David Heinemeier Hansson

March 12, 2021

The totalitarians of the attention economy

It's become increasingly common for executives of dominant internet services to see their competition as all of human activity. Not just activity spent on competing or adjacent services, no, all activity of any kind. Any time spent outside their service equating to minutes on the clock to conquer.

The latest example of this totalitarian approach to the attention economy came from Spotify's CEO Daniel Ek in an interview with The Verge:

Do you worry about Clubhouse taking people away from the time they typically listened to podcasts?

Andy Grove, the [former] CEO of Intel, said 30 years ago, “Only the paranoid survive,” and it’s definitely something that I think he was right in assuming. But I’m paying as much attention to Clubhouse as I am looking at Fortnite, or Minecraft, or Roblox. All forms of media and entertainment is minutes that could have been spent listening to audio instead. So we’re definitely paying attention to it.

Every minute is a minute you could have spent listening to audio on Spotify. How depressing is that. How obsessive is that.

And just how perverted is the idea that there are tech executives measuring the total sum our human minutes, plotting how they might convert video-game time into podcast-listening time, how they might counter an interest in social media, such that they can rack up more streams. It's straight out of a dystopian novel.

Daniel Ek is not exactly the first to declare total war on attention either. Just a few years ago, Netflix's CEO Reed Hastings was even more ambitious when he expanded the addressable market beyond waken hours and into sleep. Here he is on an earnings call with investors:

Because the market is just so vast. You know, think about it, when you watch a show from Netflix and you get addicted to it, you stay up late at night. You really — we’re competing with sleep, on the margin. And so, it’s a very large pool of time.

That wasn't a slip of the tongue. Hastings made the same point the year before when sleep was mentioned on a list of competitors that also included Snapchat.

Just think about that for a second. This is the CEO of the world's premiere streaming service, musing with investors about how he might capture more service minutes if he can steal your sleep. That's just a mind-blowing corporate directive to hear said out loud. And it suddenly makes features like Netflix's rapid start of a new episode look downright predatory. 

Even the term "binge watching" deserves a second read in light of this insatiable thirst for attention. Here's the dictionary:

binge, noun: a period of excessive indulgence in an activity, especially eating, drinking, or taking drugs: he went on a binge and was in no shape to drive | a drinking binge.

That is.. depressingly accurate? You are indeed in no shape to drive if Netflix stole your sleep. From Why We Sleep:

This coming week, more than 2 million people in the US will fall asleep while driving their motor vehicle.. As a result, 1.2 million accidents are caused by sleepiness each year in the United States.

You may find it surprising to learn that vehicle accidents caused by drowsy driving exceed those caused by alcohol and drugs combined. Drowsy driving alone is worse than driving drunk.

What's bizarre about both Ek and Hastings is that neither even earn on a per-minute basis! They both make their billions from subscriptions. As long as someone stays subscribed to Spotify or Netflix, Ek and Hastings should be happy. But they're not, because, like Ek revealed by quoting Andy Grove, they're paranoid.

Paranoid that unless you spend all your time with them, you might not renew next month. If they can get you to literally sacrifice sleep, quit playing so many video games, and stop talking to your friends on Snapchat, then you'll be theirs and theirs alone. That is a pathological degree of neediness.

There are actually companies that do profit when their total war of attention conquers another minute. Like Facebook. Every minute you spend enraged by the newsfeed is a minute Zuckerberg can monetize. Here's a quote from a former Facebook employee before the House Antitrust Committee:

“Your only job is to get an extra minute,” the former employee told the subcommittee. “It’s immoral. They don’t ask where it’s coming from. They can monetize a minute of activity at a certain rate. So the only metric is getting another minute.”

I mean. Fuck. Is that really what we've been reduced to? A set of eyeballs (or earballs??) to be squeezed until every last tear of attention is drained. The image of human batteries powering the simulation is barely a metaphor at this point.

human batteries from the matrix.jpeg

We need a completely new set of ethics to counter this assault on our attention. One that looks at binge watching as the excessive indulgence it is. Not something to be proud about, and certainly not something companies should feel comfortable bragging to their investors about.

This isn't a new problem, of course. Companies have been trying to addict us since the dawn of commerce. But usually they weren't so blunt about it! I mean, cigarette companies tried to deny that nicotine was even addictive for decades. Perdue paid doctors to prescribe opioids with the same denial: There is only individual human weakness, no broad addictive qualities here!

Silicon Valley, on the other hand, lionizes addiction under the banner of engagement. It used to be the highest praise for a tech company to be called "sticky", back when they also openly referred to users as "eyeballs". It's a little less blunt now, but barely.

We don't have to live like this. You're not a bushel of waken hours. You're a goddamn human being.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.