Law in the Internet Society

The Benefits of Boredom: Reclaiming agency in an attention economy

Surrounded by Noise

Following several in-class discussions touching on ever present digital advertisements, the modern currency of attention, and professor Moglen's refusal to carry a cell phone, I began to grow more cognizant of the torrent of audiovisual information I was processing on a daily basis. It wasn’t always this way; my first handheld phone was a middle school birthday gift, and its functionality was limited to calls and texting. I recall my initial disdain for the technology, as it only served as a means of parental monitoring while outside the home. However, as time passed and I was upgraded to a smartphone in high school, my usage of social media progressively increased, coming to a head during my senior year of university, when staying secluded in my basement-apartment during COVID shutdowns drove me to seek out human connection. This pursuit resulted in more media consumption; cooking shows, news broadcasts, educational podcasts, anything that allowed me to hear another human voice and procrastinate the my senior year capstone project. What began as a means to simulate human interaction in isolation continued to persist within my daily habits once the threat of coronavirus was summarily forgotten. I began checking my phone more often, scrolling through social media feeds compulsively, and rarely spent a moment of my day without some kind of podcast or music playing in the background. My morning routine now consists of promptly opening gmail on my phone, followed by pointless Instagram browsing that wastes 20 minutes on a good day. And as class discussion began to address the "engagement" centric design of social media, I was struck by the unique position society had placed cell phone users in as compared to all preceding generations; having for the first time endowed every person with a device algorithmically engineered to produce a continuous stream of optimally entertaining content. Beyond my own subjective experience, preliminary research has indicated impacts of short format social media use are akin to addiction, findings that are unsurprising.

The Extraction Imperative and It's Consequences

My personal realizations mapped strongly onto concepts articulated in "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism". Zuboff dubs the browsing that has replaced the quiet I previously enjoyed in middle school the "behavioral surplus"; user data gathered from the ordinary engagement with either social media, search engines, or advertisements that underpins the existence of targeted advertising, whose profitability in turn subsidizes the imperative to extract further data from its user base. Time spent unengaged is inherently unprofitable, and the logical conclusion of the new attention economy is to maximize the expropriation of human experience. What I personally experienced was, not only the expropriation of my experiences, but a dopamine fueled incentive structure to facilitate further collection, what Zuboff refers to as the elemental right to a future tense being stripped away when the proverbial hand of my attention fits within the glove of social media. However, while Zuboff offers a robust historical analysis of how this particular tendril of the parasite with the mind of god came to be, and provides a foundation for the conversation regarding industrialism and behavioral modification, she is silent as to means of resistance to the addictive effects of social media. This is the question I’m interested in; how ought we mitigate the known deleterious effects of experiential expropriation on a broad scale?

Framing Expropriation Through the Lens of Addiction

Contextualizing the mechanisms of experience expropriation as substance addiction is only natural, given both the studied impacts and the intended consequence of both; addiction is a feature, not a bug. This framing is further instructive in selecting appropriate remedies and the correct social attitude to adopt when engaging the issue of social media addiction; namely, one of treatment rather than vilification. We have adopted a relatively cavalier social attitude towards this new form of addiction because of its broad normalization and lack of comprehensive study. None of the nuance with which we discuss other addictions is imparted to social media use, which is particularly unfortunate as the vast majority of users are children and young adults. First and foremost, the cultural aspect that normalizes expropriation must shift, and we must collectively view social media usage (especially by younger people) through a far more critical lens. Assuming the conversation shifts and society develops a desire to address this, models for how to do so are few and far between. Few social programs exist that address the issue, and only address those whose everyday function is impaired because of use; leaving the majority feeling the effects of behavioral modification unaddressed. Furthermore, given the state of policy relating to the much more serious issue of drug addiction in the United States, it appears unlikely that experience expropriation will receive much attention. And while some individuals may simply renounce smartphone usage altogether, advocacy for the abandonment of technology, especially when so heavily socially ingrained, is unlikely to gain much traction. Solutions therefore, must be both grassroots and incremental in nature; this is where the free software movement’s philosophy of giving free ownership to good software (provided it remains free) can be applied directly. Existing applications that block access to social media through a minimalist interface could particularly benefit from this design lens, especially if that software were upgraded to block location tracking/activity monitoring features. Innovative startups have also begun responding to demand for less experience expropriation by selling stripped down phones, sometimes directly citing Zuboff’s literature as the rationale behind their business model. Time will only tell if these options are cynical cash grabs that repackage old technology for a quick buck, or genuine attempts at reversions to good technology that values privacy and does not attempt to platform behavioral modification and experience extraction.

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r4 - 30 Jan 2024 - 22:15:57 - AlexanderLandyshev
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