By now, it is pretty well understood that we regularly pay for things in ways other than using money. Sometimes we pay still with cash. But we also pay for things with data, and more often, with our time and attention. We effectively hand over access to our minds in exchange for something “free,” like email, Facebook, or football games on TV. As opposed to “paying” attention, we actually “spend attention,” agreeing to the view ads in exchange for something we really want.
The centrality of that deal in our lives makes it outrageous that there are companies who seize our time and attention for absolutely nothing in exchange, and indeed, without consent at all—otherwise known as “attention theft.” Consider, for example, the “innovation” known as Gas Station TV—that is, the televisions embedded in gasoline pumps that blast advertising and other pseudo-programming at the captive pumper. There is no escape: as the CEO of Gas Station TV puts it, “We like to say you’re tied to that screen with an 8-foot rubber hose for about five minutes.” It is an invention that singlehandedly may have created a new case for the electric car.
Attention theft happens anywhere you find your time and attention taken without consent.
Attention theft happens anywhere you find your time and attention taken without consent. The most egregious examples are found where, like at the gas station, we are captive audiences. In that genre are things like the new, targeted advertising screens found in hospital waiting rooms (broadcasting things like “The Newborn Channel” for expecting parents); the airlines that play full-volume advertising from a screen right in front of your face; the advertising-screens in office elevators; or that universally unloved invention known as “Taxi TV.” These are just few examples in what is a growing category. Combined, they threaten to make us live life in a screen-lined cocoon, yet one that leaves us more like larva than butterflies, shrunken and incapable of independent thought.
What makes it “theft?” Advances in neuroscience over the last several decades make it clear that our brain’s resources are involuntarily triggered by sound and motion; hence the screens literally seize scarce mental resources. As neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry Rosen put it in their book, The Distracted Mind, humans have an “extreme sensitivity to goal interference from distractions by irrelevant information.” Meanwhile, in the law, theft or larceny is typically defined as the taking control of a resource “under such circumstances as to acquire the major portion of its economic value or benefit.” Given the established market value of time and attention, when taken without consent or compensation, it really is not much different from someone taking money out of your pocket. Hence, when the firms selling public-screen advertising to captive audiences brag of double-digit growth and billions in revenue, those are actually earnings derived by stealing from us.
As suggested, the key word here is “consent.” There’s a big difference between leafing through a magazine, reading articles and advertising by choice, and being blasted at by a screen when you have no place to go. Indeed, consent is the usual way access to the body is conditioned. The brain is a pretty intimate part of your body, from which it follows that your permission ought be asked before having your synapses groped by a stranger.
It’s easy to counter that these instances of attention theft are nothing more than annoyances; there are much more important things to worry about. But in overstimulated lives, moments do matter, and indeed sometimes few things matter more than a few chosen minutes of silence. The important question is the aggregate effect of all of these various intrusions on both our health and that precious thing known as autonomy.
For one thing, the effects on mental health of constant seizure of our attention are just starting to be understood. Gazzaley and Rosen point out that we live in a technological environment that encourages us to be constantly switching among stimuli. However, as they write, that switching comes at a cost. Constant switching “degrades our perceptions, influences our language, hinders effective decision making, and derails our ability to capture and recall detailed memories of life events. The negative impact is even greater for those of us with undeveloped or impaired cognitive control, such as children, teens, and older adults as well as many clinical populations.”
But equally important is what growing attentional theft does to what we like to consider free will. Freedom of thought is supposedly a constitutional value, a bedrock of a free society, yet we allow it to be overrun regularly. As Charles Black, a constitutional scholar, put it: “I tremble for the sanity of a society that talks, on the level of abstract principle, of the precious integrity of the individual mind, and all the while, on the level of concrete fact, forces the individual mind to spend a good part of every day under bombardment with whatever some crowd of promoters want to throw at it.”
Can anything be done? One option is to boycott companies that practice attentional theft. Yet, given the seizure happens in unavoidable situations, this may not be practical. (It isn’t easy to boycott a hospital). The other option is for municipalities to update their laws governing public nuisances to include inflicting advertising screens on captive audiences. In some ways this is a problem we have faced before: In the 1940s cities banned noisy advertising trucks bearing loudspeakers; the case against advertising screens and sound-trucks is basically the same. It is a small thing cities and towns can do to make our age of bombardment a bit more bearable.