is most potent.
  2. Decrease value in exchange of low-quality attention, thereby decreasing the powerful economic incentives to extract it and sell it on. AdBlock Plus and Firefox Focus are two are my favorite tools for making my own attention less attractive. On Youtube, I’ll occasionally watch some content to throw the algorithm off my scent – welcome side effect of expanding my worldview! The day I was served LinkedIn ads in Japanese and Facebook ads in Spanish, I cackled with glee at having momentarily deceived the robots. At scale, these advertising / tracking blockers drive down advertising ROI and can begin to shift the economic logic that underpins the current business model. 
  3. Not sure about this last one but I’ll put it out there: Create more efficient markets for high-quality attention. As enterprise technology systems get better at managing project context and complexity, it’s possible to imagine a more liquid marketplace for knowledge work (think about a more interesting version of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk). Another sort-of-analog are the bug bounty programs run by large technology firms: you can get paid for doing knowledge work without having to go through the tremendously inefficient process of getting hired into a salaried position. AI-based systems will be able to evaluate knowledge work product before they can produce it on their own, making more feasible a marketplace in which high-quality attention can be efficiently converted into currency.

Epilogue Pt. 2: the social dilemma

Thank you for your attention (it’s super valuable!) all the way to the end.

Yes, I’ve seen Netflix’s recent documentary, “the social dilemma.” You know that scene at the protest where the two siblings are apprehended by cops and pinned face down on the ground just before they meet each other’s gaze through the forest of protester ankles? That scene was a bit melodramatic for me, but shocking people into awareness of previously overlooked issues has proven effective in the past.

Tristan, I’d be more than happy to speak at the next conference about how I’m addicted to my phone and about how much better this essay could have been if only I wasn’t. You know how to reach me.

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