One of my Big Serious Goals for 2023 is to become more socially connected and make more really good friends in my new city, where I hope to be for some time to come, so I’ve been doing a lot of reading about what seems to be making this harder in recent years. This leads naturally to a bunch of related topics, like why our kids and teenagers seem to be more unhappy on average lately, why the Internet and social media are becoming less of a positive in people’s lives, and so on. And I’m becoming convinced that one thing lies behind most of our recent social and informational problems.
“One thing” might be a bit of an exaggeration, because it’s not one specific cause but one idea, taken in a bunch of different directions at once by different people and products. I’m also not claiming that this idea is the entire cause of any issue I discuss, merely that it is a significant and often underappreciated contributing factor. But there’s still this one fundamental idea. That idea is commodification of attention – that is, a system of organizational, psychological, and financial innovations that enables one to make money and/or curry favor by simply convincing people to spend time looking at things, usually virtual ones. Any value provided to the viewers or to society by the things is secondary, and the value can even be negative, so long as the promulgator can (even momentarily) convince people they would feel good to look at. Unfortunately, humans have proven to be quite vulnerable to having their attention manipulated.
Let’s get the flavor by starting with something less emotionally fraught that most of us have likely noticed in recent years: why are Google search results getting worse?