Attention monopolies? Really?

Before all this kicked off, back when we cared about such things, I went to talk to Prof. Tommaso Valletti about attention monopolies: you can see a 2-minute version of our conversation here.
Tommaso Valletti is an intellectual rockstar. He’s a professor of economics at both Imperial College London and the University of Rome. He was Chief Competition Economist at the European Commission, working hand in glove with the incomparable Margrethe Vestager. He sits as a non-executive director of the Financial Conduct Authority and an academic advisor to Ofcom. And he hates Google.
Like many deep thinkers, Tommaso worries about the concentration of informational power in the hands of one of two companies: Google, and, to a lesser extent, Facebook. Between them, the two companies account for 68% of all digital ad spending in the UK. They own much of the inventory and much of the infrastructure of the digital advertising market. Their growth has paralleled the decline in spend on newspapers and magazine advertising, so much so that Facebook is now donating money to their competition during this time of crisis. Some call this responsibility; others call it charity; Scott Galloway calls it ‘giving a condemned man his last meal’.
But Tommaso’s concerns go further than this. Big G isn’t just big, it’s deep. Google doesn’t just own the inventory and infrastructure; it also owns the information – on us. It knows what we want. It knows what we want before we know what we want. It can influence what we want. This is a new type of power: a power not over supply, but over demand.
As a critique, it has echoes of Shoshana Zuboff’s new book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, with her troubling refrain of ‘Who knows? Who decides? Who decides who decides?’ Professor Zuboff’s claim is that Google and Facebook have such effective tech that they are automating us: controlling our desires to guarantee the commercial outcomes demanded by advertisers. If we don’t have effective control over our desires, then we don’t have effective freedom – as consumers, or as citizens. This is serious.
But is it that serious?
Because what I have been struck by recently is not how strong these platforms are, but how weak they might be.
Now, I don’t want to be seen to disagree with Prof. Valletti. I think that Google and Facebook have too much power and could be usefully broken up. There are rumours that Google themselves agree and may be considering exiting the ad tech business. And this isn’t such a big deal. In the face of previous market failures, legislators have often stepped in to right a self-evident wrong. It would be no different today, if this generation of Britons were as strong as any that went before.
What I quibble with is the deeper worries – the ones voiced by Prof. Zuboff rather than Prof. Valletti. Because I think this analysis mistakes the near infinite claims of the Duopoly for the very limited reality of the results.
Zuboff is very worried about the enormous power Google and Facebook have to control our minds, to get us to all want the same thing. But look around you: is that the problem we now face? It’s not a uniformity or predictability of desire that is the leitmotif of today’s world, but the fractured, fissiparous nature of public discourse. Instead of being herded into servile populations that guarantee stable outcomes for big business, people seem very good at creating for themselves private, unpredictable media environments. And, as a result, they catch elites napping when they vote for Brexit or Trump or other ‘economically irrational’ outcomes.
And instead of advertising becoming more effective as we gain more information about consumers, advertising seems to be becoming less effective – almost in equal proportion to the rise of Google and Facebook’s adshare.
And instead of digital advertising taking up more and more or our time and attention, it may be that the shift from TV to digital advertising has reduced the total amount of time that people spend with ads. Ads on Facebook and YouTube are so much easier to ignore than TV ads that they deliver a sliver of the actual attention you could expect from a traditional telly campaign. Yes, the Duopoly may be replacing the traditional media, but the new wine is much weaker than the old vintage.
So yes, it would be awful if Google and Facebook controlled our minds. But they don’t. They’re just companies. Companies with sales people. Companies with sales people who make promises about how effective their products are. Zuboff seemed to have taken these sales pitches about ‘guaranteed outcomes’ as if they are the truth. But the truth is that people are very good at ignoring advertising; they are deeply sceptical about the commercial messages that they do receive; and they don’t care very much about the brands that they end up buying. Advertising works, but it works on the margins and at the points of indifference.
Which brings us back to the current situation. Facebook and Google are huge. But corono-virus and the government response to it are bigger – much bigger. The current crisis puts the worries about our impotence in the face of attention monopolies in perspective. There is more to life than advertising, but there’s not much more than advertising to the Duopoly. As politicians take decisive action to mitigate the effects of the virus, we are becoming aware of quite how powerful we are as a people. We can choose to act in the face of danger, and we must not forget that we have this power once the crisis has passed.