What is attention?
According to Psychologists: “Attention is the ability to actively process specific information in the environment while tuning out other details. Attention is limited in terms of both capacity and duration.”
From the above-linked blog: “Think of attention as a highlighter. As you read through a section of text in a book, the highlighted section stands out, causing you to focus your interest in that area. It's not just about centering your focus on one particular thing; it also involves ignoring many competing information and stimuli. Attention allows you to "tune out" knowledge, sensations, and perceptions irrelevant at the moment and instead focus your energy on vital information.”
The value of attention
It is common to say that time is your most precious resource. Compared to money, which is another highly valued resource, you cannot buy more time. Even the wealthiest man on earth can have up to 24 hours daily.
We might equate attention to the spent on things. However, I believe time is a good heuristic for attention, but fundamentally different. It is self-evident that we might spend a lot of time in a job we do not like but offer little of our attention. We might offer a lot of attention to a person we want but only spend a little bit of time with. A committed long-distance relationship can be an example of this. Sometimes, we spend a lot of time but get nothing done. Sometimes, we spend little time but get everything done.
Due to the relationship to time, It can be argued that attention is worthless; we are constantly paying attention to different things at any one moment.
However, I'm afraid I have to disagree. On a higher level, attention relates to the “who am I” question. The sum of our actions, thoughts and what we give attention to can provide clues about who we are or want to be. Aristotelian philosophy, for example, is often preoccupied with the agents’ actions and how they affect the agent (us). Motivational speaker Jim Rohn says, "You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” I’d argue that you’re the average of the five people you give the most attention to.
On a higher level, attention relates to the “who am I” question. The sum of our actions, thoughts and what we give attention to can provide clues about who we are or want to be. Aristotelian philosophy, for example, is often preoccupied with the agents’ actions and how they affect the agent (us). Motivational speaker Jim Rohn says, "You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” I’d argue that you’re the average of the five people you give the most attention to.
In summary, we are what we choose to spend our attention; our attention relates to our identity. Despite this importance, our attention is traded on a marketplace at an industrial scale.
The attention marketplace
What is your Attention worth?
Given that attention is very valuable, can we put a price on it? If we could put an economic value to our present attention, how should we measure the continuous generation of future attention? If there is a value to it, can we trade it or buy it?
In investments, we have the concept of discounted cash flows, where we account for future cash flows by ignoring them in the present. The stock market is a discounting cash flow machine (most of the time). Therefore, if we take the market cap of a publicly traded company, we can approximate the sum of all future cash flows a company will earn discounted to the present value. If we divide that value by the number of users, we can see how much investors value each user of Google. Let's take Google as an example; for Google, each user is roughly $182.
At minimum wage in the U.S., we are bribed $7.25 to do “work”/” unsavoury” tasks (unless you’re one of the lucky ones who loves their jobs). Therefore, we should be willing to value our free discretionary time more than $7.25. If not, we would instead be working for compensation. Put another way, imagine being paid $100 an hour vs. going on a break for 1 hour. If you take the break, you’re valuing your hour over $100. Therefore, the $7.25 per hour serves as a floor of how much we should value our free time; you probably value your time more than minimum wage. Over half of Gen Z’s spend more than 4 hours daily on social media, up from millennials, Gen X and boomers. This roughly equates to 1,500 hours a year. If Gen Z is expected to live up to 100 years, this means approximately 150,000 hours used on social media for a single user and a value of $1,000,000 if we value our social media usage at this minimum wage.
So, an investor who values our attention (via Google) at $182 per user and Google’s operating margin is 25%, so each advertiser roughly values each user 4x more at $728. Of course, it can be argued that Google provides a much more valuable service than it charges advertisers. To offer a steelman case, let's assume Google could provide 100 times more value to advertisers. For every $100, the average advertiser only spends $1 on Google ads (this is much higher in actual publicly traded companies). Put another way, an advertiser can pay $728, but its value is $72,800 because, for every $1, it causes you to buy $100 worth of things. Assuming each user uses eight social media/streaming products (e.g. Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Reddit, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Netflix) and monetises as well as Google ( In reality, they monetise worse than Google). Advertisers as a whole value each person at $582,400
In contrast, the U.S. military values a life around the $500,000 to $900,000 ballpark. I've summarised the information below.
|Stakeholder||Lifetime "Value"||Price Paid (in USD)|
|Social Media Advertiser||$582,400||$5,824|
|Average Gen Z User||$1,000,000||$0 (paid in attention)|
|Whole Life (Military)||?||$500,000 - $900,000|
Advertisers pay roughly $6k to access $1M worth of attention. In other words, advertisers are undervalueing your attention by 166 times. Talk about getting ripped off! I’d argue that although the prices are set by demand and supply, advertisers are getting way more than they pay for, which is why they do it. In the aggregate, companies will only invest in marketing if there is a return on investment.
Of course, talking about the economics of human lives is disheartening, and should we put a price on our attention? Should we be able to trade it? There are some legitimate uses for recommendations and advertising. No matter your view on it, our modern society and economy are putting a price on your attention and trading it at an industrial scale.
How do the merchants of attention sell their wares?
Advertising and propaganda have always been around, from the banner ads to the famous recruitment ads for World War 1 and World War 2. However, the modern merchants of attention, Google, Facebook, Netflix, TikTok, Netflix - have taken it to an industrial scale. They use algorithms, such as k-means clustering, to find topics that people similar to you are also interested in. The data scientists, designers, psychologists and product managers from top universities are paid hundreds of thousands to keep you on the screen.
They use tricks such as needing social approval and dark patterns to keep your attention. That auto-play on YouTube and Netflix? Those were not accidental product decisions. As a society, we also play a game of one-upmanship to share our lives but inevitably compare our lives with others.
They measure metrics such as churn and bounce rate to see if you stop using the services and optimise to minimise you leaving the app. It is statistically challenging for you to look away. Yes, you might be able to withstand it this time, but someone else will not and always. If not, these companies will not be worth so much, and their employees will not be paid much to do their jobs. There is no free lunch in capitalism; there needs to be a return on investment for each transaction. While old filmmakers will have to guess what filmgoers like, Netflix has the exact moments where you skip ahead, moments when filmgoers turn off the screen.
It is also an addiction to data metrics. Companies largely independent of advertising, like Netflix, still use metrics like time engagement instead of a more holistic understanding of users need. Instead of having a user-centric design, they increasingly create low-quality shows that optimise for clickbait and time spent.
To be clear, companies do not have malintent. Capitalistic and market-oriented economies will naturally have their companies in an arms race for attention. These merchants argue that their competitors will if they don’t do it. It is essential to understand there is a slight misalignment of incentives; Netflix wants you to watch as much Netflix as possible, and it is their duty to their shareholders - however, their goal is not necessarily for you to live a great life.
Attention as a personal Income statement and Balance sheet
One can model a person's attention with the income statement and balance sheet.
On the income statement, you earn/generate attention at each time step, and you must simultaneously expense it off immediately by focusing on something.
You can also store your attention, for example, by putting it off - this is a liability. You can also have spare attention available, like cash, to spend on things you want to do.
I have found that when you overleverge on attention, letting things pile up, you cannot pay attention to something you want to do. The critical insight paying down things can be completed quickly in 5 minutes, which reduces the amount of that attention liabilities sap.
How to make a deal with the attention merchants
In general, getting away from these attention-sucking services is challenging because these apps are designed to be addictive and easy to use. On the other hand, it is difficult to completely cut them out as these devices are legitimate tools we use for communication and professional purposes. Even after a streak of good usage, I’ve found it easy to relapse into previous neural pathways.
It is cliche, but the advice on eating, sleeping, and exercising is a foundation for any life changes.
Firstly, and most importantly, being kind to yourself is essential; understanding this will be a process. Your brain is already wired to accept these dopamine hits over years of repeated consumption, and it will take an equal amount of time to rewire the brain. This is happening as the world is becoming increasingly digital. The guilt/ shame of using these devices might cause you to use the devices even more, to escape from the emotions. The key is to design your environment to help you out and constantly tweak the system to make it slightly more challenging for you to use these devices. In a way, you play the role of a reverse product manager. To make it more difficult for you to use these devices. Over the long term, slowly weaning your use of these apps.
Secondly, understand the reason why we use these devices.
- Specific triggers like – HALT (Hunger, Anger, Loneliness, Tiredness), or Bordom, FOMO, Anxiety, Fear are very unpleasant for us.
- Instead of resolving these feelings head-on or accepting them . We do what makes us feel good – we use our digital devices to numb/distract/escape from these feelings rather than solve the issue. We rather watch an influencer, then connect with someone in real life as it feels safer while offering a “para-social” relationship.
- However, this only makes it worst. We experience shame and guilt for using these digital services, resulting in even more usage. If we simply use willpower to stop us from using these devices, it is important to note that these desires don’t go away. In the end, we want to satisfy our desire eventually, the bigger the gap, the bigger the overindulgence.
Thirdly, implement simple, common-sense solutions to help you. One way, I found that it is helpful is designing your environment to help you
- Physical - Set up your physical spaces to make it more difficult to use digital devices. Some ideas that have worked for me:
- Putting phone/ laptop chargers outside of the bedroom
- Replacing entertainment options like books, physical puzzles
- Deleting Social Media apps on phone and computer
- Installing app blockers on your phone, computer and browsers
- I use cold turkey on windows
- In Chrome, I use unhooked to reduce YouTube usage
- On IOS, I use Opal, and I also turn on screen time and content restrictions (so I can’t watch it on Safari)
- Digital decluttering - removing old apps, emails
In conjunction, I find that using Mental and Psychological techniques is also helpful:
- Write down how you feel and also understand the root cause of why you use these devices.
- Often, we use these devices not because we want to directly but because we are looking for a distraction from feeling lonely.
- Simply focusing on your breath or a body scan helps you to build the muscle to focus. At any moment, our body processes tons of information from our senses - touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing. We constantly have tens of thoughts thrown at us. The attention we give to something is an evolutions way to screen out the distractions. Meditation trains this muscle.
- In the middle of that, you will likely get distracted by a sound or your thoughts. The moment when you realise that you got distracted helps you to build the muscles to resist attention.
Attention Merchants is also a great read: summary here