Technology and Society
August 12, 2019
There has been concern since before the internet existed that we’re amusing ourselves to death, and since then that the internet is making us shallow and unable to focus on complex ideas or long-form texts.
Being plugged in constantly doesn’t always feel amusing — in fact, it feels stressful and frantic to have news bombarding us constantly, to feel there’s something that needs our attention right now because everyone on our news stream of choice (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Fox, CNN) is talking about it. In Neil Postman’s day, the problem he saw was the shift from solid news on television to advertising-influenced visual entertainment. Later, Nicholas Carr worried about the ease with which we could find information in small nuggets online, rewiring our brains in ways that rewards us with small pings of dopamine and makes extended focus more difficult. Now, we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time sharing our thoughts about the trending issue of the day, and we can see what’s important because the numbers are right there: how many thousands chatting right now about #BigThing. Of course, in a few days, that will be replaced by tens of thousands talking about #WowThisIsBig. And the week after that, we’ll have forgotten those things because #EveryoneIsTalkingAboutThisNow.
Television ratings and the rise of the 24-7 news stream have certainly shaped how we experience news, as has the substitution of talk shows, dueling pundits and brand-name personalities for news reporting, something Postman foretold. When Carr first argued Google was making us stupid, the company had recently bought DoubleClick and was only beginning to fine-tune how to capture and retain our attention, something that was reshaping the profitability of its then-recent acquisition, YouTube. Facebook had recently become available to anyone over 13 after an .edu-limited launch but hadn’t yet achieved a positive cash flow. Twitter had barely come out its shell.
Today, attention is definitely paid to these platforms (no pun intended, but it actually works): in a single day over four billion YouTube videos are viewed, over three billion Google searches are executed, close to half a billion Tweets are sent and Facebook boasts nearly 2.3 billion active users. All that attention is valuable. Alphabet (Google and YouTube’s parent company) and Facebook are currently ranked the fourth and fifth largest public corporations in the world by market capitalization.
Their architectures of attention and persuasion have far more influence than Postman or Carr could have imagined, and they make their money not on creating content or providing news or information. They make it by designing psychological rewards to keep us online, turning our clicks into profitable predictions to sell targeted ads. They know as well as Postman did what makes things sticky, and they use metrics to guide our attention, however sketchy those “trending” numbers are. They probably recognize the prescience of Postman’s prediction that using the strategies of advertising would have a significant effect on political discourse. It’s part of their business: they help campaigns turn political platforms into personalized persuasion. I’m not sure they really care much that such sticky discourse, channeled through YouTube, can do things like elect a populist autocrat, not unless it damages their brand. It’s not just the tech companies who know how to seize attention online and on television. Our president is a master of using social media to live-caption Fox and Friends or turn the spotlight on himself when it suits him.
Meanwhile, the feedback loop between the ad-driven architecture of trending political topics, the response of the entertainment-news media and an easily bored and restless audience means we tend to spend a lot of time focused on #TheBigThing of the moment. Thanks to those little computers in our pockets, we’re always up to the minute on news. What we don’t always notice is that this collective attention makes us forget whatever was big last week, or last month, or last year. This Brave New World has little in common with the bleak, grim authoritarianism of 1984 — except for the memory holes.