Doubt the Truth: Pitfalls of Treating Human Attention as a Commodity

I remember a dialogue from The Truman Show where Christof, the architect of Truman’s reality, talks about the nature of reality, “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented, it’s as simple as that.”

Listening to the line really rung a chord of confusion in my heart and I began questioning if perception and reality are one and the same thing. During the Nazification of Germany, one method of propaganda used to subvert the perception of millions of German kids in favour of Hitler’s ideology was to make them read books that propagated the Nazi worldview. This experiment was one of the first successful attempts at manipulating the psychology of millions of people to bring out a behavioural change that was desired by the one who wanted to benefit from such manipulation – in this case, Adolf Hitler.

What lay at the core of this manipulation was much more sinister. This was the psychological enslavement of millions of Germans who could have chosen a different future altogether if only Hitler had not decided to manipulate them into thinking that this is what they wanted. It’s also a classic example of how psychological enslavement can have consequences in the physical world.

Almost 70 years have passed since the World War II, and thanks to the humanitarian advocates of the past, who saw values like peace, freedom and liberty as more enterprising and benefitting to the civilisation’s growth, the enslavement as was practiced by Hitler has lost its power. This simply means that in the modern world there are fewer chances for a person like Hitler to succeed in any attempts at organised psychological tyranny. We have secured our world from producing another Hitler that is for certain, but the question that overwhelms me is, have we secured ourselves from psychological enslavement?

With the digitisation of the modern world and ever-growing social media engagement, we have officially entered the stage of ‘attention economy’, a term coined by Herbert Simon in the 1970s. The ‘attention economy’ treats human attention as a resource that is consumed by the information. Yes, you read that right. Normally, we are conditioned to believe that we consume information and use it for our gain. Seen from the other side, it is the information that consumes our attention.

To understand this better, let’s go back to 1940 Germany, where Hitler burnt textbooks and supplanted them with propaganda materials that ended up consuming a generation of German blood into a self-humiliating war, spilling the blood of millions of people that the Nazis killed.

The question of interest here is: What consumed what?

Was it the innocent Germans who read the propaganda books, or the propaganda books which brainwashed these innocent people into believing that Hitler was not evil incarnate, that he was a saviour?

‘Attention’ is a mental function through which any living organism takes in the information. This information is then processed and is utilised for self-preservation and protection from physical harm. In the case of humans, however, it also helps in perception creation. Attention is a tool through which any piece of information seeps into our mental faculty and helps us create and make sense of the world around us. Through continuous exposure to information of different kinds, we consciously and unconsciously adjust and re-adjust ourselves by changing our perception of the environment and thereby habits. In its ultimate and most pristine form, attention is a divine resource that each one of us is blessed with, to make sense of the universe we are in.

However, this resource has become a saleable commodity in the hands of social media giants such as Meta, Twitter, Google, Snapchat etc. The corporations who purchase our attention are the ones who need it to sell their products to us. These two types of corporations, one that sells our attention and the other to which we are sold, work in unison to manipulate our consumer habits by subtly spying on us for information that we never consciously want to give away in the first place, and then by bombarding us with invasive advertisements that we never intend to see.

With time, social media has become more and more efficient in keeping us glued to our phones. This has been done by companies making their products increasingly addictive. The more time we spend on our screens, the more business it means for these corporations. It is simple economics. Today, every single screen that we use is being tracked by these large machines, lying somewhere around the globe, powered by artificial intelligence whose sole agenda is to keep us hooked for as long as possible. It does so by collecting, processing and predicting every second we spend on these platforms. These apparently innocuous AI, which now have a life of their own and which run on complex algorithms that only a few minds on this planet can understand, provide us recommendations and feeds that are customised to our taste and are infested with advertisements targeted towards our subconscious. What happens next is what we all know, we end up spending hours on our phones scrolling miles and miles of targeted feeds all the while ignorant of the sinister business model that runs behind the curtain.

Also read: The Importance of Being a Truman in a Post-Truth World

Well, there is nothing wrong with targeted advertisements, some might say. Some might even choose conscious ignorance for the simple fact that there is nothing existential about it. But this conversation becomes dark when we start assessing the extent to which these AI can go to mine for our attention. With extremely personalised feeds that cater to our taste, these technologies are basically robbing us of our right to truth and our right to decisional privacy. Just as what happened with millions of innocent Germans in the 1930s, these technologies are enslaving our psyche and they are modifying how we behave in the real world. The only difference is their agenda lies solely in money.

To understand the impact of this sinister model we need to understand how our internal life is intrinsically connected with the external world. Our worldview is basically a set of opinions that we subconsciously formulate based on the variety of information we receive from the outside. From an era when humans had access to multi-faceted information, we now have moved to an age where information is being fed to us by a machine. Earlier humans had a choice as to what information they wanted to ingest. They were free to choose the books, articles and entertainment they wanted to read or enjoy and this simple freedom gave them the luxury to assess opposing sets of ideas on one singular topic. Meanwhile, in the backdrop, they created their own set of ideas based on independent judgment, leading to more diversity in the real world.

In the digitised modern world, humans are being served with an identical set of information. We don’t have access to opinions that run counter to our own and this evil trait of the attention economy has led to widespread polarisation. We are being hardened to think that our opinions are the only opinion that deserves the light of the day. This also means that on some unconscious level we are being robbed of our right to form independent judgment. A study says the polarisation and tribalism have been on the rise since 2010-11, the year in which social media took the world by storm.

We are being hard-wired to a very limited set of ideas specially curated for us based on the pages we already follow, the political ideas we accidentally adhered to at one point in our life or the posts to which we gave a thumbs up because we actually liked it. As a society, we have reached a stage of Orwellian dystopia where it’s tough to answer ‘what is truth?’, all because our perception of truth is being modified by an algorithm which doesn’t care for basic human values like the one at stake in this conversation.

In the age of an attention economy, it’s important for people to be more and more conscious of what is it that they are giving attention to. These technologies that are set to rob us of our privacy and free will are here to stay. They are here to manipulate us into beings that we might not want to become. Every piece of information is craving for our attention. It is our attention which gives them the power they need to make money out of us.

So what’s the solution? I believe that the solution lies in cultivating the virtue of doubting the ‘truth’ while we still can. We have landed up in a world where our free will is being attacked from all four corners. In all this doubt is a weapon. The only truth that should matter at this point is – “perception is selection”. Your perception of the world is your selection of the information you swallow. For the sake of humanity, it is our duty to look into as many diversified and opposing ideas as we can, and reach the truth for ourselves. All one needs at this point in time is to be extremely conscious as to what kind of information is consuming us. It’s time to take stock and assess the relationship between our attention and the information that consumes it.

Featured image: Michael Carruth / Unsplash