The Eyeball Economy: How Advertising Co-Opts Independent Thought

Computer Science and Behavioral Economics

Attention is a limited resource. There's just 24 hours per human per day, and every advertiser wants it. The attention economy has always existed—penny papers competed with each other the same way streaming services do now—but today we feel it so much more because our devices are no longer plugged into walls; we can take them with us, to have entertainment and knowledge wherever we go. But if only it were just those two things. Tristan Harris, a design thinker and former ethicist at Google, explains how advertising has become increasingly persuasive and tailored in the age of big data. Companies sell users' attention and personal information to the highest bidder, who uses it to manipulate thoughts and beliefs—be it about products or politics—with very little transparency. This critically undermines our free will and democracy. "So many of our institutions depend on us having sovereign minds and sovereign ideas," Harris says. It's time to start rigorously questioning advertising's business model, and reorganize the attention economy to align with public wellbeing. To find out more about Tristan Harris, head to tristanharris.com.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Tristan Harris: So we always had an attention economy, whether it was on radio or television there's always been a race for our attention and it's a zero sum game. If one TV station gets more of your attention the other TV station gets less. 

But now because we're spending more and more time on screens and there's so many things competing for our attention we really feel it. And in the attention economy with social media and with the Internet and our screens, everything needs your attention. So a meditation app, the New York Times, Big Think or Facebook—they're still all competing for the same currency, which is attention. 

And if one guy gets more attention someone else gets less. As an example, the CEO of Netflix recently said that the biggest competitors to Netflix weren't other video sites, he said the biggest competitors to Netflix were Facebook, YouTube and sleep, because at the end of the day it all comes from this limited supply of attention that we get. 

And part of that is because of advertising. Because the business model of advertising says I don't just want some of your attention, I actually make more money the more attention I get from you. So I have an unbounded appetite for more of your attention.  

And the problem is that as each factor in the attention economy, whether it's a meditation app or it's Snapchat or it's Facebook or Netflix, they start ratcheting up more and more persuasive design choices to stick us to the product for longer and to keep us coming back, to addict us even. And the problem is it becomes this race to the bottom, where the lower I go on the brainstem at getting you to click and stay, the lower someone else has to go.

So when YouTube ads auto play the next video Netflix has to auto play the next video too otherwise they lose out on their attention market share. And so in this zero sum game what we really need to talk about is how do we reorganize the attention economy so it actually aligns with what we want? 

Almost like redesigning the urban plan of a city, it's not about leaving this polluted city, it's how can we reorganize the city so it's livable again? How do we create zoning laws so that Netflix competes with other entertainment? How do I help each of us get the best two hours of downtime? And that's different than meditation apps that are competing for how to help people wake up in the morning. 

Imagine that those are different zones, both in app stores and on our phones so that it's really about helping us, competing to help us live our lives not competing just to get the most attention.

So, why should we be questioning advertising? This is such a huge deal. Because advertising has, up until this point, propped up much of the tech industry's economy. It's been the cheapest and easiest way to grow and scale a business because you can always figure out new ways of getting attention, and you can find new ways of getting more money per eyeball that spends time with you. 

But the costs of it are really just too big, because in a world where I've got your eyeball (and I'm Facebook) and I've got actually a billion of these eyeballs, and I'm asking, “Who wants to pay me the most to put a message in front of this eyeball?”, and in a world where I give that person personal information that would tell them exactly how to persuade this person (and they can persuade them with anything that they want because they know exactly, as for example, with companies like Cambridge Analytica which knew exactly how to persuade you politically), I would be enabling whoever wants to pay me the most to manipulate and influence this person's mind. 

And in a world that's more and more persuasive where we know more and more about what influences this person, the ability to simply sell to the highest better whoever wants to persuade them undermines something really fundamental about what of our institutions are based on.

A market is based on a person making a conscious choice to buy or transact. When you can undermine or manipulate the thoughts and attitudes and beliefs of that person then that's really not something we can stand on anymore. 

In an election where people have their own thoughts, opinions, beliefs and ideas about a candidate or about a policy—or not even, just about how much they hate each other—and that can be manipulated, then the foundation of an election or a democracy is also questionable.

And so in a world that's more and more persuasive, where it's more about persuasion than it is about advertising, what is the ethically persuasive world that we want to live in? In a world that is on a one way track getting better and better at persuading our minds to believe, feel and have different opinions than we would have had—because it can personalize exactly and tailor exactly messages that would sway us—how do we live in that world when so much of our institutions depend on us having sovereign minds and sovereign ideas and the ability to democratically talk to each other about what the right answer might be?

So we need to question the business model of advertising in the way that it affects that economy.