The Attention Economy with Vincent F. Hendricks and Camilla Mehlsen

photo of Vincent F. Hendricks and Camilla Mehlsen
photo courtesy of information.dk
Reimagining the Internet
Reimagining the Internet
The Attention Economy with Vincent F. Hendricks and Camilla Mehlsen
/

Loads of stimulus, quick hits of dopamine, and no natural light: does this describe a casino or Facebook? The Danish philosopher Vincent F. Hendricks and digital media researcher Camilla Mehlsen join to walk us through their new book The Ministry of Truth, which explore how the attention economy incentivizes social media companies to make products that wake kids up in the middle of the night and mercurially regulate speech.

Transcript

Ethan Zuckerman:

Hello, everybody. Welcome back to Reimagining the Internet. I’m Ethan Zuckerman, your host. I’m recording today from Copenhagen, Denmark, and I have two wonderful authors here. I have Vincent Hendricks, who’s a professor of Formal Philosophy at the university of Copenhagen. He’s the Director of the Center for Information and Bubble Studies funded by the Carlsberg Foundation. Good morning, Vincent.

Vincent F. Hendricks:

Good morning, sir.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I also have Camilla Mehlsen. Camilla is a Digital Media Expert and Spokesperson for the Danish Organization Children’s Welfare. She’s the author of several books on digital literacy and her work on digital media has been published in various newspapers, magazines, someone who is thinking a great deal about these questions of how digital media is affecting young people. Good morning, Camilla.

Camilla Mehlsen:

Good morning.

Ethan Zuckerman:

They together are the author of a new book called the Ministry of Truth: Big Tech’s Influence on Facts, Feelings, and Fictions. It will be coming out at some point this spring in Springer Nature. And it’s an incredibly cool book. It’s a book that really centers on one of my favorite topics, which is the subject of attention. We often talk about the attention economy. One of the arguments that you make in this book is that that’s an oversimplification of what’s happening with attention. How do the big platform technology companies see attention and how are they working to capture and manipulate it?

Vincent F. Hendricks:

So basically the idea that we came up with here actually dates back to a Nobel Prize Laureate, Herbert Simon, he got Laureate Nobel Prize in 1978 for his studies on bounded rationality, but already back in 1971, he sent something very prophetically about an information age for which there’s a lot of information available. That means, now. He said that an information rich-world, the wealth of information is going to mean the death of something else. It will be a scarcity or whatever it is that information consumes. But what information consumes is pretty obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients. And there you have it. In the information age is not Microsoft, microchips or oil, it’s people’s attention, but not as a cognitive asset mind you. So why attention is important to us as cognitive human beings is the fact that it’s a gateway to our consciousness. That’s what William James said back in 1889 in his book, The Principles of Psychology.

Now, the way in which the big tech platforms and the business model of most of these platforms is basically they don’t consider it a cognitive assets per se. They have understood the fact that whatever consumes our attention is information. And once you consume people’s attention with information, you generate engagement. Once you get engagement, you get traffic. Once you get traffic, you get data, data you can harvest, analyze, packet and sell it to the advertisers. So basically they went from having attention as a cognitive resource to becoming a capital asset. And that is basically the business models of most of all of these platforms.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So let’s just pull that apart because there’s a lot in there. When we take attention, we are in the simplest sense saying, I now want you not to be thinking about this. Instead, I want you to be focusing your attention over here. That also becomes a marketable commodity in the sense that you could redirect that attention from what you thought you were paying attention to an advertisement. And in many cases, the advertisement says, let’s put your attention somewhere else. It also creates this derivative product, which might be at least as valuable, which is knowing where your attention goes, knowing where you want to put your attention becomes a commodity in and of itself. But this is not as simple as selling coal or sulfur or something like that. How does attention differ as a commodity from the ways in which we’re normally used to thinking about markets?

Camilla Mehlsen:

Well, attention is the… of great value in the 21st century. What we’ve seen in the past 15 years or so is that some of the biggest largest companies in the world, they are based on the attention business economy model. And we see… Okay, let me just say, we thought once the internet was out, this is this was back in the ’90s, right? We had this ideal of a very democratic internet that we could all share our thoughts and we might get equal amount of attention, but what happened in the 21st centuries, we’ve seen that attention align is not equally distributed. We see it’s very uneven. We see some people, some kind of content get a whole up more attention. We’ve seen the rise of influences. We’ve seen the rise of some politician gaining a lot of attention. We’ve seen some kind of content like rage or hateful speech might get more attention than more everyday like content.

So the whole idea of the attention economy might be based on that we can all have a voice online and then you see some ads. But what we are seeing is a change in that some people get a little more, a lot more attention and of course that raises a lot of problems when you think about, is that what we want for democracy?

Ethan Zuckerman:

Well, I also would imagine that it raises a lot of problems for youth, right? So I have a 12 year old son. He sees himself as a content creator, which I think is essentially what everyone wants to grow up to be at this point. He would be thrilled if somehow his YouTube channel had 1,000 followers rather than 100 followers, his parents and I ensure that his YouTube channel has followers that we know and have vetted so we are spoiling his possibility of becoming a leader in the attention economy. How are you thinking about how this affects young people? When we’re thinking about this idea that attention becomes a central commodity and some of the ways in which people can gain attention are pretty self-destructive.

Camilla Mehlsen:

Young people today they do grow up in a digital attention economy. They do see that when they… they know from a very young age, then if you have an account on TikTok or Instagram or other kind of social media platforms, you can see how many likes do I get, how much attention do you get? You have quantitative measures to attention, and that do impact everybody, but especially young people. If you’re 10 or 12 year olds or 14, is the amount of likes and attention you get, is that because people like you? I mean, we do see that this whole system has a negative impact on the self-esteem of young people.

Ethan Zuckerman:

It’s almost as if I’m sure the struggles that all of us went through in middle school and high school where we try to figure out, are we popular? Are we unpopular? Do the right people like us? Do they like us for the right reasons? Now suddenly has a number attached to it. And not only does it have a number attached to it, but that number then in turn also gets a price tag. And so we’re essentially forced in all aspects of our life to think through this attention component it.

Camilla Mehlsen:

The whole difference is that you’re being raised as a strategic communicator is, will this give you more attention than that kind of content? And the difference is from when we grew up and we’re in back in high school, it’s not just the people around you who can see how popular you are, now the audience is much bigger. The potential audience of who’s popular, who’s not, is much bigger. And what is concerning is that you might think that, oh, everyone has a voice, a 12 year old you can actually get a lot, you can make money or you can get… Get out there, but what we don’t discuss enough is that the underlying structure is not democratic. Some people do get a lot more attention.

Vincent F. Hendricks:

Sure. And I think just to follow up on that, if you look as attention as an asset, it’s a pretty weird asset compared to what we usually consider assets to be. So that would be cash money. It would be stock, right. Or it would be more… What should I say? Fantastic financial products like derivatives or something like that. But the interesting thing about attention is now I’m looking at Ethan, so I’m not looking at Camilla. So I’m burning all my attention on Ethan. There’s nothing left for Camilla. So it’s a zero sum game when I use it and we don’t multitask very well. I can’t take my attention and then basically put it in a bank and get an interest on it or take it back out. Once I burn it, I burn everything. So it’s a very elusive asset compared to the other assets that we are usually trading in, but the market is being ruled by the attention economy.

So rather the information market is being ruled by the attention economy. And the problem with that market, as Camilla was also alluding to, is that’s not an efficient market. It is not such that an information market will converge on an equilibrium for which all the good information will survive and all the bad information will get weeded out in the very liquid market of people exchanging information and opinions. And so, unfortunately we are not there where we get the efficiency of this market.

And on top of that, there’s also another unfortunate structural component to the attention economy, ruling and information market, namely that if you have a lot of followers, you tend to get even more. So there’s a Matthew’s principle involved here, right? More generates more. And from that perspective, you get to this very uneven distribution of retention. If we thought that attention would be distributed in accordance with normal distributions, that means that the bulk of us can receive and take just the same amount of attention, then things would be pretty bandy, but it’s a power law distribution, right? 

Ethan Zuckerman:

Famously, these are Pareto distributions. And so there’s a tendency for the rich to get richer. It is perhaps not a surprise that this is all happening at a moment of extreme inequality. And now you have the possibility for extreme inequalities of attention. It feels like a meritocracy in the sense that some different people have the abilities to become very powerful within this, but at the end of the day, it still becomes more of a winner take all market. One thing that is interesting is that financial wealth does not necessarily translate one to one into attention wealth, which is super interesting, right? If it were just possible for Coca-Cola and McDonald’s to put their money on the table and own as much of our cognitive capacity as they would like to, this would be a very boring space. Instead, maybe it’s more of a cognitive casino at that point, because we’re always sort of looking for what might happen.

So talk to us about what are some of the deeper psychological implications of living in this world? We’re in an economy that’s deeply weird. It can’t be translated into financial terms very neatly because attention is non fungible in a very real sense. You can’t infinitely subdivide it, you can’t task switch your way to it. It ends up being finite, but this set of incentives changes our behavior online. Camilla, what are you seeing as far as how this is affecting young people and maybe society more broadly?

Camilla Mehlsen:

Well, you mentioned the cognitive casino, the social media platforms, they are built on systems to gain our attention and to give our attention. The devil is in the detail, right? So there’s a lot of design that have huge impact, again, on all users, but especially young people, the like button, or it could be the color of red and notifications. It could be the way smartphones use sounds when you get a little buzz or something, all these little bit little details, they do have an enormous impact on the wellbeing on young people. We see that you compare each other, you compare yourself, your identity with other people. That’s what everybody does.

But especially if you’re a teenager, those are your formative years. That’s where your identity is in full development. And so when you compare yourselves to how many likes or how many… But let me say, social media platforms, the casino of social media platforms have enormous impact, but we don’t know, is this always bad or might it be good? But we do know that it can be more stressful to be in this kind of digital environment. I talked to some kids, 14 year olds who just give an example they use Snapchat a lot. And on a Snapchat, you can use this streak. You can get a streak. So if I send you a Snapchat message, you will have to send me one back within 24 hours. And then we can do that let’s say for a year, then we will have a streak for 365 days. But then if I forget to send one to you, Ethan, but I do remember to send one to Vincent, then we will lose our streak, Ethan.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Right?

Camilla Mehlsen:

Does that mean that-

Ethan Zuckerman:

That’s a big deal? What happened to our relationship? We should talk about this Camilla.

Camilla Mehlsen:

Maybe like some other friends better than I like you, because I forgot to send you one streak. My point is that these little things, the streak, the function of the Snapchat streak, they influence relationship, they are not neutral. So technologies are not neutral. The design have enormous effect. We don’t always know how it might happen. The intentions of the sign might be different than how it’s actually used. The student… actually the kids I talked to, they told me that they’ve tried to wake up in the of the night with this, “Oh, I forgot to send streak. I forgot to send Snapchat messages.” And this example it’s not a technological notification, it’s action internal disturbance. It’s the brain waking the kids up middle of the night to warn them, you forgot something. You have to send-

Ethan Zuckerman:

Right. This has become a very high priority. But let’s examine for a moment. There’s ways in which these attention economies have the possibility of more justice and more benefit than some past economies. Right? We always have people coming in and saying, “Can’t we just go back to the days where we just have newspapers and television stations and media is predictable.” One of the things that we know from that world is that not all voices were very well represented. In my country, we had much less representation of women, people of color online, queer people, migrants. You now have this possibility that social media gives us very different voices and access to them. How do we take advantage of that possible benefit of this ecosystem and minimize some of the downside risks associated with it?

Vincent F. Hendricks:

Right. So one of the things that we are discussing much in the book, in the latter chapters of the book, is what now? What are we going to do with this exactly, alluding to your point. And one of the arguments that we are having is if we keep the business model intact as it is right now, and the argument that you get for being continuously tapped of data is always the same argument you’re being presented with. It’s better for your user experience. That’s why. So we tap even more data from you. And by tapping more data from you, you get better search results, you get better fees and more accordance with your interest, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But that’s the entire idea of recommended based algorithmic architectures. And that’s a very important part of the business model. Now, there is nobody who has said that’s the only model that you can use, first of all, right?

And so for instance, the new Digital Services Act of the EU is actually alluding to a model in which it is less based while you still have recommended based systems. However, the results of these recommended based systems is not target marketing anymore. The result of these systems should be chronological feeds or generic advertising if you want to keep the business model intact by selling ads. Now, of course, that’s a backdrop, that’s a down break for the big social media platforms, because that means that their targeted marketing is going to be constrained somehow. But that in and by itself is actually, if you start restricting the business model would be a way to make sure that there are limits. There are caps on how much data you can tap.

So for instance, the Digital Services Act now has a clause in it that says minors cannot be the victims of targeted marketing, right? And so the basic idea is not to keep going into this rabbit hole that Camilla was talking about before. And so in a certain sense, you could say really what some of the initiatives that would be good would be, if you look at the social media platforms, we have a whole chapter in the book called the Clandestine Casino, and that is basically the idea that you’re tapping into behavioral psychology from BF Skinner, through Fog and onwards, to make sure that people are continuously engaged, but there is nothing that tells you have to be continuously engaged. You could put a clock in a casino, so people could see what time it is, you could put in windows. And the same goes for the social media platforms and principles. You could add in that you could only scroll so much, right? That you can’t spend 11 hours on TikTok, cetera, et cetera.

So there are friction strategies that you could use that would change the game. Now, of course, the social media platform so far, and Mark Zuckerberg has been very explicit about that, he’s been saying, “We want this to be online and our presence to be a frictionless experience than be one without frictions.” And there’s of course a good peculiar argument to that, but you couldn’t install a lot of friction strategies that would actually either bump people back if they don’t know the community standards of the platforms, so they have to reread those or more ways in which you could actually turn down the speed. That’s the key as James Taplin said in Move Fast and Break Things. So

Ethan Zuckerman:

Let’s play with the casino metaphor because as we know, literally people who have been designing casino machines are now consulting for these firms. The book is very wide ranging. One of the pieces that’s very interesting is that you are actually considering the physical networks associated with these social media spaces. Why is it essential to get down and think on the level of cables and data centers and all of these technical levels that we like to abstract are way away from? Why is that a major focus in this work?

Vincent F. Hendricks:

Well, in 2010, Facebook, Hewlett Packard, and I believe Amazon decided to get their own fiber up to cable across the Atlantic. It starts on the East Coast of the US, and it ends up actually with an outlet in Denmark, and then it moves onto the rest of the world. Now, then you start to think about, well, that’s basically the fiber up to cables that are transmitting the data across the Atlantic is basically the physical inclination of the internet as we know it. That’s where the action happens. Right? And so we started thinking about, okay, where is this going to go? And then we read a paper that apparently said that in 2030, the big tech will sit on about 30 of the cables between the Europe and the Pacific.

Now that is basically the physical inclination of the internet. And if you think about it from that perspective, not only do they control the traffic, they own the traffic lights, the billboards that you see on the way when you drive your vehicle, but they also own the railroads. We are not only talking about bits bites and up votes and cat video sharing. We are also talking about the physics of it, and that is critical infrastructure. And at least in Denmark, the Danish Road System is owned by the Danish state. And there is a reason for that. There’s a democratic reason for that. And that reason is that every citizen of this country should have equal access to this infrastructure system. Nobody should have more, a better position in this system than others, basically, because it’s part of running the entire society.

Now, if you start putting that out to private enterprising, you’re not necessarily answering back to democratic principles, but to shareholders or advertisers or some combination thereof, unless the social media platforms, and we are beginning to see this, some certain platforms a little bit are beginning to take a greater civic responsibility for the operations.

Camilla Mehlsen:

And Elon Musk, when it was came out that he could actually potentially buy Twitter, he, of course, compared Twitter to this, the public square, right. Or the town square. The whole, the metaphor of we have a place where we can communicate, but it’s owned by Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg and very few very rich people. The good news I think we get it. We try, we get it. And politicians get it. The EU is getting it. We’re trying to regulate it. But with the Digital Service Act, DMA, in Denmark, we have a much more discussion, much more debate about what now? We don’t have all the solutions yet, but I think the roaring twenties will hopefully come up some great alternatives.

Vincent F. Hendricks:

Well, I think I got to supplement on that particular point mainly, and also feeding into some of your work, Ethan, look, what we have in Europe, and there are many reasons for that, and it probably also goes back to different societal models being entertained in the US and in Europe, and one of the things that we do have here in Europe is an idea of the fact that where democracy lives is owned still by the people. Right? And so now that means the users. So what we’d used to talk about as if they were just citizens of our country are also now users of a global internet, that is some distance now that we are talking about and we haven’t really moved into before, but the basic idea of the public square as being a place where everybody has equal access, where democracy lives and strives is something that belongs to the people without it being socialist or anything to that nature, it’s basically that model.

And so that means that you have… You don’t want to appreciate too much if public space should become on private hands. And that is for reasons of democracy. Had you asked the pioneers of democracy ranging from Kant, [inaudible] and [inaudible] as to whether or not public space should be on private hands, they would’ve come up with every resounding no. And the very reason there’s exactly the equal access for everybody, no peculiar interest should be running in this space, et cetera. And that is still pretty close to the way in which we think of democracy in Europe.

Whereas in the US, I’m also a part American, you tend to look at it a little bit differently, insofar as to say, well, the marketplace of ideas, it’s free. The same ways for it goes for financial markets, they’re free. Probably there is enterprising. There is demand and there is supply. And those things will eventually get an equilibrium. And we have seen that has not really gone. So in the financial markets, neither have we seen that goes in when you come into the marketplace of ideas. And if you look at the pioneers of the marketplace of ideas, I come to think of two that we think of in the book, one is John Perry Barlow and his Independent Declaration of Cyberspace back in 1996, and another goes further back to John Stuart Mill.

And I think both of them would be a little disappointed in the information age because whereas John Perry Barlow would say, “Look, marketplace ideas, throw in your opinion. We have past this thing about states. We are running this show.” Mill looks at it different. He says, “Look, eventually, the marketplace of idea was getting into an equilibrium given the wisdom of crowd.” Says that the truth will prevail in the end and the rest. And none of that has come to pass, right? None of that has come to pass. And so the danger is that the marketplace of ideas is being run by financial interest, because they might have different interest.

And you should also realize that Camilla was talking about Elon Musk and his potential takeover of Twitter. He says, “Look, I want to get Trump back online. If he wants to get back online.” And I can see the argument, he was a publicly elected official, why should he be barred from public space? That’s a good argument, I buy that argument completely. However, Elon mosque has also been banning or wanting to ban certain accounts, one of them being @ElonJet and @ElonJet is a Twitter account that keeps tab on where his private jet is at all given times. And he has been trying to get that closed. Now, if it doesn’t show anything else, it will tell you that even Elon Musk is worrying about certain community standards here. Now we can just discuss what they are, but there are some. So it’s not unregulated marketplace of ideas, even for somebody who really believes in the marketplace of ideas, being a free space with caps on it though.

Camilla Mehlsen:

The Elon Musk case is actually demonstrating one of the huge problems and what we need to fix soon. No, Elon, you should not be the one only single one deciding whether or not Trump should be banned or not and whether or not what kind of content should get most attention. And that’s what’s happening now. We see, okay, Mark Zuckerberg five years ago was okay to deny Holocaust and then Mark changed his mind. Okay. So now it’s, you can’t post anything like that, but it should not be saying very few very rich people deciding… not just… designing the community standards. So what we are emphasizing, we want friction strategies about the community standards, but also what are the community standards? It’s not just what kind of content is it that should be anchor? What about legal content? There are many, many problems that are on these content moderation, but my point is, no, Elon should not be the single one deciding.

Ethan Zuckerman:

What’s so fascinating about this is that if we take the logic of the fiscal marketplace, right, the fiscal marketplace is voting and saying, actually we seem to be happy with Elon running this, we seem to be happy with Zuckerberg running this, but of course we don’t run our societies purely as markets. It may feel that way sometimes in the United States that you can simply buy the legislation that you want the most. But generally speaking, that’s not what we’re actually trying to do in these things. Whereas in the social media space, that’s exactly right. Maybe it’s worth 45 billion to Elon Musk to be able to take down ElonJets. Maybe it’s worth that much to him to be able to replatform Trump. One way or another, it doesn’t seem like a rational way that we should run these public spaces. So help me with a last question here, what can Europeans tell us about this notion of digital public square, digital public sphere that Americans may have lost track of?

Vincent F. Hendricks:

Well, first of all, you should realize that in Europe, there is a grand tradition for something called Public Service Broadcasting. So basically the state and some way or the other supports Public Service Broadcasting. And that’s actually also a way to bolster and to make strong the idea of public space. Period. Right? And so from that perspective, there is an attitude in Europe, well, a lot in Europe, in Germany and Denmark too, that the state is actually part of bank rolling public media and to ensure public space. And the reason why that stands to be out is a reasonably good idea is that it actually makes for a certain independence of these public broadcasting entities, because they don’t have to worry about competing for eyeballs or clicks all the time, as much as the American media business is based on. So from that perspective, it’s sometimes people will say, “Well, that means that they interfere, they intervene. It’s about state run television or state run radio.”

Not really, it’s rather, it gives them a break from worrying about making sure that you catch the eyeballs or you get the listeners to listen to what you’re saying. So from that perspective, it gives them less buyers. It gives them less incentive to walk in a certain direction. And from that perspective, it has actually a liberating editorial freedom that comes with it. And so once you realize that it’s not running it completely, but the fact that the state is part of procuring and securing public space as an important democratic value, whoever you are, independently, or whether you are left, right, up, down on the political spectrum.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Any final thoughts on that?

Camilla Mehlsen:

I want to add that the digital literacy that we knew I think as Europe and Denmark, it’s important also to educate the population, to be able to navigate in a digital age. There’s a lot of inequality right now. I think Europe is trying to do something about… we’re trying to educate more. And I’m not talking about this in a way let’s say Facebook would say that the user has to be in control, I’m talking about broad educational program from your very small kid until you’re a senior. We need to be better, to understand, and also to take responsibility for ourselves and other people and to be able to participate in the digital space.

Vincent F. Hendricks:

Maybe I just want to you say one last thing that Camilla and I stressed arguably in the book maybe, we also have to realize that these are early times, right? I mean, we think about as if we have had other social media all along. It’s a new technology and every new technology introduced in the history of man have always come with teething diseases. So now it’s time to look, make sure that these don’t become chronic illnesses, but we are only looking at a time span about 25 to 30 years tops. So no wonder that we are still having tethering diseases. Now just let’s make sure that these do not become chronicle. That’s all we are saying here. And there are ways in which you can do that between the digital individual mobilization. That means digital literacy, it means also new partnerships and it means legislation. And that’s basically the argument that we’re trying to raise in the book.

Camilla Mehlsen:

Yeah. So individual, institutional and ideological mobilization.

Vincent F. Hendricks:

The three Is.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Vincent Hendricks, Camilla Mehlsen, co-authors of the Ministry of Truth: Big Tech’s Influence on Facts, Feelings, and Fictions coming up this spring from Springer Nature, thank you both so much.

Camilla Mehlsen:

Thank you so much for having us.

Vincent F. Hendricks:

Thank you for having us.