Michael Goldhaber is the internet prophet you’ve never heard of. Here’s a short list of things he saw coming: the complete dominance of the internet, increased shamelessness in politics, terrorists co-opting social media, the rise of reality television, personal websites, oversharing, personal essay, fandoms and online influencer culture — along with the near destruction of our ability to focus.
Now he is deeply concerned about whether the attention economy and a healthy democracy can coexist. Nuanced policy discussions, he says, will almost certainly get simplified into “meaningless slogans” in order to travel farther online, and politicians will continue to stake out more extreme positions and commandeer news cycles. He is worried that, as with Brexit, “Rational discussion of what people stand to gain or lose from policies will be drowned out by the loudest and most ridiculous.”
“We struggle to attune ourselves to groups of people who feel they’re not getting the attention they deserve, and we ought to get better at sensing that feeling earlier,” he said. “Because it’s a powerful, dangerous feeling.”
Attention is a bit like the air we breathe. The perceived lack of attention is therefore as easy to exploit as an urgent need for oxygen. Fighting disinformation we need to pay attention to that fact.