Sebastian Watzl, University of Oslo
321 19th Ave South
Minneapolis, MN 55455
"The Commodification of Attention"
Authors: Katharine Browne and Sebastian Watzl
Abstract: The big technology companies, like Google or Meta, treat our attention as a product to be bought and sold, or so it is often suggested. Attention, in other words, is claimed to have been commodified. In this paper, we take up two interconnected issues: first, we discuss the nature of the commodification claim. In what ways exactly, if any, is attention ever treated as a commodity? Second, we provide an ethical assessment of commodification of attention. What, if anything, is wrong with treating attention as a commodity? The first of these is a descriptive question and the second normative. We answer them in tandem. In response to the first question, we argue that attention is regularly commodified in the sense that individuals lend out their attentional capacities in exchange for others goods, like technological services. Our analysis here draws on a parallel to the labor market. We argue that this attention market is, at least in one way, economically and ethically more fundamental than the market in personal data. In response to the second question, we – building on the analysis in response to the descriptive question – draw on the insights of the rich literature on the ethics of contested commodities, especially reproductive and sexual labor. We argue that there nothing ethically problematic per se about attention markets. Yet, the current structure of those markets is arguably exploitative and problematic for democracy.