By Tom Martin
Executive in Residence at The College of Charleston
In his book The Attention Merchants, author Tim Wu presents the history of all the advertisers and media companies that have competed for our time and attention for the last century. Going all the way back to the first soap operas on radio, we have been presented with a plethora of “free” entertainment, news, and other content in return for paying attention to the siren song of endless advertising pitches.
While this tradition of grabbing mindshare has gone on for at least a century, in the last few years it has gained significant momentum, most notably with the rise of social media channels like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter. Google, beginning as a search engine, has become the largest advertising company in the world. Consumers now get more than 70 percent of their news via social media. Our lives are becoming inextricably interwoven with our smart phones, tablets, and other devices. To their chagrin, for most parents, the relationship with their children has become largely endless screen time management.
Make no mistake: this is not accidental. The designers of social media channels, video games, and online commerce are competing deliberately and aggressively for our undivided attention. As Wu puts it: “…whether we acknowledge it or not, the attention merchants have come to play an important part in setting the course of our lives and consequently the future of the human race, insofar as that future will be nothing more than the running total of our individual mental states.”
Trying to fight the rise of screen time is like trying to resist the forces of gravity: it’s probably futile in the long run. You’re better served learning to harness the new reality, just as aeronautical engineers have learned to overcome gravity to enable flight.
For example, educators are advising parents to practice new approaches to screen time with their children. One tactic, called the Self-Organized Learning Environment or SOLE, is a term coined by Sugata Mitra, an educator who developed the concept. You ask a child an interesting question, like, “How far is the Earth from the Sun?” and then you let them use their computer, tablet, or other device to research the answer. The older they get, the more complex the questions. And here’s the trick: you actually discuss, face-to-face, what they discover. Before you know it, you’re having a real conversation.
Software developers are beginning to combine screen time with tactile experiences, such as “exergames”, which are a blend of physical exercise and video games. The Brain Chase Summer Learning Challenge is a massive online summer camp that mixes web-based learning with a global treasure hunt. Many parents participate with their kids in geocaching, an online treasure hunt that gets kids outdoors using their GPS devices to find hidden containers.
Adults who find themselves just as addicted to screens as their children are beginning to come to terms with their online addiction, just as people do with dependencies on drugs, alcohol, and gambling. It takes mindfulness to realize that how we spend our time is how we spend our lives. Tim Wu sums it up by citing the philosopher William James, who died long before the age of attention merchants and who observed that “our life experience would ultimately amount to whatever we paid attention to.”
There is an obvious ethical issue involved with those who feed the online addictions afflicting so many, from children to teenagers to adults. Applications, websites, and games are being designed in ways that encourage us to enter the sites and stay longer each time. Tobacco companies were ultimately held to account for consciously marketing addictive products that caused cancer, heart disease, and emphysema. One wonders if the purveyors of online social media, retail, and gaming channels will ultimately face similar consequences. The issues are clearly different and one could argue persuasively that the internet, unlike tobacco, has enriched our lives in many ways.
In the end, it is up to each of us as users to define how we interact with the internet and social media. We can use these new tools as mechanisms to educate ourselves about the complexities of the world and its many creatures. We can deepen our understanding of art, music, literature, history, and philosophy. Or we can spend endless hours playing the same mindless games, or digging into the sordid lives of online celebrities who are famous for nothing more than being famous. The choices are clearly ours to make; but we should also realize that there are many merchants out there trying to influence those choices and compete for our minds. Choose wisely.