Attention, meaningful content and post-apocalyptic novels

Our latest podcast ended up being a tad longer than planned – clearly a sign of a lively, engaged discussion. In talking about various aspects of the attention economy, we managed to hold each other’s attention for a good 45 minutes.

Many ‘attention economists’ these days quote Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon and his observation that a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. It is certainly a quote that has aged well, and one can only wonder what Simon would make of the world now, 47 years on from his famous statement.

Sam doesn’t quite see the crisis of attention that brands often lament. But quality and controllability matter more than ever, and producers of content – especially the advertising and media industries – need to up their game to stay relevant. Users control their online experience through ad blockers and subscription services to filter out interruptive commercial communication.

Yes, we like to communicate, but on our terms and with others of our choosing. And for content to be worthy of our attention, it needs to be accessible, usable and shareable. Or at least funny.

The role of advertising and marketing has become one of the central themes of our modern tech debates. It is a theme with a long shadow, as Tim Wu’s history of the Attention Merchants eloquently illustrates. How much has really changed from the days of PT Barnum and “there’s a sucker born every minute”, to today’s seemingly unstoppable datafication? Almost everything, and at the same time very little.

This is also the theme of a powerful recent article in The Atlantic, Welcome to the Age of Privacy Nihilism. Neville points our attention to the main conclusion:

The real difference between the old and the new ages of data-intelligence-driven consumer marketing, and the invasion of privacy they entail, is that lots of people are finally aware that it is taking place. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, the recent reports about Google, and related events have contributed to that knowledge, but not as much as the barrage of rapidly correlated advertising served in apps and on web pages.

The postal mail comes once a day, but people see hundreds or thousands of new renditions of their own private information in the same time on online. It’s easy to mistake the proximate cause—big, shadowy tech firms—for the ultimate one: over half a century of business-intelligence techniques that have been honed, productized, and weaponized out of sight. Google and Facebook are just the tip of an old, hardened iceberg.

So yes, the attention economy (first introduced as a concept by Davenport and Beck in 2001) is here. But crisis – well it depends on the context. We talk about Netflix, and how people in their subscription-funded walled gardens would rebel against non consumption behaviour-related ‘nudges’. Netflix have started to experiment with advertising and promos for other shows between episodes, and the reaction is mixed.

We all want just the stuff we care about. The word meaningful gets used a lot these days. But who defines meaningful, and for whom? Do we want to rely on Mark Zuckerberg’s idea of “meaningful social interactions” and “time well spent” – concepts that apparently drove the overhaul of the Facebook News Feed algorithms earlier this year? Personally, I’d rather follow the originator of the phrase “time well spent”, Tristan Harris, and the concepts and ideas developed in the Center for Humane Technology.

If data is indeed “everywhere and nowhere” and there is no escape, if the big data algorithmic ad ecosystem knows our every step, if we are continuously ‘nudged’, what happens to free will and choice? Neville is less worried since the retargeting algorithms are still dumb: they don’t anticipate, they just amplify what’s already there as observable online reality. But where might this be going? Sam imagines his smartphone hearing him chant at a match of his football team, and soon serving up ads for the next FIFA game, as well as fan merchandise for his son.

But is, as Neville suggests, data hoovering and blunt nudging no longer acceptable? It is true, awareness levels have increased significantly, thanks to Cambridge Analytica, GDPR and other headline-grabbing data and privacy stories. But then, as the story in The Atlantic reminded us, targeted relational database marketing has been a big deal for a long while – so how and why would it now be illegitimate or illegal?


Difficult questions, but thankfully there are people with very simple answers, as Sam reminds us when he mentions Donald Trump’s attack on Google’s apparently liberal bias. Perhaps he will soon back GDPR to be imposed across the US, and especially on Silicon Valley? This recent piece in The Observer discusses how big tech finds itself in an uncomfortable place, being pressured both from the left and from the right. Certainly a theme for the SmallDataForum to keep an eye on.

Talking of perspective (largely) from the left – I got a good dose of that at Byline Festival at the Bank Holiday weekend, where the “Spirit of ‘68” inspired attendees to “dance, discuss, laugh and change the world”. Up for discussion was everything from Brexit and Trump, to fake news and our global information disorder, corporate surveillance, the fifth battlespace, the rise of the alt-right, Russian disinformaziya, Silicon Valley’s threat to our democracy, digital rights and how to deal with Anti-semitism and Islamophobia. And the list goes on. A glut of important and difficult questions meeting a dearth of answers.

Not that there aren’t any (or at least good suggestions). The tech journalist and author Jamie Bartlett shared some of the ideas from his book The People vs Tech, which offers a dystopian and a utopian scenario: either big tech will destroy Western democracy as we know it, or Western civilization and democracy will find a way to regulate and rein in tech.

Solutions centre around how to treat the big platforms: as publishers? As utilities? Should they be subject to safety regulation similar to the aviation industry or the pharma industry? Perhaps Byline Fest 2019 will have the answers.

Next in our budding book club was Robert Peston’s “WTF?”, which Sam read recently. Plenty of discussion of SmallDataForum topics, amid broad themes such as a inequality and a decline in social mobility. And leading to economically-grounded, utopian perspectives such as a universal living wage.

Neville’s summer reading consisted mainly of post-apocalyptic novels, a metaphor for this day and age and modern versions of classic stories structured around Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, e.g. trying not to fall off the Brexit precipice.

We finished on a ROFL as we pondered P&G’s plan to trademark youth-speak and texting acronyms. This Campaign article provides some good perspective. LMFAO? WTF indeed.

Listen to episode 21:

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