The rise of populism in the attention economy

We only have so much attention to give and as such, it’s a valuable resource. Everyone wants our attention: social media, advertisers, politicians, family and friends. Attention is a limited resource and technology gobbles up at lot of it; just look at the number of people glued to their screens on any street or in any cafe.

Herbert Simon image: Wikipedia

Noble Prize winning political scientist Herbert A. Simon described the concept of the attention economy in 1971. The growth of information dilutes our attention. Simon says:

“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

More recently, James Williams has researched how technology absorbs our attention. Williams is a doctoral researcher at Oxford University but before that he also spent 10 years working for Google. He believes that the liberation of human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time.

Williams spoke to CBC’s Spark about the misalignment between the goals that we have for ourselves and the goals that our technologies would impose on us. Technology attracts attention that we would really like to apply elsewhere. He told host Nora Young:

“The things that we want to do with our lives, the things that we’ll regret not having done, the things that I think technology exists to help us do aren’t really represented in the system and aren’t really the sort of incentives that are driving the design of most of these technologies of our attention today (June 1, 2018).”

Seen from the goal of attention-getting, U.S. President Trump makes a lot of sense. He does whatever it takes to get our attention because he understands the impact that it has on his ratings. The content of his Tweets may be sheer fabrication but that’s not the point. His years as a TV showman taught him the effect that outrage has on tribalism. What is factually true is irrelevant.

“This is what people didn’t realize about him [Trump] during the election, just the degree to which he just understood the way the media works and orchestrated it,” says Simon. “But I don’t think there is going back, as long as these media dynamics remain as they are. In a way, I think we have to be more concerned about what comes after Trump than what we have with him.”

Trump is not interested in unifying the country –he wants to divide it so the largest tribe is his.

Research published in the February issue of American Sociological Review reveals the way Trump supporters view his acknowledged dishonesty. Participants in a study were told that one of Trump’s tweets about global warming being a hoax had been definitely debunked –that global warming is real. Trump supporters saw the tweet, not as literal, but as a challenge to the elite (Scientific American, September, 2018).

Canadian philosopher and public intellectual, Marshall McLuhan, foresaw the impact of technology:

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us,” and “The new electronic independence re-creates the world in the image of a global village.”

Four decades later, McLuhan might have added: “Populism is the politics of the global village.”

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In defence of Facebook

I like Facebook but I’m not an apologist for the social media giant.

Facebook has done things wrong. They failed to prevent Cambridge Analytica from gathering detailed information of millions of users. The method used was especially disturbing. They developed a quiz in which 270,000 people responded. Then the response snowballed to 50 million as data from friends was gleaned.

However, while Cambridge Analytica’s tactics were sneaky, they didn’t get anything more than what they could have obtained through a paid ad. Facebook says they are going to make the source of those ads transparent. CEO Mark Zuckerberg says: “People should know who is buying the ads that they see on Facebook.” About time.

Last year, Facebook admitted that Russian provocateurs bought 3,000 ads.  The ads were insidious because they generated anxiety over social issues: immigrants, gun rights and the LGBT community. This disquiet played well in the hands of the populist Donald Trump.

Facebook’s mistake was that it didn’t do enough to prevent such abuses. Zuckerberg said so on CNN: “This was a major breach of trust. I’m really sorry this happened. We have a basic responsibility to protect people’s data.”

Facebook performs a valuable service. It connects me to friends and family and a larger community of Kamloopsians. I have found friends from decades ago through Facebook. I can correspond in Spanish with Mexican friends with the help of Google translate.

Grassroots action groups are made on Facebook. I learn of musicians and artists coming to town through Facebook. The city posts notices on Facebook. Small businesses can advertise by just starting a Facebook page. I can send complaints to big businesses by just posting on their page.

Russian ads are not unique. All Canadian political parties pay for ads on Facebook that target specific groups, and all have detailed information on voters.

It’s not just Facebook. Every time I use a “points” card at a store, information is collected. Any time I use Google services –the browser, Gmail, or YouTube- my behaviour is tracked for the sake of advertisers.

Such a wealth of intimate data can be used for good or evil. It could be used to determine the democratic will of citizens. It could be sold to the highest bidder. Facebook needs to be regulated.

Zuckerberg himself admits it; although his reservations are revealed in his double negative: “I’m not sure we shouldn’t be regulated,” he said. “I actually think the question is more what is the right regulation rather than yes or no, should it be regulated?”

When Marshall McLuhan said that “The medium is the message,” he meant that nature of media affects society more than its content. Just as the printing press changed our perception of the world, so has social media.

The content of Facebook is staggering; more than just kittens and social agitation. It embraces our global digital collective consciousness. Embedded in the algorithms are the wishes and desires of one-third of the world’s population.

But more than the content, Facebook represents a new media which is altering our perceptions in ways yet to be discovered. Resistance to social media is simply an indication of how disruptive and new the technology is.