Painted city landscape depicting a bridge over a river in front of a number of sky scrapers in the distance
Image: My River City Sky by Laing Rahner

Did you notice that the distribution model for media has changed A Whole Lot Very Quickly? 

Streaming music and on-demand video have changed how we think of such things as ‘an album’ and ‘not watching all six episodes right before bed’. The latest disruptions include Netflix-like subscription models for content that used to be single-serve, like video games and books. A personalised, endless smorgasbord of ways to spend our attention.

But our attention is not endless. And that makes corporate competition for it cutthroat. The CEO of Netflix once said that their biggest competitor is sleep. We know what a lack of sleep does to our own health, but at a societal level, it’s less an individual hardship and more a public health crisis. And this is all less about sleep than it is about informed consent.

In complex systems, whether they’re economic or political, it’s interesting to think how this works for the person designing the system. Why is the policy maker pulling that specific policy lever to get that outcome? What economic incentives push a creator to make that specific thing instead of another?

So, I think it’s worth asking the question: what happens when platforms pay content creators based on how well they monetise attention? 

This is a system that incentivises long-term stickiness and mechanics to grab attention. Algorithms show preference gaps and providers rush to fill it with an exclusive. Anyone that’s opened Instagram recently has a sense for what this feels like.

Product design often aims to reduce a user’s ‘friction’. This might help a user make decisions (the next episode is playing in five seconds) but when we play that decision out to the level of the system (people are sleeping an hour less) we realise that a little friction can be a good thing.

This isn’t a call to quit Insta, cancel your Netflix subscription, and install blackout blinds. But, as people who influence the design of systems, we should be striving to ensure these systems give people the agency to make decisions that are in their best interests.

That means not misleading people in ways that are exploitative of human psychology and behaviour. It means being upfront about what people are getting out of a system and not hiding information from them where it’s necessary to make a decision.

Thinking about the bigger picture is non-negotiable, whether we’re building entertainment platforms or urban infrastructure policies.

— Dan Woods, General Manager, Canberra

Read the rest of Issue #43 here.