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Your attention is under political siege – special thanks to technology.


“…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.”
– Herbert Simon

Our world today is never short of newsworthy stories, but a few always stick out in popular news and media channels. You will have your own list of newsworthy stories, based on what matters to you.
There is something common in how most of us around the world experience these stories today:

  • We discover these stories on social media or another media channel.
  • We stumble upon another story or have arrived to a story from another one.
  • Most stories get pushed behind to the background of publications and of our minds, to be replaced by newer stories.

Such consumption has become normal. Blogs and social media have become a normal part of our lives. Digital platforms have become important spaces, and sources, for discussion points. Facebook now has over 2 billion monthly users. WhatsApp and Messenger together have over 2 billion users as well. YouTube has a billion users, Instagram has 700 million and Twitter has over 300 million users.
While you gulp down all the content and the knowledge (and are probably bombarded by alerts and pesky ads), there is also a fight being played out. It is a fight where many are keeping score for a range of parameters — page views, user engagement, followers, shares, likes, bounce rate, clickthroughs and many more. They are also figuring out how to raise their scores.
All this is nothing but a fight for one thing — your attention.
But how is your attention keeping up?

James Williams is a former Google employee and is currently researching design ethics at Oxford University. In his winning piece, which won the US$ 100,000 Nine Dots Prize, he argued that digital technologies favor our impulses in a way that erodes our ability to deeply engage with issues that really matter to us. Technology permeates nearly every sphere of our lives, and the burden of setting boundaries is for now primarily on the individual. Work-time (or study-time) distractions like checking mails, alerts, notifications, etc. are no longer interruptions — they have become habits. These habits are rewarding, and they have not only turned us into neural junkies but are also impairing the way we relate to the world.
The knowledge economy is strongly tied to the attention economy in a world where information is abundant but attention is limited. Knowledge and attention are the modern forms of labor, but attention determines how we experience our world and what knowledge we access and organize for our life goals.
Here comes the problem — our goals may not align with the goals of other establishments out there that strongly demand our attention. When digital advertisements distract us from the tasks we want to achieve, or when we are hooked on to content that takes away our focus, we have failed to act in our own interests. When we are inattentive, ‘busy’ in work but getting little done, suffer clicker’s remorse, we wonder how quickly time passes away. We beat ourselves up.
While we work on being more responsible, let’s also look at what else is in play, and who else could be responsible.

The Politics of Digital Technologies

There is an ‘industry-scale persuasion’ and ‘persuasive design’ that is active in society, and this power to persuade is humongous and unequal. This is reflected in modern digital marketing and advertising, in the disproportionate reach and consumption of media on a few platforms, and also in the buying of media and news companies by billionaires in democracies like the US or India. Williams points this out in his talk for the RSA event ‘Are Digital Technologies Making Politics Impossible’:

The power to shape people’s attention, to persuade people toward one end or another, is increasingly centralized. The irony is that the whole idea of the internet was to be decentralized.

Whether intentional or unintentional, distractions (and persuasion) in modern society today exist by design and are a part of the choice architecture for many of us. This has led to a tremendous transformation in political dynamics.
Williams at the RSA event:

Technology is not only influencing politics but has inherently become political by design.

Outrage has become easier, but our ability to thoroughly engage with, or even think about issues that matter to us are undermined when there are enough concerted distractions and persuasions.

We wind up being implicated in our own exclusion from decision-making processes and events that will affect us. The consequences are both deeply personal and political.

I am a firm believer in the power of education, but I wonder if our education has prepared us for such threats and taking up the amazing opportunities that exist today.
Has education made us digitally wise and helped us in being smart about our attention? How will digital platforms influence civic engagement and citizenship of upcoming generations?

Saving Our Attention

Based on a Stanford study, many students find it difficult to distinguish between trustworthy and inaccurate news stories. There have been inaccuracies before, propaganda has been around for a while, but the rate at which misinformation spreads today is virulent. This is an opportunity for students to reflect on the personal and social effects of their media consumption and social sharing practices.
Schools can look at the pedagogical relevance of devices and platforms in the classroom and whether they truly align with both teachers’ and students’ goals. Parents can revisit their own engagement with children over tech usage and how they role-model at home. All of us have to arrive at an understanding of the boundaries that can be set to mindfully use devices and services. Collectively, we all need to challenge our worldviews, to know more about how our realities meet and shape the world we live in, a world that is officially unsustainable in meeting our consumption.

Mindful Business. Attentive Design.

It is not that every business or organisation is insidiously plotting to sabotage individual interests — we just have to learn as a society to align interests and goals better, observe the different ways in which we interact with technologies and take into account the impact on the attention economy. As a user of digital platforms and as someone who is building a digital platform in India for students in higher education, I am deeply aware of the goodness, the opportunities and the challenges that digital platforms offer. In our team conversations, we grapple with how students and institutions on our platform can meet their individual needs and align their goals.
I believe that any platform (edtech or otherwise) that has students as a target market and is serious about meeting their needs, has to develop or seriously work toward an ethical approach to the design, marketing and advertising of their platform and services.

My education did not prepare me for this, and I grapple with it at a personal level. I believe when many of us engage with these phenomena, we will appreciate the value of our attention and figure different ways of protecting what is at stake.
Our freedom of attention is under threat today like never before. We need to engage with each other, start having conversations around the basic idea of reclaiming and protecting this freedom.
Thank you so much for your attention.

This post originally featured in the EdSurge Independent Medium publication.

Published inEducationPoliticsTechnology

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