The rise of populism in the attention economy

Eyeview
By David Charbonneau
October 11, 2018 - 5:00am
Image Credit: The Canadian Press

WE ONLY HAVE SO MUCH ATTENTION to give and as such, it’s a valuable resource. Everyone wants our attention: social media, advertisers, politicians, family and friends. Attention is a limited resource and technology gobbles up at lot of it; just look at the number of people glued to their screens on any street or in any cafe.

Noble Prize winning political scientist Herbert A. Simon described the concept of the attention economy in 1971. The growth of information dilutes our attention. Simon says:

“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it."

More recently, James Williams has researched how technology absorbs our attention. Williams is a doctoral researcher at Oxford University but before that he also spent 10 years working for Google. He believes that the liberation of human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time.

Williams spoke to CBC’s Spark about the misalignment between the goals that we have for ourselves and the goals that our technologies would impose on us. Technology attracts attention that we would really like to apply elsewhere. He told host Nora Young:

“The things that we want to do with our lives, the things that we'll regret not having done, the things that I think technology exists to help us do aren't really represented in the system and aren't really the sort of incentives that are driving the design of most of these technologies of our attention today (June 1, 2018).”

Seen from the goal of attention-getting, U.S. President Trump makes a lot of sense. He does whatever it takes to get our attention because he understands the impact that it has on his ratings. The content of his tweets may be sheer fabrication but that’s not the point. His years as a TV showman taught him the effect that outrage has on tribalism. What is factually true is irrelevant.

“This is what people didn't realize about him [Trump] during the election: just the degree to which he just understood the way the media works and orchestrated it,” says Simon. “But I don't think there is going back, as long as these media dynamics remain as they are. In a way, I think we have to be more concerned about what comes after Trump than what we have with him.”

Trump is not interested in unifying the country – he wants to divide it so the largest tribe is his.

Research published in the February issue of American Sociological Review reveals the way Trump supporters view his acknowledged dishonesty. Participants in a study were told that one of Trump’s tweets about global warming being a hoax had been definitely debunked – that global warming is real. Trump supporters saw the tweet, not as literal, but as a challenge to the elite (Scientific American, September, 2018).

Canadian philosopher and public intellectual, Marshall McLuhan, foresaw the impact of technology:

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us,” and “The new electronic independence re-creates the world in the image of a global village.”

Four decades later, McLuhan might have added: “Populism is the politics of the global village.”