The Attention Economy, Internet Addiction and Unintended Consequences

Written by Marc Atherton, Psychologist & Behavioural Scientist

“Give me just one generation of youth, and I’ll transform the whole world”

Vladimir Lenin

We live in a world of pervasive digital cognitive technology – the internet and the applications that populate it. Even when we are not active on our mobile or console-based technology it can still be adding to the digital footprints we leave behind us in our lives and occupy our attention by making us wonder what we are missing. The internet is the medium, the platforms are the message.

marc-article-image2Digital cognitive technology has the potential to change the world profoundly. What should concern us all is that, like the proverbial frog in slowly boiling water, we are all subjects in a huge and partially uncontrolled experiment in individual and social change and we don’t realise it clearly.

The Attention Economy is the label that has been attached to the business model that underpins much of the digital cognitive technology that surrounds our lives – social media, always on communication; a life lived online for many with the younger generations almost exclusively.

The Attention Economy business model is predicated on a simple version of a zero-sum game. As an individual you have, just like everyone else on the planet, 168 hours a week. Of that you may sleep 56, leaving 112. Of that 112 you may spend another 40 dedicated to work or study leaving 72 hours a week. Take out other major activities and you probably end up with 30 to 40 hours a week of discretionary free time.

The Attention Economy business model of the social media and cognitive technology companies is to exclusively capture as much of that time as possible on their platform. Once captured, you and your time can be analysed, packaged and sold to advertisers to the enrichment of the social media and cognitive technology companies. These are advertising companies and you are the product they are selling.

To ensure that as much of your discretionary time is captured as possible at the expense of the competition, social media companies use sophisticated psychological, behavioural science and data analytical techniques to optimise your commitment to staying on their platform for the greatest amount of time possible.

In principle there is nothing wrong with this, it is in principle what marketing departments have always done. The issue arises from the pervasive nature of mobile and cognitive technology and the unintended consequences of the effectiveness of the engagement and motivational techniques employed.

It is well accepted that using cognitive behavioural approaches can result in changes to both overt behaviour and with structural and functional neurological alterations in the brain. This approach can be used clinically to improve certain conditions as an alternative to drug therapy.

Given that we know these techniques can change outcomes in a specific direction within a therapeutic clinical paradigm, then we should be asking ourselves what is happening to the behaviour and neurological capabilities of people, particularly the young during developmental periods, when they are immersed in the ‘social techno-sphere’?

The primary purpose of the Attention Economy is to capture individuals time by optimising appropriate rewards, individual and social, to make their relationship with a social media platform as ‘sticky’ as possible. This is both legal and, arguably, moral in our current social and economic model.

The issue then comes down to unintended consequences. At the social level we risk embedding a dysfunctional approach to engagement based on a short-term rewards system which mirrors the addictive behaviours and outcomes resulting from substance abuse. The neural reward mechanisms targeted by social media technologies are the same as those involved in addictive responses to opioids and other problematical substances.

The outcome of this for many people manifests as a lack of engagement with their own lives, an inability to concentrate and focus along with a higher risk of depressive or anxiety related mental health episodes.

Was this, or is this, outcome the intent of the social media companies? I personally believe not. The intent was good, the outcome unfortunate. That this is seen to be happening Is now an accepted fact.

Heroin is a good example of how a well-intentioned development seen initially as a social good can have unintended consequences

In 1895, Bayer marketed diacetylmorphine (heroin) as an over-the-counter, non-addictive, alternative to morphine in cough-suppressants. It worked in that capacity but soon, despite its ‘non-addictive’ attributes it posed a huge problem with high addiction rates mainly through injection. Injecting heroin was never in Bayer’s plan, it was an unintended consequence and it still poses a significant challenge to both individuals and society.

The unintended consequences of the technology and techniques used in social media and cognitive technology pose a similar, and arguably more profound, challenge to us all.

Looking back to the quote by Vladimir Ilych Lenin we are at risk of changing the world by the means of one or more generations of youth – it is just that we are doing it by default. Our uncritical acceptance of the current model of the application of cognitive technology through what is in effect a huge, largely uncontrolled, commercially-driven behaviour change programme poses largely unknown, and potentially catastrophic, outcomes for individuals and society.

This begs the questions of whether we, as individuals and a society, are happy to go along for the ride and see what happens? If we are not, what can we do at an individual and local level to redress the balance and set how we use cognitive technologies back to the original vision of changing individual and social outcomes to the good?

The technology will clearly not disappear and the responsibility for re-balancing our relationship with it cannot be put solely in the hands of the purveyors of the technology.

We have given our ‘one generation of youth’ to the current cognitive technology business model with its potentially damaging unintended consequences (is it merely a coincidence that ADHD/ADD drug prescription rates have up dramatically as cognitive technology and social media have spread like wildfire amongst the younger generations?). Given this should we all question whether we are totally at ease with the situation or whether we would wish our children to live in a different reality.

If every journey starts with the first step, then perhaps starting in your own life and those near to you in being in positive control of your cognitive technology, rather than being uncritically manipulated by it, may be a good stepping off place to start redressing the balance at an individual and local level. This is one of the key principles that underpins Swipe Left for Addiction.


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