We are all prisoners of the attention economy now

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Whether it is anchors hyperventilating on television channels, stand-up comics in dimly lit bars, raging bhakts on Twitter, cricket fans making weird faces the moment they spot the camera, or protesters in a crowd, the quest today is for your and my attention. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” is now a more modern “gather ye eyeballs while ye may”.

In the two decades of this century, we have moved from the information era to the knowledge economy and now on to the attention economy. Information today is a commodity, while knowledge isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Ergo, the attention economy. Here, the consumer holds all the aces.

In this reverse rendering of the scarcity principle, information is now in abundance. Networking giant Cisco, which has been keeping count, said in its 2007 estimates that the amount of visual information conveyed from the eyes to the brain of the entire human race in a single year is 66 zettabytes (1 zettabyte is expressed as 1021 bytes). That’s what 250 billion DVDs store.

Nor is there any stopping this tsunami. Forecaster IDC predicts that the world’s data will grow to 175 zettabytes in 2025. For effect, it adds that, “If you could download the entire 2025 Global Datasphere at an average of 25 Mb/s, today’s average connection speed across the US, then it would take one person 1.8 billion years to do it, or if every person in the world could help and never rest, then you could get it done in 81 days.”And to think that just 20 years ago, a computer with storage capacity of 20GB was considered gee-whiz!

What has changed since then is that the time a potential consumer of all this information has available to spend on it has become scarce. We all have only a finite amount of time to consume all that is being produced and constantly repurposed. Even the whole sharing economy is really a pushing out of vast quantities of data sliced and spliced to suit various needs. Uber hasn’t put a new car on the roads, nor Airbnb a hotel room. They just took the cars that were already there and the rooms that were already built and presented them in a way that got them optimum mileage.

There’s an entire marketplace for attention in which companies count their success in the number of eyebrows they manage to raise rather than the profits they make. Which is why Tesla, which is yet to report an annual profit, has a market cap of $89 billion, more than the sum of General Motors’ and Ford’s respective market caps, and Uber, which lost over $1 billion in its last quarter alone, has a market cap of $58.37 billion while the world’s largest airline American Airlines, with a fleet size of 956 aircraft giving it an annual capacity of about 257 million seats, has a market cap which is a fifth of that.

If all these numbers seem to defy logic, ponder for a minute over how often we come across Tesla, Uber and WeWorks, either in the media or in offline discussions. Even the bad press these companies get turns into higher attention numbers, since the most powerful motivations online are outrage and group threats. From there on, the algorithms take over, engineering emotions that make people pick sides between, say, #ILoveTesla and #IhateMusk.

In the new era, knowledge isn’t power, attention is. If you have the attention of a million followers on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, you can get them to start looking for complete nonsense, as US President Donald Trump did with his famous tweet just after midnight on 31 May 2017: “Despite the constant negative press covfefe.” And when White House staffers insisted later that Trump and a handful of people knew exactly what he meant, Adrienne Lafrance writing for The Atlantic (bit.ly/38e8b3r) summed it up thus: “Covfefe remains the tweet that best illustrates Trump’s most preternatural gift: He knows how to captivate people, how to command and divert the attention of the masses.” (Emphasis mine.)

Perhaps the whole paradigm of judging success is changing. Already, in the startup space, the metrics in use to measure progress are such unfamiliar ones as burn rate, activation rate, monthly active users and customer churn rate. With returns on private capital exceeding what investors get from assets available in public markets, it might be a good idea to acknowledge that venture capitalists (VCs), notwithstanding the terrible year Masayoshi Son has had, do have a better sense of the future. This may be why VC fundraising has been growing 18% year-on-year since 2013. If they reckon that once the eyeballs are in, the money will follow, who are we to question it?

MIDiA Research, a media insights and analysis firm, says we are at peak attention now, and entering an era of attention saturation, “where every new consumption minute gained comes at the cost of consumption time elsewhere”. It cites the drop off in mobile games as evidence of that. But the progressive growth of new social platforms and their ready adoption would suggest we are still some way off from that point.

What should serve as a cause for alarm is that we still don’t have in place rules and regulations on how the personal data we hand over to companies is to be treated. Now data is being replaced by attention, and savvy marketers are already using the dopamine bursts we get from our time on social media to manipulate what our brains are processing. It’s high time we had some rules to govern the attention economy.

Sundeep Khanna is former executive editor of Mint

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