Attention Economy and its Impact on Mental Health
The attention economy encapsulates within it the digital sphere of videos, news, games, social media, and gaming that are fuelled by the commodification of human attention diverted towards and by these means. The term was coined by psychologist, economist, and Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Simon, who believed that multi-tasking was a myth and that a wealth of information would lead to the creation of a poverty of attention.
While we may believe in our ability to multitask, it is through experience we realise that in every attempt to do so, we choose one task over the other. Our attention, in terms of a commodity or value, is limited and valuable to our functioning and growth as individuals and the society. When we approach the internet with a set intention of finding answers or a goal to gain some amount of knowledge, our minds are focused, and we are able to leave when the information is acquired. Social media and gaming platforms, on the other hand, create a space for further exploration through which we dig a tunnel of subscribing to channels, following people, waiting for comments and likes for our updates and so on, thus getting engulfed into a pit of our own creation.
This seeps into capitalist business models where we are either forced to pay monetarily to stop seeing ads on websites or pay with our attention while trying to stream music or videos on different platforms like Spotify or YouTube. Extraction thus takes place either in the form of monetary loss, or the dip in attention that we pay to other things, people, and experiences in our lives. The societal implications of this phenomenon can be easily kept under wraps when considering an individual’s use of social media. But when projected out to the global economy, this trend has stark implications with regards to the data being consumed, the individual’s relationship with society, the effect on mental health, and the formation of individual and collective identities. It is these capitalistic trends and implications that have been studied, analysed and critiqued heavily in Shoshana Zuboff’s book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, where she terms the digital rise of companies like Amazon and Google and their participation in these business models as a new form of capitalism, ‘Surveillance Capitalism’.
The current pandemic has not only enabled more participation on these platforms, but also served as a catalyst for the fatigue that comes with binging on social media and other digital platforms with the constant need to find new stimuli that keeps us motivated. In the midst of the crisis lies the human mind, a battered field of hashtags, tweets, reels, filters, trolls, misinformation, and algorithms. While sites like google do filter out information, trying to show relevant and trustworthy information at the outset, such is not the case for many other platforms that strive to maintain the content, but do so failingly.
The attention economy has boomed into an industry that thrives by making the digital experience addictive and enticing to people. Sprinkled with FOMO and bright colourful ads, it is a vicious whirlpool of apps that sucks us into its winds where we spend hours trying to be entertained. While money and commodities such as food and water are essential to progress and sustenance, social media has become integral to our needs as a tool for staying connected to the outside world and for the fulfilment of our desires to be validated and appreciated by members of the society. Not only is this trend associated with high anxiety in individuals, but being unaware of the hours spent streaming content online also adds to the unproductive hours that an individual could have spent pursuing other activities. While social media is not the culprit itself, our reliance on it for connectivity, entertainment, and fulfilment makes it detrimental to the state of our mental health.
The modus operandi of the attention economy lies in creating a need to pay attention to the incentives, offers, and products that companies have to offer, while using social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc, as tools to generate internet traffic, high quality visuals, and page formats that automatically make a user want to spend more time looking at their screen. Doom-scrolling or the unstoppable consumption of negative media is in itself a harbinger of negative emotions, and harmful psychophysiological responses that may adversely impact us.
In this situation, we need to question and pay more attention to what we are paying attention to. It is a trap that is all around us and something that has so deeply pervaded our society, that it is extremely laborious to identify and disconnect. Even reading these words loops into the attention economy as the internet has now become an essential and indispensable mode for sharing, connecting, and learning.
So where do the answers lie?
Reflection and introspection are the tools to have in our hands. Reflection on what we pay attention to. Reflection on our lives and in understanding ourselves. Introspections on what we need, what we desire, and how we connect with ourselves and the world around us. In incorporating a practice of mindful contemplation of these questions, we are able to distance and limit ourselves from the wanton use of social media. While it is a necessary evil, we can take control of how much and in what way we utilise these resources rather than giving up wheels to the speed of internet connectivity that we enjoy. In breaking free from patterns of a constant need to use social media, we need to identify the reasons why this has become so important to us. How can we seek to find fulfilment in our lives by not relying on this platform?
This piece is authored by Sakshi Agarwal who finished her post-graduation in Global Prosperity from University College London. She is passionate about philosophy, social service, literature, and history, and is aspiring to a career in research and writing.