The Attention Economy

I am almost finished reading Cal Newport’s new book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.  I highly recommend it.

He uses a phrase I had not seen before: “the attention economy,” which he defines as “the business sector that makes money gathering consumers’ attention and then repackaging it and selling it to advertisers.”Image result for digital minimalism

Our attention and time are valuable commodities to merchants in this line of work.  Imagine, they make their money selling a product we give them free of charge!  That’s a pretty sweet deal.  All they have to do is find ways to hold our attention, and every second is gold.

Apparently, the first American to figure this out was Benjamin Day, publisher of the New York Sun in 1830. Before that, the newspaper business model depended on providing a product of sufficient quality (reliable news) that people would be willing to pay for it.  Day discovered that the real money was not in selling news to the reader, but selling readers to the advertisers.  He found he could sell his paper to the readers at a loss, because he was selling their attention to his advertisers.

Well, that’s what is happening all around us.  Just look at the margin of your screen!  We imagine that we are the customer. Not really.  We aren’t the customer–at least not yet; we are the product. Our attention is being sold at a handsome price because the folks that buy it think they can get us to buy what they are selling.  So we are getting had twice!

How does that make you feel–being both the product and the “mark” in an elaborate con? Perhaps you think, “I already know all this. What’s the big deal? I see through it. I’m getting what I want–news, information, entertainment. I even like some of the ads.”  They hope you do.

What strikes me in all this is: 1) The advertisers are turning our passive attention into action–the action of buying.  That’s a pretty amazing feat.  2) Even when we know and accept the game, we are still being trained, “groomed.”  They are playing the long-game, not just getting us to buy a particular product, but forming us into a certain kind of person.

Whatever gets our attention gets us.

I doubt the attention merchants got their strategy from the Bible, but they could have.  There are multiple warnings in Scripture about guarding our hearts and minds, being intentional about where we direct our thoughts, what we meditate on (Psalm 1).

Seeing the attention economy all around us sheds new light on Paul’s warning that we not be conformed to this world but “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:1-2).

Colossians 3:1-2 says: If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 

This requires definite, intentional action on our part. All they need for their scheme to work is our passive attention.  To break free and redirect our attention takes active effort — often quite a bit, depending on how far we have let our muscles soften.  They have the “gravity” of laziness on their side.  But they do not have to win.

There truly is a battle for our attention, and our souls.  Don’t give it away for nothing to people whose primary objective is to manipulate and milk you for all they can.  Direct it toward the One who wants to give you Abundant Life, now and in the age to come.

Are you giving your attention to Someone who loves you and can give you Life in return, or to those who want only to exploit you for their gain?

We feel sorry for people who allow others to exploit their bodies for profit.  Many people are deeply committed to ending human trafficking. Rightly so.  But is our attention less valuable than our bodies?  We vigorously defend our bodies, yet passively surrender our minds.

We are ever more aware of how would-be predators groom children for sexual abuse. Are we as cautious about those who are seducing their minds?  Is the attention of our children less valuable than their bodies? It is actually far more valuable. Their attention is the pathway to their souls. If attention merchants get their souls, of course they get their bodies too, eventually.

The same is true for us.

Action step: Keep track of what you give your attention to, what you look at and listen to, and for how long.  See what you think. If you have kids, observe their engagement with the media.  Try making some adjustment to that engagement.  Observe the results.

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