Seeing reality clearly and honestly is fundamental to our ability to do anything. By monetizing and commodifying attention, we have sold our ability to see problems and embrace collective solutions. This is nothing new. Almost every time we allow the commodification of the life support systems of our planet or our society, it leads to further breakdowns. When you commodify politics with micro-targeted AI-optimized ads, you remove the integrity of the politics. When you commodify food, you lose touch with the life cycle that makes agriculture sustainable. When you commodify education into digital streams of content, you lose the interdependence of human development, trust, care, and teaching authority. When you commodify love by turning people into playing cards on Tinder, you’re breaking the complex dance involved in building new relationships. And when you trivialize communication into chunks of Facebook posts and comment threads, you remove context, nuance, and respect. In all of these cases, extractive systems are slowly eroding the foundations of a healthy society and a healthy planet.
System change to protect attention
EO Wilson, the famous biologist, proposed that humans only rule half the Earth and the rest be left alone. Imagine something similar for the attention economy. We can and must say that we want to protect human attention, even if it sacrifices some of the profits of Apple, Google, Facebook and other big tech companies.
Ad blockers on digital devices are an interesting example of what could become a structural change in the digital world. Are ad blockers a human right? If everyone could block ads on Facebook, Google, and websites, the internet would not be able to fund itself and the ad economy would lose massive revenue. Does this result deny the right? Is your attention right? Do you own it? Should we put a price on it? Selling human organs or enslaved people may meet demand and generate profit, but we say these items have no place in the market. Like humans and their organs, should human attention be something that money cannot buy?
The covid-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, climate change and other ecological crises have made more and more aware of the disruption of our economic and social systems. But we are not going to the roots of these interconnected crises. We fall for interventions that seem to be the right answer, but which are rather traps which surreptitiously maintain the status quo. Slightly better police practices and body cameras do not prevent police misconduct. Buying a Prius or a Tesla is not enough to really lower the carbon levels in the atmosphere. Replacing plastic straws with biodegradable straws will not save the oceans. Instagram’s decision to hide the number of ‘likes’ doesn’t transform adolescent mental health issues, as the service is based on constant social comparison and a systemic hijacking of the human will to connect. We need much deeper systemic reform. We need to reorient institutions to serve the public interest in a way that is commensurate with the nature and magnitude of the challenges we face.
At the Center for Humane Technology, one thing we did was convince Apple, Google, and Facebook to embrace – at least in part – the “Time Well Spent” mission even though it was against their economic interests. It’s a movement we started through extensive public media awareness and advocacy campaigns, and it has gained credibility with tech developers, concerned parents and students. He called for changing the incentives of the digital world from a race to “spend time” on screens and apps to a “race to the top” to help people spend their time well. It has led to real change for billions of people. Apple, for example, introduced “Screen Time” features in May 2018 that now ship with all iPhones, iPads and other devices. In addition to showing all users how much time they spend on their phones, Screen Time offers a dashboard of parental controls and app time limits that show parents how much time their kids are spending online (and what that they do). Google launched its similar Digital well-being initiative at about the same time. It includes some other features that we had suggested, such as making it easier to unplug before bedtime and limiting notifications. On a related note, YouTube introduced “Take a break” notifications.
These changes show that companies are ready to make sacrifices, even in the area of billions of dollars. Nevertheless, we have not yet changed the basic logic of these companies. For a company, acting against its economic interest is one thing; doing something against the DNA of its purpose and its purposes is a completely different thing.
Work on collective action
We need deep systemic reform that will make technology companies serve the public interest first and foremost. We need to think more about the extent of systemic change that might be possible and how to harness the collective will of the people.