The distraction economy


For many years, ever since the publication of Eli Pariser’s book that coined the term, there has been an ongoing debate about the digital “filter bubble”. With the increasing polarization of recent times and the rise of Donald Trump, the filter bubble once again is receiving major attention.

But it is probable that the discussion about the phenomenon of filter bubbles is just a distraction. And distractions are a much more significant problem. We humans have a tendency to constantly focus our attention on things that don’t really matter. Why? Because it allows us to pick the debates and fights that we understand, neglecting everything that appears to be too complicated to deal with.

In his new documentary HyperNormalisation (which I warmly recommend), the English documentary film-maker Adam Curtis describes how the politicians of the West over the past decades have been creating what he calls “fake realities”. Because the systemic complexity has been growing to unfathomable levels, the political and societal elites adopted distraction strategies by creating simple “good and evil” narratives which everyone could relate to. Not as part of a conspiracy theory, but simply through their own inability and lack of comprehension. Those fake realities had to be maintained though. Therefore politicians transformed into problem and risk managers, constantly working on promoting “their” realities despite those becoming even more out of touch with what was actually going on. People started to notice of course since the opposite of the promised outcomes happened, such as the seemingly never-ending and always unsuccessful “War on Terror”. The subsequent loss of trust into the establishment’s capabilities paved the way for today’s populism.

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That’s distraction in regards to the grand scheme of things. But distraction happens even on a small scale, all the time. And here, the Internet acts as a catalyst. There are few words that describe the nature of the Internet better than “distraction”. Every user minute is embattled. Often this is dubbed the “attention economy”. What everyone wants is the attention of the user. What’s been provided in return for attention is distraction. Thus one could also call it the “distraction economy”.  The distraction does not only come in the form of notorious procrastination material, but also in the form of discussions, thousands of news (often marked as “breaking”) and numerous ongoing micro conflicts about any topic imaginable that some people might disagree on. There is always a tweet one could get angry about, a Facebook discussion one could join, a rant on a blog, a heated group messaging discussion with friends, a shitstorm with some semi-famous person at its center, an obscure idea or movement that tries to gain traction, and so on and so on. And each and every matter comes with the implied promise of relevance and importance: “Here, this issue is worthy of your time and attention”.

It’s hard to know what’s really relevant and important, and what only pretends to be. Most of it is in fact distraction and moves the focus away from what matters. Or, to express it with Sturgeon’s law: 90 percent of everything is crap. That’s definitely the case with the distraction economy. Which, of course, does not mean that indulging in this crap can’t feel good and entertaining for a short while.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to avoid the distraction, both the various daily micro distractions as well as those related to the big picture. Again, systemic complexity makes it pretty much impossible to even fully see the big picture. But the constant desire for distraction can change the actual reality. A few days ago, the Swedish communications specialist Brit Stakston published a blog post expressing her frustration about how media and social media essentially created Donald Trump (here is a version translated with Google). She criticizes how each distasteful tweet and narrow-minded statement of Trump was amplified by the masses, giving them undeserved weight, attention and reach: “Political games instead of substance. Tough words and lies receive attention instead of facts and thoughtfulness.”.

Everyone with an interest in the world of digital media is aware of the flaws of today’s media logic. But the protagonists themselves feel powerless, because they are bound to the rules of the game. They have to follow the rules of a system which forces all actors to permanently focus on the wrong and unimportant things. To distract the audience because the audience desires to be distracted, and because distraction pays the bills.

The constant distraction of all participants of the digital discourse and of the public debate in general means that too few resources (time, attention, creativity, money) are being invested into finding answers to the grand questions of our times. How we want to live. What the real flaws of our societal and economical system are. What visions of a better world can be turned into reality (only Elon Musk delivers). How to tackle the ecological, social, moral and ethical challenges of the future. In relation to their importance, these questions receive too little attention. Because everyone is constantly distracted – individual citizen, media people, intellectuals, business leaders, politicians. Day to day fuss instead of long-term focus. Infotainment instead of seriousness.

And so the longstanding debate about the filter bubble is not much more than distraction that shifts the focus to a substitute problem which people can comprehend. The underlying dilemma is much harder to face: That people actually are inclined to channel their attention towards trivialities such as biased articles about some kind of irrelevant event in their news feed. And that they care more about the symptoms than the underlying causes for the perceived grievances.

Here you can read this article in German.

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Illustration: Flickr/Conor, CC BY-SA 2.0


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