Homo Distractus. How The Modern Economy Thrives On Our Attention And How To Fight It Back

Technology companies have become the new gods. Five top businesses by market capitalization are now Silicon Valley enterprises, and not oil companies; six of the world’s wealthiest 10 people made their money in technology. Our time and attention is what feeds this growth.

Thanks to technology, we know have more free time than ever, but didn’t make a good use of it. This time is now occupied by very large internet corporations. Technology has become a new kind of religion, and the ultimate goal of these new gods is to keep us online as much as they can.

Even though researchers like Gloria Mark from University of California, Irvine, show that a short interruption significantly increases the time needed to complete a task and is bad for your productivity, we are increasingly encouraged to be distracted, while being convinced that we are productive and agile.

Attention sells

A number of studies by Microsoft, Google etc show that the longer we stay online, the more likely we are to buy something. The more internet pages we browse through, the more advertising an internet company can show us, and so the more money they make. As a result, their success metrics are tied to how much time we spend on a website or app, and not on how focused we are. And they succeed. As per Ofcom report, 49% of Brits admit to spend more time online than originally intended.

In “the click economy”, each click is rewarded by money. The business models that require people’s attention and clicking on links require a constant flow of new content, which needs to be produced at a top speed. The goal of many popular sites is therefore no longer information, but the attention itself. The quality of this attention doesn’t matter, as long as people click.

This is why both advertisements and article headlines get more extreme and nonsensical. Clickbait titles like “You won’t believe what happens next”, or “Your mom will hate this trick” are examples of attention-grabbing content that makes you want to click, click, and click more. Any kind of attention sells. Youtube star Tyler Oakley earns several hundred thousands pounds in ads. In a 4.7 million view video he sits in front of the camera with bottles of beers duct-taped to each of his hands and drinks them for about an hour, giggling.

Digital economy feeds through your attention, at the same time putting the quality journalism in a difficult position of competing for the same click pounds or dollar with the most obnoxious websites.

A captivating design

In order to capture human attention, software companies design their products in a specific way. For instance, a popular game Candy Crush adapts to the time you spend playing. Tasks are easy, if you play a few minutes a day, but when you spend more time playing, tasks become more complicated. Anna, a client of mine, only managed to stop playing the game when she uninstalled it from her phone.

A pre-loaded newsfeed on Facebook or Youtube is another way to keep a visitor on the website for longer. Notifications are yet another cheap way to make you come back to your device.
No wonder that companies make it really difficult to change notifications settings. It takes 6 steps to change your notifications settings on Facebook. A key UX design principles says that every action should take a user as few steps as possible – so obviously Facebook isn’t very interested in helping you get rid of notifications.

What can we do?

You might have not noticed it yet, but we are already living in the matrix, where distracted behaviour is encouraged to keep feeding the machine.

As in the movie, it starts with a realization. A good place to get your red pill is to start measuring, how much time you really spend online across all devices, and how much of this time is productive. I use a free version of Rescuetime browser extension to do that, and there are plenty of others to help.

I often find that my clients underestimate, how much time they spend online, by approximately two hours per day. This is a lot of time. This is one extra month per year. Do you complain that you don’t have time to do things that you’d like to? This is where your time goes.

If money is a stronger argument for you, you can do a quick calculation, how much distraction is costing you. Simply multiply all the unproductive hours you’ve spent browsing by your hourly rate. This is the real money you’ve spent on being distracted.

This is a shortened extract from Anastasia Dedyukhina’s new book “Homo distractus: How we’ve lost our humanity and freedom to machines and how we can fight to get it back” (working title). To be the first one to know when the book is published, please leave your email on her website. ​

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