Lost In The Scroll: The Hidden Impact Of The Attention Economy

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Jim Mcnaughton, MBA, CFP®

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In an era where the term "attention economy" is as pervasive as the digital devices that glue us to our screens, every scroll, click, like, and share is more than a mere action; it's a transaction in the world's most valuable currency: our attention. This economy, which sees our focus as a finite resource to be captured and monetized, has fundamentally altered how we connect, demanding a closer examination beyond its buzzword status.

The attention economy is a double-edged sword — it offer a tailored world where our preferences and interests guide the content and opportunities, but it also poses significant challenges that threaten to undermine the quality of our attention, our relationships, and our understanding of the world.

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Attention Economy Background

Psychologist and economist Herbert A. Simon wrote about the concept of the attention economy in 1971. He noted the link between information overload and attention scarcity, and wrote that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

Later, as the internet gained popularity, writers in the 1990s like Michael Goldhaber expanded upon this economy of attention: “Obtaining attention is obtaining a kind of enduring wealth, a form of wealth that puts you in a preferred position to get anything this new economy offers.”

What Is The Value Of Attention?

Consider this: every moment of your day, from the minute you wake up to the second you drift off to sleep, is a series of decisions about where to allocate your attention. Whether it's opting to binge-watch a new series instead of calling a friend, scrolling through news feeds instead of engaging in a hobby, or checking work emails during family time. When we direct our focus towards one activity, we inherently dismiss countless others. These choices delineate the contours of our lives, shaping our relationships, knowledge, health, and happiness.

The value of attention has never been more apparent than in the staggering $853 billion in global net advertising revenue generated in 2023 alone.The equation is simple — if they have your attention, they have your pocket book.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Let’s not forget the inherent value proposition at the heart of this economic model: companies are incentivized to cater to our interests and preferences. They strive to deliver content, products, and services that resonate with us, aiming to enrich our lives and satisfy our desires. This alignment of interests can foster a landscape rich with tailored experiences and opportunities for discovery.

The conversation often veers towards its societal detriments, particularly the role of adversarial interests and misinformation propagated by social media algorithms. While these issues are significant and expertly explored by figures like Jonathan Haidt , they overshadow other critical, yet under-examined challenges.

Recognizing and addressing these challenges not only improves our understanding but also empowers us to navigate the attention economy more effectively.

Out Of Context And All Alone

Out of context: At first glance, the eclectic mix of content in our digital feeds — from viral TikTok dances to in-depth analyses of political unrest — seems to enrich our lives with a breadth of knowledge and entertainment. Yet, this surface-level variety belies a deeper issue: the erosion of context.

Consider my X feed at this moment:

  • A new ChatGPT application I need to explore.
  • Analysis on why Dak Prescott's contract could spell trouble for the Dallas Cowboys.
  • The latest episode of the Honestly podcast discussing American Dynamism.
  • Speculation on whether Taylor Swift can make it from Tokyo to Vegas in time for the Super Bowl. (Thankfully, Venus Aerospace is making hypersonic travel a reality just for these types of situations!)
  • Rumors about Michelle Obama potentially being the Democratic nominee for President.

Each topic a doorway into a vastly different realm, beckoning me into worlds apart from my own, reminding me of the myriad connections I'm supposed to maintain but find increasingly challenging to keep up with.

And my wife's feed... well, I don't know. What I do know is it's not anything like mine. And that leads to the second hidden challenge to our thriving.

All alone: My world is saturated with deep tech news, marketing trends, philosophical debates, and Dallas sports. Meanwhile, my wife, the closest person in my life, inhabits a digital realm that's a mystery to me. This isn't just about differing interests; it's a stark illustration of how, even as we sit side by side, our digital experiences drive isolation and disconnection. Even if we are in the top 1% in communication and sharing among marriages today, we are probably in the bottom 10% at any other point in history in terms of shared experiences — the foundation of meaningful relationships.

Harnessing The Power Of Attention

The attention economy is a double-edged sword. On one side, it offers a tailored world where our preferences and interests guide the content and opportunities presented to us. On the other, it poses significant challenges that threaten to undermine the quality of our attention, our relationships, and our understanding of the world. As we move forward, the task at hand is not just to navigate the attention economy but to reshape it in a way that respects and enriches our most precious resource: our attention.

To overcome the challenges, I can ask my wife what caught her attention on social media today, sparking a conversation that bridges our digital divide. I can remind myself that context matters, recognizing that the happenings in distant corners of the globe, while interesting, shouldn't eclipse the importance of being present in the room I'm in. By paying attention to what we pay attention to, we not only enrich our own lives but also strengthen the bonds that tether us to one another.

By Curt Steinhorst, Contributor

© 2024 Forbes Media LLC. All Rights Reserved

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Jim Mcnaughton profile photo

Jim Mcnaughton, MBA, CFP®

Financial Advisor
Momentum Independent Network Inc.
Schedule a meeting