Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Attention Economy: Has digital technology democratized information?

While I was in grad school studying technical communication, I heard a lot of professors rehashing ideas from writers like Thomas Friedman.  In his books The Lexus and the Olive Tree and The World Is Flat, Friedman argues that globalized, digital technologyi.e., the Internet and social media such as Facebookwill 'democratize' informationi.e., more people have more access to more information, and, as a result, everyone will be able to make better economic and political choices.  Has digital technology really promoted democracy, or rule by the people (as opposed to oligarchs)?

The Economist ran a special report last week about digital technology's democratic potentialor lack thereof.  Thus far, the vast majority of Internet usage is for entertainment, not education or civics.  Most people aren't listening to online science lectures or browsing art museum sites.  The mainstream isn't looking up political representatives or reading about their voting records.  For the most part, people use the Internet for entertainment, whether streaming shows and movies or sharing videos, photos, and blog posts.  When it comes civics versus mass entertainment, the latter dominates the digital world by a long shot.

Well then, maybe we could at least say that digital technology has democratized entertainment.  But as the special report in the Economist shows, digital technology has created a kind of economic paradox.

On one hand, more consumers have more choices than ever before.  There are literally hundreds of cable TV stations, thousands of Youtube channels, millions of Facebook pages, billions of websites, and God knows what else.  On the other hand, there remains a limit to how much digital content people can consume.  Consumers only have so much time in the day to give attention to something.  We call this limit the attention economy.

Furthermore, although The Economist doesn't go into it, I might also add that we are human beings who are prone to certain biases.  For example, the familiarity bias (we tend to pay attention to things we are already familiar with), the availability bias (we tend to pay attention to things that are more recent in our memory), and many other cognitive biases tend to restrict our attention.

As a result, more consumers have access to entertainment, but they pay attention to a limited number of things, which are usually blockbuster hits from media conglomerates.  This attention economy is certainly digital, but it's not democratic.  To quote the Economist:
And yet as a business, entertainment has in some ways become less democratic, not more.  Technology is making the rich richer, skewing people's consumption of entertainment towards the biggest hits and the most powerful platforms.  This world is dominated by an oligarchy of giants, including Facebook, Google, Amazon, Netflix and Disney (as well as Alibaba and Tencent within China's walled ecosystem).  Those lacking sufficient scale barely get noticed.
In effect, digital technology has not democratized information, as the special report concludes:
But whatever the arena, the biggest crowds will increasingly gravitate towards just a small number of the most popular hits.  Until recently that was seen as a natural consequence of the physical limits on production and distribution.  It now turns out that, even in the potentially unlimited digital marketplace, social networks, rankings, recommendation algorithms and the like focus people attentions on just a few items in the same way.  The story of mass entertainment in the internet age is a paradox.  Technology has given people too many choices, and then instantly relieved them of the need to make them.
Will digital technology democratize information in the future?  That is, will everyone with more access to more information be able to improve their economic and political prospects beyond the world of entertainment?  Will society follow a more democratic philosophy of technology beyond the oligopolies of mass media?

So far, the outcome has been entertainment and oligopoly for the world of mass media.  That's not all bad, by the way.  I like many of the shows that Netflix is releasing (my wife and I have been particularly impressed by The Crown), and media conglomerates like Google make this blog possible.  But let's not kid ourselves by trying to claim this is all democratic.  The attention economy says otherwise.