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The social dilemma behind the attention economy

Have you ever checked your emails, and two minutes later, mindlessly refreshed them? Maybe you have an urgent deadline for work, but keep jumping back and forth from YouTube or Twitter and fail to complete it on time. If so, you’re not alone, as a primal urge has seduced you.

In a world deluged by irrelevant information, our attention spans are subject to a never-ending cycle of dopamine hits. Like when did you last read a book without being distracted? Without feeling the urge to pick up your phone?

The cost of allowing our devices to suck away our energy damages our ability to think clearly and creatively, sleep well, and ultimately, manage our time and choices.

Here we’ll discuss how to take back control of your time and attention without going cold turkey on tech.

Are you getting enough attention?

Attention is a deep and complex emotion, which flows through us and forms the basis of our relationships with others. Whether you’re a social media influencer or a bookish introvert, we all require love and acknowledgment from our peers. 

From Paleolithic handprints in Lascaux exclaiming “I was here” to posting InstaStories on vacation, we crave attention as humans because of its relative scarcity in our lives.

Most of us have plenty of food and adequate shelter. Yet, we continually seek recognition of our existence, sharing photos, videos, and opinions online — we’re starving and not just for dinner.

Like how many of you have posted something on Facebook or Twitter and refreshed it instantly, longing for likes and views? Millions of people are browsing for love right now, and it’s a natural, understandable urge.

Yeti on YouTube surrounded by dollar signs

Why attention matters

With our physical and virtual lives converging in the digital age, attention has become a currency as companies look to monetize our emotional needs on an industrial scale. As when we pay attention to one thing, we’re ignoring something else. 

It began fifty years ago when the US military sent the first email, and this dopamine hook has since migrated through to social media. The transactional exchange of information is what drives the economy and fuels our co-dependence with big tech.

Attention can manifest in multiple ways and is crucial to our social standing. That’s why influencers wield so much power in the attention economy. All it takes is an endorsement from one, and likes and followers will trickle your way, elevating your status within their ecosystem and fueling an addiction that began half a century ago. 

Driven to distraction

Every day, we’re flooded with information and with so many entertaining options only a click away. It’s becoming increasingly hard to focus on one task, as whenever you need to focus, you can instantly distract yourself with fun and games. 

Time moves quicker online, and everything feels like it happened either five minutes ago or five years ago. During lockdown, we no longer experienced time through real, everyday interactions. Rather it registers in our brain as data-driven dopamine hits, which speeds up everything.

Our late-stage pandemic existence also affects our memory, with days, weeks, and months becoming indistinguishable without human stimulation. Can you remember any Zoom or WhatsApp video chats from last month? Anything at all? Or have they gone down an Internet wormhole without a trace? 

Just one more episode, I swear

With non-stop entertainment in everyone’s pockets, skip rates on Spotify have never been faster. Blog articles come with estimated reading times (see above if you’ve got this far), and zombie pedestrians are bumping into street lights. 

Netflix’s biggest competitor is not Amazon Prime or HBO Max, but the basic human need to sleep for eight hours a day to get success. It requires significant willpower to resist the drug-like high you feel while binge-watching at 2 am.

Only by immersing yourself online, you’re losing hours of your time and sometimes neglecting your family and relationships on things that don’t matter.

So how do we fight back?

fish meditating with incense

Reclaiming your humanity from big tech

Tech companies have little incentive to change their business models, yet our lives revolve around their fast technology. 

It thereby falls upon us as individuals to refocus:

Identify your fears

If you constantly play with your phone, it’s probably because something uncomfortable is on the horizon. Procrastination is an avoidance strategy to avoid stressful situations. Turning off your devices can help you focus on what matters. 

Make time for social media

If you make time for work, exercise, and household chores, why not do the same for social media? A set time. Not all the time.

Turn off your push notifications

Go to Settings and turn off all but essential app notifications. Once done, all the rings, pings, and dings will soon disappear. You’ll quickly realize most of them were unnecessary.

Go offline every day

Do you need your phone on you all the time? Why not leave it at home when you go shopping, exercise, or meet your friends? Offline is quality time.  

Logging off

Our generation faces a distraction crisis, but there’s no obvious cure for the products we can’t put down. It’s reached a point where Silicon Valley’s tech titans prohibit their children from using the devices they invented. 

Such is the social dilemma behind the attention economy. Younger generations have developed counterpoints like artisanal crafts and cheese-making classes that don’t require your phone — so we can engage without any prior interaction, without being shepherded by algorithms.

Maybe it’s too late, and none of us will ever understand the tech revolution we’re living through. But does anyone want to look back upon their life and say, I wish I spent more time watching Netflix?


If you feel like taking a hiatus from tech, see how you can take a deep rest and find the off switch that’ll help restore your work-life balance.

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