Technology and Advertising: Commodified Attention

Technology quite clearly plays a significant role in considerations of sustainable transitions. Whether a person identifies as pro or anti technology for visions of the future, it is still a major social and innovative force that needs to be dealt with. Many socio-ecological researchers are doing a good job of looking at either how physical technologies (i.e.: energy production) will or will not sufficiently provide for humanity, and our limits to growth within that. Many are also dealing with the energy expense of technological processing (i.e.: the energetic cost of data). My interests are within two areas that are less travelled by socio-ecological researchers. The first is on the viability and approach for low-tech sustainable futures and the second is on algorithmic co-opting of social behaviour as a barrier to socio-ecological change.

If you want a quick pop-sci introduction to the background of this problem, I highly recommend watching the documentary The Social Dilemma.

I am interested in doing more work on this topic, creating a more modern theory of advertising for ecological economics. I recently wrote a paper addressing some of these topics that is currently under review. Here is the abstract:

Big data and online media conglomerates have significant power over the behaviour of individuals. Online platforms have become the largest canvas for advertising, and the most profitable commodity is users’ attention. Large tech companies, such as Facebook and Alphabet, use historically effective psychological tactics of advertising in tandem with enormous amounts of user data to meet the needs of their customers effectively and efficiently. Their customers are not the user, but the corporations competing for advertising space on the users’ screens. This commodification of attention is a serious threat to socio-ecological sustainability. In this paper I argue that big data and social advertising platforms, such as Facebook, use commodified attention to take advantage of psycho-social neuroticisms and commodity fetishism in modern individuals to perpetuate conspicuous consumption. They also contribute to highly fragmented information ecologies that intentionally obscure truths regarding sound science such as our ecological emergencies. Unwitting commitment to stakeholders and growth economics makes social advertising conglomerates a significate barrier to a socio-ecological future. I provide a series of questions for a research agenda that could more meaningfully engage with these technologies in ecological economic research.

I am particularly interested in how the history of modernity, advances in psychology, and technological innovation combine to create highly efficient advertising mechanisms.