Since September of 1998, people around the world have been able to find the answer to almost any question that pops into their heads. Google Search is now 21 years old, and it carries out more than 5.4 billion searches per day. You don’t search for something online—you Google it.
Over the last two-plus decades, the search engine has also been at the center of several lawsuits, controversies, and accusations of misconduct. These allegations range from the company tracking our movement to it mishandling advertising and helping to spread fake news. Many of Google’s issues ultimately stem from its search engine, from the role it plays controlling our attention. Google, along with other tech companies and platforms, has helped to create the attention economy, in which we all have endless options and everyone involved is trying to profit from what we choose to spend our precious time on.
In Google’s case, the attention economy works in obvious—and not-so-obvious—ways. Put simply, the power Google wields by making “Googling” synonymous with “searching” means that it has guaranteed billions of eyeballs on its platform every day. And that’s a comfortable guarantee for advertisers, who can easily distract us from what we went looking for toward something else.
Google attempted to control even more of our attention with their social network, Google+, which was finally shuttered for good earlier this year. In 2015, Forbes reported that of the platform’s 111 million “active profiles,” about 90% had never posted anything at all. At the time in 2015, Facebook had over 1.4 billion active users. And this year, Google’s Ben Smith wrote that, as the platform was coming to a close, “90 percent of Google+ user sessions are less than five seconds.” The failure of Google+ represents over-ambition on the company’s part, a misguided attempt to contend with the scale of a platform like Facebook. As Mashable put it back in 2015, the platform’s fate seemed sealed from the beginning. Google was “increasingly fearful of Facebook snatching away users, employees and advertisers. Google tried to mobilize itself quickly, but approached the task with all the clumsiness of a giant trying to dance with a younger, nimble startup.”
More recently, Google has escalated its strategy of offering itself as the solution to problems it creates. Motivated in part by being forced to reckon with failed products like Google+, and in part by increased public scrutiny following the 2016 presidential election, they seem unable to avoid weaponizing our attention in the process. For example, Google Contributor lets you pay Google for the privilege of having ads removed on “participating websites.” Google pays those websites a fee in return, a somewhat sinister workaround to ad blockers that assures everyone (except users) gets paid. You aren’t forced to shift your attention to ads anymore, but the system itself is maintained.
There is also the vaguely altruistic Google Digital Wellbeing initiative, which acts as a sort of dystopian apologia from the company, an acknowledgement of the attention problem without actually taking any blame. Google says on the homepage:
As technology becomes more and more integral to everything we do, it can sometimes distract us from the things that matter most to us. We believe technology should improve life, not distract from it. We’re committed to giving everyone the tools they need to develop their own sense of digital wellbeing. So that life, not the technology in it, stays front and center.
In a promo video, they ask people on the street if they feel as though they’re in control of technology, or vice versa. It’s an interesting question coming from them.
In his article “Digital Challenges to Democracy: Politics of Automation, Attention, and Engagement,” the international relations scholar H. Akin Unver writes: “Both the approval and criticism of the system has to be communicated through the system itself, commodifying all exchanges regardless of their sentiment and belief in the status quo.” Later, he summarizes work by the media scholar Dal Yong Jin, noting that “digital platforms sustain their hegemonic status by acting as the medium of dissent about all digital relations and interactions, including those that contain criticism about these platforms.”
In other words, Google has heard your issues, and they want to assure you that they are the best source of information on how to deal with the problem. Elsewhere on the Google Digital Wellbeing website, they have some tips (unplug more often, minimize distractions, create boundaries for yourself) to help manage your use of technology. They offer a dashboard that tracks how much time you spend on your phone or using particular apps. The issue here is “technology,” not Google—if anything, they’re just trying to help. And isn’t it really your own fault for not having enough self-control?
In “The Economy of Attention,” the literary scholar John Rouse writes: “Like wealth, attention is a commodity always in short supply: no one ever has enough… The distribution of attention, like the distribution of wealth, reflects pervasive patterns of power and prestige.” That power and prestige belongs today, in large part, to a handful of companies: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple. This limitation of attention, in that we only have so much time in a day, has led some popular commentators to announce the end of the attention economy. These critics argue that our time has been fully monopolized, and there’s nowhere left to go.
There’s something to this. As a recent article in Polygon points out, for example, Netflix’s most valuable metric is screen time, so anything that is drawing users away for extended periods of time (Fortnite, re-releases of Marvel movies) is considered competition. Intuitively, this makes sense, because it acknowledges the sheer number of things competing for our attention, while also doubling down on the common assumption that these companies aren’t just staking claims within their own industries. In other words, as it becomes more important for users to prioritize their time simply to make sense of the world and everything being thrown at them, each participant is hoping to persuade us to revere their platform over everything else.
Unsurprisingly, hitting the peak of the attention economy has resulted in a digital infrastructure that rewards that which gets the most attention. One of the clearest examples is YouTube, which is owned by Google. In recent years, YouTube has been a major target for those concerned with the success enjoyed by countless YouTubers with extreme political positions, with how efficiently the platform’s algorithms seem to reward this content. Unver says elsewhere in his article:
In a digital information economy of oversupply, users rely on heuristics that help validate information, which clusters them into digital tribes made up of people that think alike… The foundation of the contemporary digital media system rests on the monetization of digital attention through metrics that emphasize engagement… which, as a social behavioral trend, tends to cluster around emotionally-charged, extreme content. Such content then appears more frequently in users’ news feeds and selected posts, offering ad companies the ideal intersection of profitability and ad efficiency. This locks all sides in a polarizing vicious circle whereby extreme content gets more interaction and is measured as more popular in online platforms, leading to the clustering of exponentially greater volumes of money around the production and dissemination of such content.
In short: they’re making more and more money off the proliferation of this extreme content, so they aren’t exactly looking to put an end to its success. Even with some token efforts, such as banning InfoWars’ Alex Jones, little has fundamentally changed about the way YouTube operates—or the extreme rhetoric that is allowed to flourish there.
This seems to illustrate the challenges we face in depolarizing the social web. It’s frustrating, for example, to see platforms like YouTube fail to be accountable for the popularity of young users like Soph, the 14-year-old viral video star raking in many thousands of dollars for her slur-laden videos promoting Islamophobia and homophobia. Not only are young users not protected from coming across radicalizing content, but YouTube’s algorithms encourage these users to take up the same strategies and language to gain notoriety and capital. In “Pathologistics of Attention,” the media scholar Jonathan Beller writes:
We have the bundling of modes of attention by computerized delivery systems and systems of account. We have, in short, the programmatic simulation of reality, the virtual mise-en-scène of all looking, without the guarantee of any real event beyond that orchestrated by the inexorable logic of advertising and value extraction… This digital montage is produced by the continued and near continuous arrival of information and affect bombs all competing—in increasingly self-conscious ways that are feedback loops of the market—for the capture and expropriation of human attention.
Beller argues that this state of affairs forces us all into unending existential crises, a war on the senses and on consciousness that operates on fear and confusion, a “prevailing psychosis” that threatens to uproot reality. No big deal!
Dismantling the attention economy may prove difficult, but it may be possible to begin with disengagement. Jenny Odell describes her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy as an “activist book disguised as a self-help book.” Her aim is to counteract the attention economy with a political consciousness that is structured around the act of doing nothing. Odell argues that the attention economy has redefined what we think of as productivity, as we are increasingly valued based on our hustle, our ability to devote as much time as possible to work, labor, or other facets of capitalist efficiency and output. Everything we do is tracked and appropriated by our employers or the technologies we use, capitalizing on and profiting from our data, our lives, our selves.
Odell’s hope isn’t quite as simple as a return to nature, or a basic unplugging. Instead, she focuses on the usefulness of uselessness: “To capitalist logic, which thrives on myopia and dissatisfaction, there may indeed be something dangerous about something as pedestrian as doing nothing: escaping laterally toward each other, we might just find that everything we wanted is already here.”
She suggests we redirect our attention toward both the biological and cultural ecosystems, both in dire need of restoration and cultivation, on an individual level and as a collective. Pulling from Gilles Deleuze’s Negotiations, she stresses that doing and saying nothing is a necessary precursor to doing or saying something:
If it’s attention (deciding what to pay attention to) that makes our reality, regaining control of it can also mean the discovery of new worlds and new ways of moving through them… this process enriches not only our capacity to resist, but even more simply, our access to the one life we are given. It can open doors where we didn’t see any, creating landscapes in new dimensions that we can eventually inhabit with others. In so doing, we not only remake the world but are ourselves remade.
Odell’s vision may seem rather utopian, but she acknowledges the many obstacles standing in our way—like Google, now 21 years old, still ready to monetize our every move. If we take steps, when we can, to take back our attention and apply it, after a moment’s rest, to the revival, reparation, and reinvigoration of our ecological, social, and cultural environs, we might just stand a chance.