The Economy of Political Attention as a Basis for Development with a Soul

Gustavo Beliz | PASS Academician

The Economy of Political Attention as a Basis for Development with a Soul

We need an economy with a soul”, Pope Francis told us several months before COVID-19 became a global pandemic. Now his calling is even more urgent, as we are suffering from a shock never seen before in history. A world that stops on a planetary scale, with a double effect: physical disconnection and digital connection.

In this new world, the influence of technologies based on big data, artificial intelligence, psychological and neuro-scientific tools is stronger than ever. In the era of automation, what is at stake is whether human beings will continue to have free will or, on the contrary, will be mere zombie robots responding to mechanical stimuli that will determine their options to buy, vote, hate or cooperate.

1. Human attention: our most precious asset for achieving integral human development

The rarest asset of the new global production system is not land, or knowledge, or the analysis of billions of data, but human attention. Time is more than ever superior to space in a world paralyzed by the pandemic. The use of the scarce time of human attention becomes a central element of any strategy of production and development, as well as of the construction of political community. In the words of Nobel laureate Herbert Simon: information “consumes the attention of its recipients; hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”.

To achieve an integral human development, we have to overcome the underdevelopment of humanity’s attention. The economics of attention and the economics of political attention are key. In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis refers to the parable of the Good Samaritan, who, while on his way to Jericho, saw a pilgrim who had been robbed in the middle of the road. The Holy Scripture says of the Good Samaritan: “He saw him and was moved”. What the exponential technological era brings into play is our ability to “see and be moved”. It is humanity’s capacity for attention.

Behavioural economics and its Nobel Laureates (Thaler, Kahneman, Shiller) have already made the contribution that humans act not only on material and rational incentives, but also on self-esteem, identity and social justice concerns, among other. Fraternal souls and minds that are prone to cooperate with others and build consensus, instead of acting on self-interest and looking for conflict, may be sources of economic growth and development after all.

I argue that in order to achieve true economic development in today’s exponential digital world, we need to establish an ethical foundation for the emerging Attention Economy, including its impact on the political land. Comprehensive human development requires overcoming our collective Humanity Attention Deficit Disorder (HADD), the product of our disorderly digital hyperactivity.

2. The risks of an emerging Attention Economy with little ethical foundation

There is increasing concern that a purely free-market-driven Attention Economy leads to the manipulation of people and consumers by means of deceitful practices. At a personal level, this is getting to a point where the impact on things like addiction, anxiety and depression is in plain sight. At a collective level, it is affecting the proper functioning of both markets and democracies.

Machine learning, deep learning, blockchain and quantum computing are the new embodiment of the invisible hand of the market. Without a proper ethical framework, they can become weapons of mass distraction of our minds and souls. Companies are engaged in a sort of evolutionary arms race, incrementally trying new ways to design our mobile and online experiences so as to keep us engaged for one more video, one more ad, one more click. They are supported in this effort by ongoing advancements in behavioural and cognitive sciences. They continue to treat human beings as an object, our attention as a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder, our mental limitations and cognitive biases to be exploited for their gain. Companies seem to know that they can make huge profits by “confusing” consumers .

Let me mention just an example: For economic theory, prices play a crucial role in the behaviour of agents.

  • What happens then when prices are not perfect and symmetric information can be manipulated by some companies’ unethical digital business behaviour?
  • Will competition still lead to lower prices and larger wellbeing? Do markets hold as a force of efficient distribution of resources?

This is not simply a moral question, but a dangerous trend for our economies. An influx of emails and phone calls, for example, is estimated to reduce workers’ IQ by 10 points, equivalent to losing a night’s sleep, and can be extremely detrimental for productivity.

3. Manipulation of our attention is also affecting how our democracies work

This type of manipulation of our attention and our minds is not exclusive to the private sector. It is now also widely applied in the political space. Neuro politics deploys similar tools of brain scanning, face emotion coding, eye tracking experiment, physiological hormone testing, and mind-brain-action nexus, capable of measuring empathy for the pain of others, sympathy for a photo of a political leader or attention span before an electoral campaign speech. Much of our societies are being exposed to toxic information environments. Our devices are trapping us in information or filter bubbles. Thus arises a negative reality: the so-called confirmation bias, which destroys any possibility of social dialogue because all we hear are the echoes of our own ideas. The protectionism of our own beliefs arises, rather than a healthy openness that enriches our dialogue as a community.

Societies are rich in information and poor in communication. Fake news and electoral deception in a campaign can be just as poisonous as electoral party financing with money from drug trafficking or corruption. Fake news, fake democracy, fake economy make for fake societies. We face the threat of the hijacking of the mind. A capturing of our democratic attention in receptive mode. A loss in our ability to cooperate, empathize and innovate, damaging our economies, our politics, and our societies’ well-being.

4. Collective action is urgently needed, both at the national and multilateral levels

We need effective ethical frameworks to avoid or limit the types of manipulations that we face online. We have to educate with Tecno-Sapiens values; careful of the impact of technology on social and natural ties, self-aware of the unwanted consequences of technological abuse and proactive in the generation of a democracy based on an inclusive ethic. We must empower citizens and consumers, giving them ownership over their information and control over how it is used and by whom.

We are faced with a fascinating question here, which has to do with private property and its social function:

  • Is personal digital data the absolute property of those who produce it, or can it be used with your consent for causes of social utility (medical or scientific research for instance)?
  • In other words, does ownership of our data have a social function, as the Church’s social doctrine teaches regarding property in general?

In a geopolitical aspect, as the IMF chief, Kristalina Georgieva suggests, “today we face a new Bretton Woods moment”.

A Digital Bretton Woods should be the new name of multilateralism.

It should address issues of the new international technological architecture, such as sharing of digital dividends, new global standards to measure digital and intangible economies, data ownership and data privacy, cybersecurity, the moratorium on gene editing experiments, depersonalized weapons of mass destruction, e-commerce rules, AI ethical uses, among other.

Perhaps in a more modest and local way – let me use the expression “at the subsidiary level”– if we really want to build a Democracy of Discernment, we have to promote a Code of Ethics for the political advertising industry, one that avoids commercializing hate campaigns on social networks, in democratic agreement with all political parties and in cooperation with private companies.

Digital poverty is not only the lack of connectivity. It is the lack of community too, caused by the information that circulates. There is no economy with a soul, without politics with a soul. There is no politics with a soul with electoral campaigns without ideas and with extremisms. To overcome the society of disposal, the first thing we have to dispose of is hatred.

5. Finally, I would like to share with you all the other face of the moon

There is room for hope too. It is possible to use our attention for good, through smart nudges that capture our behaviour for positive impact in the public policies. The UK’s Behavioural Insight Team (BIT), for example, showed how behaviourally informed interventions can increase road safety. They were able to identify three distinct groups, showing different dominant types of dangerous driving behaviour. Knowledge of such group differences helped design more effective, better-targeted nudges.

In Costa Rica, cognitive-based interventions were implemented in the municipality of Belén, an area with above-average water use. Prompting individuals to compare their behaviour with that of their neighbours proved more effective to reduce water consumption than an increase in prices.

In Argentina, the Institute for Cognitive Psychology and the IDB carried out two behavioural interventions at the National Institute of Social Services for Retirees and Pensioners (PAMI). By simply sharing with doctors the behaviour of their peers, they achieved a drop in prescription of antibiotics and drugs to treat depression by about 10%, saving not only money but also health.

6. Conclusion: Towards a different kind of economy, one that captures humanity’s attention

To conclude, we must confront the threat of selfishness-driven economies and hatred-driven politics with the forces of collective virtue and wisdom of the crowds. Better understanding our souls and minds is the first step. Recent insights from neurosciences actually show that the pleasure of cooperating resembles and sometimes exceeds the pleasure of winning, something that classical economic theory and game theory do not contemplate.

Pope Francis has called on us to build a different kind of economy: one that brings life not death, one that is inclusive and not exclusive, humane and not dehumanizing, one that cares for the environment and does not despoil it. “Each one of us is called to be an artisan of peace, by uniting and not dividing, by extinguishing hatred and not holding on to it, by opening paths of dialogue and not by constructing new walls” (Fratelli Tutti)

Again: Comprehensive human development requires overcoming our collective Humanity Attention Deficit Disorder (HADD), the product of our disorderly digital hyperactivity.