Practical Philosophy Seminar: Katharine Browne & Sebastian Watzl
"Attention as a Commodity: An analysis and ethical assessment"
Sebastian Watzl, Associate Professor, UiO & Katharine Naomi Whitfield Browne, Researcher, UiO
Many people seem worried about the so-called “Attention Economy.” One worry concerns how our attention is bought and sold by tech companies like Google and Meta. In the philosophical literature, some have argued that the attention economy is a noxious market. But can this economy be understood as a “market” for attention? Our aim is to improve the conceptual understanding of the attention economy with an eye to providing a more rigorous ethical assessment of it. We ask: to what extent can attention be understood as a commodity and can we apply the literature on the ethics of contested commodities (e.g., organs and reproductive labour) to this case? We distinguish what we call “front end” and “back end” transactions that are involved in the trade of our attention, and argue that neither qualifies as treating attention as a commodity per se. Nevertheless, we argue that some of the insights from the literature on the ethics of commodification are applicable.