A Destructive Pandemic Ruining the Attention Economy… Even More
In just 6 short months, the world has become a very different place as the coronavirus disease, has brought countries to a standstill, pushed hospital systems to the edge, and dragged the global economy into what may be the worst recession since World War II. Humans are connected globally by a crisis that requires us to work together. Even as we experience many of the same drastic changes, we are all fixated on the subject of coronavirus. Being stuck in the house for months straight, not being able to do anything, may have allowed us to disengage from the attention economy and embrace our surroundings and nature, and oddly enough, that is what Jenny Odell stresses in her book How To Do Nothing. In this essay, I will explain how inaccurate the attention economy can be, especially through this damaging pandemic.
The recent pandemic has devastating consequences for social life in all corners of the world. People are dying and country after country is forced to take drastic measures in the hope of flattening the curve. For others, this pandemic is an opportunity to reach a wide audience, to make money or to further a political agenda. Not surprisingly, the coronavirus crisis is heavily politicized by “famous” YouTubers. The attention economy is the collective human capacity to engage with the many elements in our environments that demand mental focus (Maly, Ico). This term reflects that the human capacity for attention is limited and that the content and ideas that attention far exceed that capacity (Maly, Ico). Considering the lives that are at stake during this pandemic, digital media companies are taking precautions. Several major tech companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, declared that they would combat misinformation on the coronavirus (Maly, Ico). When searching for information on the coronavirus, you can see that Google prioritizes official government communication, showing safety tips and local mainstream media news. The massive attention to and communication of mainstream media sources, government and health institutions information on the coronavirus has a double effect. On the one hand, it makes it more difficult to “stumble across” junk news. On the other hand, it creates a market for people actively searching for “alternative news” on the virus (Maly, Ico). Especially the mainstream media, which has been carefully built up in recent years. Joseph Paul Watson is one of those YouTubers that use each heavily mediatized real-world event to further their political agenda. On January 24th, 2020, Watson published his first video on the coronavirus titled “bat soup”. Not only has the virus spread, so too has misinformation. This disturbing video blamed Chinese “dirty” eating habits, in particular, the consumption of wildlife, which supposedly caused the outbreak of this fearful virus. Although bats have been named in recent research from China as a possible source of the virus, “bat soup” is not particularly commonplace in the country and the investigations into its exact origins continue. Over 783,000 people have viewed this video so far and more than 16,000 people have commented on it (Maly, Ico). In the video, Watson manufactures a story mixing up facts and fiction. The scientific fact that the coronavirus was probably transmitted from bats to humans is simplified and reframed. Watson produces content that simplifies, twists and merges facts with fiction, specifically leaving out certain parts of the truth to make a “new”, sensational video like the one in the last example in order to make a political point. This type of activism boosts interaction, and also reaches this attention-based economy. In Joseph Paul Watson’s case it shows how political activists can use media hypes and global crises to further their political plan. Digital media, like YouTube, enables activists to reach a large audience by surfing the hype of the moment (Maly, Ico). A quick search on “bat soup corona” immediately shows the problem with the attention economy. Meanwhile, Watson’s posts are still visible on Twitter and Youtube. Although Odell and Maly share similar ideas, they presented different proposals with the same themes. Maly takes his ideas from recent social media activities that are going on, including fake news and his design of “bat soup”. The idea of “bat soup” is unnecessary, disrespectful and downright wrong. It portrayed fake news and allowed Watson to get “hyped up” from the media across the country for presenting fiction about a horrific pandemic. On the other hand, Odell depicts far from the simple anti-technology, or the nature meditation. Odells How to Do Nothing, is an action plan for thinking outside of the capitalist world and the society’s technological values.
Comparing the attention economy and social media to the way my family and I made something good out of the pandemic was the main goal in my paper. Jenny Odell stresses the importance of escaping from the attention economy. My main point for bringing these two topics together was to explain how dangerous the attention economy can be, and how much worse it got during the pandemic and how my family handled it. We tried to embrace our surroundings and not get caught up in the fake news media. I think my family and Jenny Odell’s bird watching tactic were very similar and it taught us a huge lesson to not be tied into the media and the horrific attention economy. Odell uses a personal example saying “One thing I have learned about attention is that certain forms of it are contagious, when you spend enough time with someone who pays close attention to something, you inevitably start to pay attention to some of the same things”. Odell’s meditative process of bird watching helps redefine this quote. Bird watching has helped Odell admire something have the freedom to fly around and live its life. Her friend has found himself doing the same thing, paying close attention to birds. Disengaging from the attention economy and re-defining what we think of as productivity, can show us a new way to connect with our environment and reveal everything that we’ve been too distracted to see about ourselves and our world. These companies and websites are full of fake news and people are so caught up in it. People need to get away from the media and use their precious time more wisely. The most damaging idea is commercial social media, which is affecting the way we live and see ourselves. The constant feeling of pulling out your phone to check notifications, email friends, and even tweet about the latest world event. You feel the need to stay on top of everything. And it makes it so hard to live your life happy. Odell’s idea of “unplugging from technology” is an idea that I admired from her.
In chapter 3, Odell states “If doing nothing requires space and time away from the unforgiving landscape of productivity, we might be tempted to conclude that the answer is to turn our backs to the world, temporarily or for good” (30). “Digital detoxing”, requires a lot of planning and encouragement, but in my opinion it is well worth it. Jenny Odell explains her solitary Sierra Nevada trip with no WiFi or cell reception. Odell stresses how unprepared she was. “I hadn’t told people I would be offline for the next few days, hadn’t answered important emails, hadn’t downloaded music” (30). This unexpected change had Odell freaking out, but quickly adjusting and not caring. It’s fascinating to see how fast a phone appears as a just object; a black, metal rectangle. From a new perspective, Odell noticed she was diligently working on her project without being distracted by light up notifications on her phone screen (31). Odell argues that because the internet strips us of our sense of place and time, we can counter its force by placing ourselves within our physical environment, by becoming closer to the natural world. During the long, quarantine months, I realized instead of being disappointed about being stuck in the house, to embrace it. My family and I were able to go on many nature walks, and have many long board game and movie nights. It was the little things that were making us happy and if the pandemic didn’t hit, those activities wouldn’t have happened. When we stop, step back, and refocus our attention, we can begin to see the outline of a better, more meaningful existence. Ironically, the most effective tactic against our 24/7 culture of productivity might just be doing nothing. Jenny Odell hopes that, How to Do Nothing will become a new, popular proposal, instead of our productivity obsessed environment. Hopefully by doing nothing, people will find ways of connecting to self- meaningful things. Obviously, when doing nothing, it is not activism, but she explains activism very clearly. She preaches how important it is to pay attention to the little things and to not get caught up in the attention economy because it is not a reliable source. So, pay attention to the things that are right under your nose and examine them, it may become a new part of your life.
Maly, Ico, “The Coronavirus, the Attention Economy and Far-Right Junk News.” Diggit Magazine, 24 Mar. 2020, www.diggitmagazine.com/column/coronavirus-attention-economy.