Tying commercial success and programmers’ pay, bonuses, and career progression to “engagement” has created an entire arsenal for capturing and directing attention without regard to the effect of these techniques on the user’s subjective experience of the product. A company that needs you to be engaged with its product is not necessarily concerned with whether you enjoy that engagement: if you visit Google to look up a cookie recipe, get directed to a news-cycle about impending nuclear armageddon and spend the afternoon terrifying yourself and never bake the cookies, that is a success for Google, even if you go to bed hungry and anxious at the end of it.
Tying human attention to financial success means that the better you are at capturing attention – even negative attention – the more you can do in the world. It means that you will have more surplus capital to reinvest in attention-capturing techniques. It’s a positive feedback loop with no dampening mechanism, and, as every engineer knows, that’s a recipe for disaster. Machines that have a system for speeding up and no system for slowing down eventually tear themselves apart and explode. […]
Since Trump’s audiences are extreme, and since they like things that outrage others, Trump’s statements make for excellent clickbait: it’s nearly impossible to hear one of the pronouncements that emerges from this evolutionary process whose selective pressure is cheers from bigots without repeating it, “Did the President just say _______?” […] Trump and ad-tech co-evolved without ever colluding: he is the engagement-maximization president.