Queen's Policy Engagement

Big Data Meets the Attention Economy

In a specially extended article, Dr Peter Doran references the recent Cambridge Analytica fallout and looks at how the battle for our attention is fast becoming the defining problem of our time.

Big Data Meets the Attention Economy

Reporting of the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica revelations on Channel Four and in The Guardian have inevitably focused on the implications of what appear to be significant breaches in data security at Facebook and the controversial role of micro-targeting social media messaging in shaping the outcome of the Trump election.

A gathering storm around the alleged role and bankrolling of the Canadian company, AggregateIQ could yet throw new light on the role of micro-targeting in shaping the Brexit referendum result.

An important dimension of the story that has featured less in UK coverage is the role of ‘attention’ and what has come to be known as the ‘attention economy’. As the website Perspectiva has noted, the battle for our attention is nothing less than the defining ‘problem of our time’. It has come to determine election results. It underpins the digital economy. And, perhaps most controversially of all, the attention economy can erode what Perspectiva describe as our ‘social competencies’ while shaping who we become as human beings (or consumers):

Due to the sheer volume of information we have available, we’ve witnessed our attention becoming increasingly scarce. Our various news feeds, messages and social media notifications are in a constant battle for our attention – they are the competing forces in the so-called ‘attention economy’. Meanwhile the news is filled with stories of shorter attention spans and fragmented minds: we are distracted nearly 50% of the time; overstimulation can lead to ‘technostress’; and there are increasing reports of digital addictions. 


The Attention Economy and Freedom

Attention is that to which we attend. William James once observed in his book “The Principles of Psychology” that what we attend to is reality. Alan Wallace writing in 2006 about the ‘attention revolution’ in his 2006 book “The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind” believes that our very perception of reality is tied closely to where we focus our attention. Only what we pay attention to seems real to us, while what we ignore seems to fade into insignificance until, perhaps, we are blindsided and events suddenly call out for attention. He adds:

‘Each of us chooses, by our ways of attending to things, the universe we inhabit and the people we encounter. But for most of us, this “choice” is unconscious, so it’s not really a choice at all.’

Which raises interesting questions about freedom.

While we hold to our beliefs about free will, we are equally conscious of our struggles to direct our attention. As Alan Wallace observes:

‘We may believe in free will, but we can hardly be called “free” if we can’t direct our own attention. No philosopher or cognitive scientist needs to remind us that our behaviour isn’t always guided by free will – it becomes obvious as soon as we try to hold our attention on a chosen object.

James also held that attention has a profound impact on character and ethical behaviour, and that our capacity to voluntarily bring back wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character and will. While James regarded a gift for sustained attention as a fixed deposit, a capacity one inherited or not, the contemporary mindfulness movement is associated with forms of training to build our resilience and wellbeing in the face of the pressing demands for our attention and time.

Attention is now regarded as an essential part of practices of consumption, entertainment and media culture, as it has become intensely valued both as capital and as a scarce commodity. That innate tendency towards ‘absence’ (Nietzsche 1989) from our moment-to-moment experience has become an open door for a highly sophisticated series of social and corporate technologies designed to target and capitalise our attention energy. Indeed, in the context of post-industrial society attention is now regarded as a currency sometimes with greater value than that which circulates in our banks, one that is now the single most important determinant of business success.

The problems for businesspeople lie on both sides of the attention equation: how to get and hold the attention of consumers, stockholders, potential employees, and the like, and how to parcel out their own attention in the face of overwhelming options. People and companies that do this, succeed. The rest fail.

Subjectivity has become a key commodity – an achievement of a global media, information and entertainment complex – whose nature is conceived, developed and manufactured as systematically and predictably as the Apple iPhone or any other commodity: ‘we are the product’.

Advertising, the mass media, technological advances in social media and celebrity culture underpin deeply rooted practices of individualism and materialism by facilitating a global competition for ‘mind share’ in the attention economy (Rowe 2009). These technologies have also gotten under our skin, and have even come to mediate how we relate to notions of self in a profound way.


A Remarkable Tale: Social Psychology and Behavioural Economics are the DNA of the Attention Economy

Michael Lewis, the author behind Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (2004) and The Big Short (2011), is someone who consistently stays ahead of the curve when it comes to observing the ‘next big thing’.

In his most recent book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed the World (2017) he tells a remarkable story of an intellectual partnership that formed between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the psychologists whose work set the groundwork for a new behavioural science that is key to the power of the attention economy.

In her excellent review of Lewis’s book for The New York Review of Books, Invisible Manipulators of Your Mind, Tamsin Shaw describes how the findings of social psychology and behavioural economics are being employed to determine the news we read, the products we buy, the cultural and intellectual spheres (virtual bubbles) we inhabit, and the human networks, online and in real life, of which we are part.

In a remarkable tweet as background for her coverage of the Cambridge Analytica story, Carole Cadwalladr published the ‘dark triad’ of psychological traits and their correlates with states of wellbeing, as used by Cambridge University’s Aleksandr Kogan in a personality test used to draw information from Facebook users in 2014.

The traits are:

  • Psychopathy (referring to a communication model characterised by bold, aggressive behaviour, a tendency to violate norms, and impulsiveness);
  • Narcissism (referring to a model of communication characterised by self-confidence and great pretentiousness); and
  • Machiavellianism (referring to a tendency to flatter others or distort facts for their own benefit; calculating and cynical, and given to far-reaching plans).

The importance of the ‘dark triad’ must be viewed in the context of Lewis’s work. As Shaw has observed, the behavioural techniques that are being employed by governments and private corporations do not appeal to our reason; they do not seek to persuade us consciously with information and argument. ‘Rather, these techniques change behaviour by appealing to our non-rational motivations, our emotional triggers and unconscious biases.’

She adds: ‘If psychologists could possess systematic understanding of these non-rational motivations they would have the power to influence the smallest aspects of our lives and the largest aspects of our societies.’ Moreover, when it comes to triggers and targeting unconscious drives, political communications can be drawn to a reductivist strategy, targeting the most basic emotions and psychic vulnerabilities such as fear and insecurity.

Kahneman and Tversky are the psychologists who have provided the foundation for the new behavioural science that, linked to big data, has produced a quantum leap in the capacity of hidden persuaders to influence mass audiences for both commercial and political messaging. It was their findings that first suggested that we might begin to understand human irrationality in a systematic way. In other words, it is now possible to systematically account for – and predict – errors in our thinking.

Kahneman’s work was first set out in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow . The book characterizes the human mind as the interrelated operation of a fast and automatic (instinctive, emotional, or intuitive) system (System One) together with a more slow and deliberative system (System Two). The most influential of Kahneman and Tversky’s discoveries is ‘prospect theory’: this shows that, under conditions of uncertainty, human behaviour violates expected utility theory (a fundamental assumption of economists that we almost always act to maximize our gains). Kahneman and Tversky identified a dozen systematic violations of the axioms of rationality in choice-making. In other words, they made human irrationality predictable. Emotions powerfully influence human intuitive analysis of probability and risk, driven by our desire to avoid negative emotions such as regret and loss.

Their research, according to Shaw, eventually yielded heuristics, or rules of thumb, that have now become well-known shorthand expressions for specific flaws in our intuitive thinking:

  • The Endowment Effect: Overvaluation of what we already have.
  • Status Quo Bias: An emotional preference for maintaining the status quo.
  • Loss Aversion: The tendency to attribute much more weight to potential losses than potential gains when assessing risk.

Lewis also describes the work of Lewis Goldberg, a colleague of Kahneman and Tversky, who discovered that a simple algorithm could more accurately diagnose cancer than highly trained experts who were biased by faulty intuitions.

In 2007 and 2008, Kahneman gave masterclasses in his ‘Thinking about Thinking’ to Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Larry Page (Google), Sergey Brin (Google), Nathan Myhrvold (Microsoft), Sean Parker (Facebook), Elon Musk (Tesla), and Evan Williams (Twitter). Kahneman shared his insight that ‘priming’ – picking a suitable atmosphere – is one of the most important areas of psychological research, a technique that involves offering people cues unconsciously in order to influence their mood and behaviour. He insisted that there are predictable and coherent associations that can be exploited by this kind of priming. Shaw adds:

‘If subjects are unaware of this unconscious influence, the freedom to resist it begins to look more theoretical than real.’

It is these behavioural techniques from behavioural economics that have become integral to online marketing and which have now begun to bleed into political communications. In Jared Kushner’s memorable description of the adaptation of the techniques by the Trump election campaign, they ‘played Moneyball’ with the election, using message tailoring, sentiment manipulation and machine learning.

Trump engaged Cambridge Analytica, a subsidiary of the British-based SCL Group, to deploy the techniques. The suspended chief of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, describes the campaign tactics in this YouTube video. As Shaw observes, the very existence of such companies now tells us something important about the weight that unconscious influence, relative to reasoned argument, now plays in political campaigns. It should come as no surprise that figures at the heart of government, such as Brexiteer Michael Gove, can now breezily dismiss the importance of expertise. Companies like the SCL Group now claim to have the information weapons to win large-scale ideological struggles.


 The Attention Economy meets the Political

Andrew Rawnsley, writing in the Observer, begins to get to the nub of the dilemma for democracy when he observes that ‘the internet has created a political ecosystem in which the extreme, the incendiary and the polarising tend to prevail over the considered, the rational and the consensus seeking’. With AggregateIQ’s work on Brexit, leave campaigners have been quick to recognise a new platform that not only amplifies the content of their political message but – by virtue of the medium – adds a certain incendiary and polarising quality. Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistle blower told The Guardian’s Carole Cadwalladr how the company harvested Facebook data on voters in order to ‘exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons.’

We have two issues here. The obvious one is fairly straightforward: the use of data without consent. The more complex issue involves the micro-targeting of voters and ‘whether that ought to be permissible even if there is consent.’ In what ways is the use of mass data to engage in micro-targeting different from conventional political communications that have always – to some extent – involved an element of getting to know target audience and ‘pressing their buttons?’ Is something qualitatively different now going on…something that will require appropriate regulation given the scale of targeting and the fact that it is anonymised and so much less transparent (abolishing the prospect for accountability when messaging is just plain inaccurate)?


The challenge of the deep CyberState: Attention is the new arena of struggle and cognitive freedom

What we are witnessing is the spread of what Sheldon Wolin has described as a new totalitarian form: ‘Inverted Totalitarianism’. Wolin’s 2008 thesis on Inverted Totalitarianism in the United States predicted the direction of politics when political and corporate elites acquire the means to ‘stunt popular rationality’ and make an art form of the process. The 2016 US Presidential Election seemed to vindicate Wolin’s fears. He believes the aim has been a new kind of electorate, a hybrid creation, part cinematic and part consumer. What is now required of the electorate is that it behaves like a movie or TV audience, with credulity, nurtured on the unreality of images on the screen, the impossible feats and situations depicted, or the promise of personal transformation by a new product. This is a dangerous turn for both politicians and the citizen: it threatens to accelerate an infantilisation and anti-intellectualism that can only erode democratic capabilities.

With the rise of the Occupy Movement – on the back of the anti-globalisation protests that began to name the unprecedented power of transnational and mobile capital to dictate terms to nation states – extreme concentrations of wealth in the hands of the top one percent broke through to popular consciousness. What we have been slower to appreciate is the ways in which the one percent have mastered the ‘weapons of mass distraction’ in the mutually constitutive spheres of consumerism and politics: the attention economy.

A constant feature of the Trump election and the Brexit news cycle is the emergent revelations that supposedly super-loyal and nationalist interests (concealed behind fake calls to ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘Global Britain’) are, in fact, more closely aligned with the interests of their peers in the global one percent.

The new arena of struggle is the attention economy.


The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license. 



Dr Peter Doran
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Dr. Peter Doran is a Lecturer in the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast, contributing to teaching on the environment, human rights, contemporary issues in property law and the law of the commons. His recent research focused on wellbeing policy and outcomes in the Northern Ireland Programme for Government.

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