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Focus is the new IQ - Part 3

Updated: Apr 10

Attention economy

In 1997 Michael H. Goldhaber wrote a detailed article on the attention economy model. In it, he first argues that we are living in a human attention economy model instead of a material goods one. As crazy as it sounds, he was right. Below is part 3 of István Liska's Focus on the New IQ blog series.

Attention as a scarce resource

Every age in history has had its own scarce resource. For a long time, land was the most in demand, linked to food, and that is why great battles were fought and half of them were married on a kingdom basis. Then came the industrial revolution and the emerging factories needed workers to run the machines. Skilled labour was in short supply instead of land, so this became a scarce resource. By the 20th century, production was mechanised in most areas, so there was enough food and skilled labour. But the scientific revolution generated an unprecedented demand for widespread access to the knowledge and information brought by discoveries. Knowledge and information thus became scarce resources.

The internet and the digital age have made information and knowledge very easily accessible. If you want to become a tiler, you can learn from YouTube videos, if you want to brush up on photosynthesis, Google, if you want to read reviews of a product, go to Amazon. In a few seconds you can access any information you need. Knowledge and information is no longer a scarce resource. (In fact, we've started to produce so much information that we can't even see out of it, which I'll cover in the first part of this series).

In this age, our limited attention is increasingly divided by an exponentially growing sea of information. Attention has become the scarce resource of the digital age.

The competition for your attention is growing. The quality of the information is no longer important, it's only getting your attention that matters. It takes less and less time to absorb your attention, to overwhelm each other with information. Because of this, extremes are constantly increasing.

That's why they exist:

  • increasingly insane ads, like Old Spice commercials

  • Click-hunting headlines: 'Now it's certain: XY is dead, yet no conviction'

  • increasingly small messages: two-word political campaigns, for example

  • content packed with soft porn, even the word itself has spread to other meanings, e.g. food porn

The economy, where transactions are measured in likes instead of money

Maciej Olpinski, ex-Google employee, writes in his book  that attention is akin to renewable energy in terms of resources:

  • It's evenly distributed, so an African child has as much of it as Bill Gates

  • You can spend a finite number of attention-filled hours in a day

  • It cannot be accumulated, it exists only in a form that can be used immediately

  • It is "recycled" every day

In the attention economy, transactions are no longer measured in money but in attention currencies: likes, links, retweets, shares, follows.

As your attention moves around the online space, likes, shares, follows, followers, all indicate the trail of your journey, i.e. what you've been paying attention to. These currencies are evidence of 'give and take' transactions of online attention. This is how attention capital flows across online platforms in billions of attention transactions every day. Each transaction is registered by the systems of the "Central Banks of Attention", i.e. the platforms of Facebook, Google, LinkedIn. And individuals connect their smart devices and computers to the global system and provide one of the most valuable resources for running the system: their attention.

Sounds steep? But it's not science fiction, it's today's reality. The all-seeing eye of the Matrix or Big Brother is not that far away.

Wealth is no longer capital or property

While everyone has the same amount of attention capital, some people attract more attention than others. If you're doing a live video and thousands of people are watching, you've already got the attention span of thousands of people. For example, you can show them a product, which will draw their attention to that product. As attention becomes harder to get, it becomes more valuable. Serious money is made by those who can direct large numbers of attention capital to the products and services of those who are willing to pay the most for the attention manager.

In the new attention capitalism, power is in the hands of those who can control large amounts of attention. They are the ones who get significantly more attention from others and are able to direct that attention to whatever they want.

And the majority generally give far more attention than they receive. This is how the system is balanced.

No free lunch

"Facebook is free and will stay free." Remember this slogan from the Facebook homepage? When you know that your attention is tracked by likes, follows and other activity and your user data is sold, you can see that your attention is priced in and Facebook has never been free. It has become a business interest to attract attention in bulk because the user data that can be extracted from it is given to them for free, while at the same time they sell the same data at a hefty price to many customers at once. Creating one of the most profitable businesses of the modern age.

According to Statista, the leading social media company's numbers have done quite well over the last 10 years:

How much is our attention on Facebook worth right now?

In 2019, revenue was $70.7 billion (100 times revenue growth in 10 years). With 2.5 billion current users, each FB user would have to pay $28.3 per year to secure that revenue. That's a monthly fee of USD 2.4, or HUF 735. That's what your monthly Facebook attention and user data is currently worth. That's not a big number, but if you consider how many of the 2.5 billion users may live in extreme poverty, for example in India, they would not be able to pay that amount, and so their data would be lost to Facebook, with the people who stayed in paying the proportionally higher monthly fee. It is understandable why they are interested in a 'free' pay for your attention scheme.

Attention-based payment

Many companies are already putting attention-based payment into practice. YouTube and Spotify both have pricing systems where the free version of their service is ad-free, but if you are a premium user, i.e. you pay a monthly fee, you get ad-free service:

You are effectively buying back your attention.

More and more questions around Facebook's true values

The documentary The Great Hack tells the story of Cambridge Analytica, a company that used Facebook's paid ads to interfere in political events such as Brexit and Trump's election campaign. Watch it, it's worth it. Undecided voters were profiled based on their Facebook data and manipulated with paid political content to vote according to the interests of the funders. The rest is history, and we see it worked quite well. It is bizarre that a platform designed to bring people together and express their views can now be used for political hate speech and manipulation. Since everything is registered and analysed, it is hard to imagine that Facebook's decision-makers did not know exactly what was going on on their platform. Twitter, for example, banned political advertising, and Facebook still allows paid political content to be advertised. The film also features an American teacher who wants to know exactly what data is being stored about him on Facebook and has filed a lawsuit to get his data back, but to no avail. We have no idea exactly what data is stored about us and how it is handled. To me, this shows that the management has moved away from the original vision and is driven by investor expectations of returns.

What exactly does Facebook store about you?

There's a lot of obfuscation here too. We don't know how exactly the data is analysed and how data points are linked. They do these analyses with big data algorithms written by the best programmers, and they could very likely have business intelligence interfaces where they can easily track the movement of the whole world's attention from a few graphs. It's like having a control centre from which you can see and even influence the attention, moods, activities of the whole world. World power of attention in capitalism. Some highlights from the current Facebook privacy policy, far from the full list:

Information shared by you

  • Profile data, your posts, shares, likes, private messages

  • Related metadata: files, posts, date and place of creation of messages, etc.

Your communities, contacts

  • What people, pages, accounts, hashtags and groups you are connected to and how you interact with them, e.g. who you communicate with most, etc.

  • contact details (e.g. address book, call list or SMS list)

  • if others share a photo of you, comment on the photo, send you a message, or upload, sync or import your contact details

Product use

  • what type of content you view or interact with; what features you use; what activity you engage in, with whom and which accounts you interact with; and the time, frequency and duration of your activity. They keep a log of when you use or last used their Products and which posts, videos and other content you have viewed

  • Financial transactions made through the Products

Device usage

  • Collect information from and about your computers, phones, connected TVs and other devices, and link this information to the different devices you use

In short, every move you make is stored and analysed. It's funny that you've accepted all this. These are those boring and long policies they shove in your face and you click accept without reading. You have no other option of course, if you don't accept this you can't use their products.

Smartphones, the Trojan horses of the attention economy

The arrival of smartphones in our pockets has been a welcome addition to the Trojan horse of yesteryear. In 2007, Apple released the first iPhone, and 13 years later, 3.5 billion smartphones are in daily use. It was a good example of disruptive innovation. It destroyed every model before it, destroying giants like Nokia.

Smartphones have enabled the attention economy to transform a profitable but insignificant sector into one of the most important economic forces. Before smartphones, there was no device capable of delivering ads directly to users at any time of the day.

They can also collect data about users, which can be used to target them with relevant ads with unprecedented precision. It turned out that there were untouched parts of our attention that were impossible to reach with previous tools: PCs, newspapers, magazines, TV shows, billboards. The smartphone has also helped companies like Google and Facebook take control of our remaining focus, generating massive revenues and helping them to become tech giants in the last 13 years.

These companies will be happy to argue with you about how much they've done to improve society, but one thing they won't brag about is that if you actively use their apps, they can expect a steady increase in the next fiscal quarter from selling your data.

Techno-maximalism, a philosophical advocate of the attention economy

The more technology you use, the better. The narrative of the last few decades has been: more connectivity, more information, more options. The philosophy of techno-maximalism is a nice endorsement of liberal humanism, that the more freedom an individual has, the better. It would go against these principles to restrict social media platforms or refuse to join the latest online trends. This link is of course deceptive. Outsourcing your autonomy to the players in the attention economy - which you do, by the way, if you indiscriminately subscribe to whatever cool new service comes your way - may even reduce your freedom. And it can also limit your expression of individuality and originality.

This system we live in

You can love it or hate it, but it's certainly all around us.

To put this big topic in its full context, it was important to show you the system that affects us as individuals. With these first three articles, I hope that I have managed to make visible the invisible forces that move us all. If you have not read any of the previous articles on systems, you can find them here:

  1. Section - Information Overload ->

  2. Part - Information Overconsumption ->

In the next parts of this series of articles, we will zoom into our individual lives. We'll look at the tricks they use to get us glued to our screens. We'll see how this constant noise and attention-hunting affects our focus, our relationships, our lives and the lives of our children.


Source: István Liska: Focus is the new IQ - Part 3

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