Attention Hack

What does it mean for the human brain to live in a hypertech world


This article is part of a divulgative and investigative journalistic project developed from the collaboration with Greenpeace ItaliaVersione in Italiano
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The human brain is built for an analogue environment 

In Sanna Raudaskoski’s paper “Affordance of mobile applications”, inspecting the relationship between human attention and tech objects usage is interesting in order to match the principles of the perception theory the author proposes with Gibson’s Ecological Theory: The Greatest Acquisition in the Sciences of Human-Machine Interaction (HIC). 

Gibson theorized how interaction between human beings and the surrounding environment are influenced by the way in which objects present themselves in space. Each object in the environment shows his level of accessibility in a specific direction. The theory is also used to explain why we push instead of pulling doors: the ecological perception theory explains that it happens because the handle is showing a counterintuitive affordance, suggesting an interaction modality which is not functional to the environment. 

If it is true that the surrounding environment is interacting with us, the same mechanisms heavily influence the choices we make while we are online. Exposed to the world stimuli, the human brain has the property of making decisions not only answering to inputs coming from the outside, but also with a top-bottom movement choosing autonomously which activities should be done and which should be avoided. 

This human skill is not present with the same magnitude in other animal species but is a distinctive feature of the human cognitive mechanism and is described as selectivity

The human brain faces a limited cognitive capacity and evolution has taught our brain that new information could be crucial for survival, as a newly discovered water spring could be. As a result of a combination of the two former phenomena the newest and most rewarding information is chosen with the unconscious hope to find in them something unexplored that could help us to survive. 

Adverts, particularly online, are playing with the weak point of the human brain for interference, favoring an apparent multitasking model that is not sustainable in practice. This pushes us to jump from one stimulus to another as our brain is instinctively in search of immediate satisfaction, and drives us to abandon the former stimulus for a new one, without allowing us the time to understand it or maybe to get bored of the content.

In fact, the whole mechanism is fueled by boredom, mostly by the memory of past boredom and the fear of it. Faced with a loss of interest for the content that we are interacting with, we go to the next one, that does not happen explicitly, since before moving on we visit the home of interference and contamination, the internet and social media. In an archaic context,this willingness of the human mind to get distracted could be considered an impulse to survival, today it has become a consistent trojan horse for our attention and a stream of profit for those playing the role that Tim Wu describes as attention brokers in hispaper of the same name. 

Attention Economy 

The arrival of smartphones has marked the entry of a new type of limited resource in the markets: attention. In fact, having digital support 24 hours a day in our pocket means being potentially connected to digital stimuli constantly, from any place, at any time and for a limitless number of circumstances. However, hours in a day are limited to those hours that are not used for work or personal activities. 

At the end of the 20th century, there was a downward sloping curve of hours dedicated to work. During the first years of the 21st century,due to the advent of digital work, the concept of working hours has become more fluid.. This more recent trend has clearly shown the importance of “free” time,and the extent to which people incur in external stimuli. Meanwhile the attention market has diversified, from culture and entertainment designed to be enjoyed in cinema, theater or domestic living rooms to a continuous product made by users themselves on digital platforms regulated by the rules of the attention market. 

Revenue for websites and platforms is generated by attention. In fact whoever builds the advertisement campaign knows that the more time the user spends in an environment full of purchasing stimuli the more he/she will be leveraged to buy. This means spending 5 or 10 seconds in front of a content makes a difference in how the algorithm will build the chain of subsequent content, but also on how much the platform will profit from our data, based on the interest level for the post, and in case of sponsored post ,on how much the influencer’s sponsorship will be paid. 

Attention has thus became an essential currency in the online environment, as it is a measure of time and interaction, a monitoring tool of how much time is spent on a content, but also of the number of times that the content has been displayed, the number of words used to comment, number of reaction emoticons and number of shares. 

The emerging framework is that of an environment where physical presence and attention in the more traditional definition are not measurable. As a consequence, a qualitative monitoring system has been created, based on quantitative attention indicators.

The rules of the attention market are written by the algorithms that are changing on the basis of the user’s reactions to their features. With time and the unstopped use of the web, the dynamics of social media usage and of search engines approaches evolved a lot, and the importance of the measurement and capture of attention grew together with the increasing range of content from which it is possible to choose. 

In normal market economics, the abundance of the product would mean the price would drop, the quality would increase and the suppliers would be competing. However this does not seem to be the case with the attention market, where more attention is spent because more content exists. Suppliers (platforms and websites) can capitalise on the almost undivided attention we are giving to screens, with various tactics to gain our attention. 

The major difference between other markets and the attention economy is that the online environment is fully controlled by a very small number of companies, a form of oligopoly unthinkable in the real world. 

Mental Capitalism 

While social media users present themselves as the client,, they, or their attention, is actually the product. Thanks to the time we spend on social networks, tech companies are earning revenue by directing our attention towards adverts from other companies – the real client – and by collecting data that improves that mechanism. This is why 97% of Facebook revenue comes from advertising. 

We are experiencing what the economist and philosopher Georg Franck has defined as “mental capitalism”. With the progressive privatization of the “space of public experience”, new markets have emerged where attention is exchanged as currency. Even public places are part of this system, turned into advertising media. The costs are borne by people that struggle to find alternatives. 

As highlighted by Annamaria Testa on the website “Nuovo e Utile”, “the excess of stimuli we’re exposed to every moment strains us, and undermines our ability to pay attention to what is really worth it”, falling into a cognitive overload. The process doesn’t stop online, where mass media act as intermediaries. This was already clear with television. 

However, with social media, the pervasiveness of consumer drives has increased significantly. On these platforms, users are active players, producing content in the first person.The reality is that, unconsciously, they are subjected to a very high series of inputs (which are) advertising for other companies refined through the collection of our data. 

In this system, “advertising investors earn by reaching the audience in a much more accurate way than before”, highlights Annamaria Testa on the website “Nuovo e

Utile”, “because, whether they have a lot or a little to invest, they can adjust their allocation, without barriers to the entry. In addition, because they deal directly with the platforms, disintermediating the purchase.” 

The big social media platforms thus play a crucial role in the new economic system of mental capitalism. They are able to increase their profit by reinvesting in their own attraction space – both absorbing new users and increasing the time spent online of those already subscribed. 

According to a study carried out by We Are Social and Hootsuite, the so-called “screen time” (time spent in front of a digital interface) in Italy is around 6 hours a day. This means we spend more than a third of our waking hours in front of a display. 

In Distracted Minds, an essay about neurosciencein the hypertech world, the psychologist A. Gazzaley and neurologist L.D. Rosen say research showed that 42% of respondents said they use their phone when they feel the lack of external stimuli from the offline world, or ‘they don’t know what to do’.; while only the 23% said they use their smartphone mainly when they have a planned task in the digital environment. 

Social Advertising 

In the essay “Ethics of the Attention Economy: The problem of Social media addiction”, the professors Bhargava and Velasquez explain that “social media companies commonly design their platforms in a way that renders them addictive”, a strategy to increase their profit. Simultaneously we can see another phenomenon: the more time people spend on social media, the more companies refine their modalities of attraction. 

excessive use of social media falls under behavioral addiction – defined as “any experience that you return to compulsively in the short term, despite the fact that it diminishes your well-being in at least one respect in the long term”. In his book “Irresistible”, the expert lists the six ingredients that make behavioral addiction: exciting but unattainable objectives, irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback, a feeling of incremental progress, gradually more difficult tasks, unresolved tensions, and very strong social connections. 

The last point emerges strongly in the so-called social media “bubble”. As shown in the analysis of the scholars Mazur e Richards del 2011, users tend to deal with similar interests and social conditions, thus limiting their social horizon, with the risk of reproducing stereotypes.

A study conducted by Elon College in 2011 has highlighted that 59% of users believe they are addicted to social media. But companies behind social networks profit from the addiction of users by selling their attention to third parties. Obviously they will aim to retain the attention of users for a growing number of hours. Among these mechanisms, the slot-machine effect is hidden: social media platforms capture the interest of users by giving them intermittent variable rewards, just like gambling. This applies for example to Instagram – where some pictures attract many likes while others are easily forgotten – as to the format “pull-to-refresh”. 

Meanwhile, authors such as Griffiths and Bosker have identified techniques used by social media to make users spend more hours online by exploiting their desire for validation and social reciprocity. “Streaks” on Snapchat represent an example of this scheme, which puts teenagers under pressure as they become the symbol of social status. 

Psychological consequences of the systemOn an ethical level, these dynamics raise many questions. And we are those affected. The hours spent on social media logically take time away from work or study sessions and reduce concentration – with consequent worsening of the results. The psychological impact is clear: several studies have shown that the more time users spend on the online platforms the more they feel anxious and in a bad mood (Raudsepp & Kais, Shakya & Christakis, Kross). 

Addiction to social media affects us on a physical level too: many studies, such as the one conducted by Kojima in 2019, highlight its association to poor diets and to the abandonment of physical exercise. 

Facebook files published by Wall Street Journal show how the company has long been aware of the risks of social media to users, particularly teenagers. An investigation by Facebook revealed that the platform is harmful to around 360 millions of users. The experts involved have noticed how the mechanisms that cause addiction to social media are most dangerous for young people. Facebook’s attempt to promote “significant social interactions” has only increased the “bubble” effect: content is increasingly divisive, polarizing, and can break out into violence. 

The structuring of mental capitalism with respect to advertising therefore leads to capitalization of attention, in which those who feel like clients actually become the real product. This system exploits our brain’s nature and deteriorates what’s around us and the bonds we create with people. The whole process is emphasized on social media, to which we link thanks to a cosmetic protagonism.

Articolo di Elena D'Acunto, Marta Bernardi