Attention, not data, is the new oil, and we are living in the attention economy

By Greg Henson, CEO of Henson Group


I believe there's something very profound and maybe irreversible happening to human attention in the digital age. I think it's more than a distraction, and it's more than phone addiction. In the last couple of years, digital technologies are competing for our attention in scientific, systematic ways like never before.


You could say that humans have always been easily distracted, and competition for one's attention has been around forever. I agree, but what's happened recently is the use of psychology. Big tech is leveraging psychology to keep your attention longer and away from your goals that matter.


This is very well known by the people who build digital technologies. The CEO of Netflix recently said, in addition to Snapchat and YouTube, one of their major competitors was sleep. It's scary to think that around a dozen people have their hands on levers that can control the attentional habits of over two billion people on planet Earth. I think we're only just starting to understand what this means for human life and society.


Think about the goals you have for yourself, your life today, this week, this year, and there are probably things like I want to spend more time with family. I want to learn how to play the piano. I want to take that vacation or read a book I bought a few years ago but haven't started. These are real human goals.


If you look at the goals that digital technologies have for us, they're not usually these things. Bearing no resemblance to our own, these include maximizing the amount of time we spend engaged in an app/game, the number of hits and clicks we make, the number of times we scroll or tap, and the number of comments, emojis, and page views.

This competition for your attention is what I call the attention economy, where attention is the currency.


There is an inconvenient truth that we either ignore or don't know about a lot of the time, which is these digital technologies, by and large, are not on our side. Its goals are not our goals. We kind of trust these things to be GPS' for our lives. But really, they're directing us toward these petty kinds of engagement goals.

I've felt these effects in my own life. There is more technology around me than ever before, but it's harder somehow to do what I wanted to do, such as giving my wife or kids 100% of my undivided attention. Too often, I get pulled into the temptations of Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, and wearables.


The more we are aware of the conflicts between digital technologies and our own goals, the better we can align our actions. If we're at all serious about promoting freedom or autonomy in the digital age, it's urgent for us to assert and defend our freedom of attention. For those caught in this issue, this could be your defining challenge of the year.