In public space, no one can hear you screen

Rowan Smith

    Attention in discourse around technology is often framed as a personal responsibility and lifestyle concern. How many hours do you spend on your phone per day? Is social media preventing you from making meaningful connections in your community? Is the amount of attention you devote to devices making you less healthy? However, rarely does this critique of technology and the ‘attention economy’, or the commercial recognition of attention as a scarce and valuable commodity, turn outwards, towards the physical, unavoidable structures in our daily lives. Digital Out of Home (DOOH) advertising—LED screens at bus shelters, or huge screens on the sides of buildings—has seen a rapid rise in public spaces, as have interactive digital artworks. Even an abundance of Wi-Fi hotspots creates a constant online connection, emphasizing that the attention economy is now manifested in the public space. The fight for our attention, whether we like it or not, follows us outside of our homes.
    Let’s be frank, a lot of DOOH advertising is gaudy and obnoxious, but aesthetics alone shouldn’t be a barometer to judge the attention drain of McDonalds wanting you to try their new burger—after all, advertising has existed for centuries. So why is this tech-infused version so much worse? The most obvious reason is that bright lights, vivid colors, and moving images are so much harder to ignore. Research from an Arbitron National In-Car Study in the U.S. shows we are more likely to notice a digital sign, with 55% of people noticing a message on a screen vs 37% on a static billboard. According to Impact Group Marketing digital displays in urban areas can increase viewership by 400% compared to traditional static advertisements, with a recall rate of 83%. Whilst these statistics are hard to verify, it’s clear that advertisers at least think that digitization is key to attracting attention.

    Technology also allows 24/7 coverage—the unrelenting barrage of LED screens are three times brighter than traditional neon lights. This has resulted in a huge increase in light pollution, with one study reporting that 83% of the global population and 99% of North Americans and Europeans sleep under light polluted skies. Each year, reports the same study, levels of light pollution increase by 6% in North America and Europe.

    The most worrying part is that there is little way for us to opt out of attention-sucking technology in public urban spaces. Nearly every major street will have some form of DOOH advertising. The U.S. saw the number of digital billboards grow from 800 in 2008 to 7,800 in 2018, according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. It’s not just advertising either. A growing number of cities are implementing digital art experiences to attract shoppers back to the High Street and increase spending in physical stores. In September 2023, Las Vegas opened ‘Sphere’, a 112m high globe covered with 54,000m2 of LED displays, pitched as a music and entertainment arena. Whilst not out-of-place on the Las Vegas strip, in perhaps an indication of a coming dystopia, a second LED sphere, roughly the size of St Paul’s Cathedral, was only narrowly rejected in a residential area of London in November 2023. Further spheres are being planned in South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Even the night sky itself might soon become a battleground of attention as several companies are looking to explore the use of drones in creating hovering billboards.

    There’s a growing scientific consensus that these levels of exposure to bright lights in major population centers is impacting our health. Professor Richard Stevens at the University of Connecticut Health Center warns that “in an environment where there is much artificial light at night—such as Manhattan or Las Vegas—there is much more opportunity for exposure of the retina to photons that might disrupt circadian rhythm” and unless we have blackout curtains there will always be some electrical light getting in. The circadian cycle is responsible for many biological processes including brain wave patterns, hormone production, and cell regulation. Studies have shown the circadian cycle controls ten to fifteen percent of our genes, meaning that disruption can have serious health consequences. Disrupting the circadian rhythm has been linked with depression, insomnia, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer. This is because, as Professor George Brainard from the Thomas Jefferson University Medical College puts it, “exposure to light during the night can disrupt circadian and neuroendocrine physiology, thereby accelerating tumor growth.” One study used satellite photos to overlay photos of artificial light in 147 communities with distribution maps of breast cancer cases. It found statistically significant correlation, suggesting that women living in areas with lights bright enough to read by in the middle of the night were at a 73% higher risk of developing breast cancer.

    However, it doesn’t have to be a 100m tall LED screen to put a constant strain on your attention. It seems increasingly impossible to avoid not just the effects on your physical health, but also the behavioral consequences of interacting with technology outside the home. For example, the ubiquity of Wi-Fi in public spaces also creates an attention surplus, with even underground metro lines having internet access. Whilst online connection has many benefits, particularly for homeless people or those unable to afford home broadband, for the average citizen the convenience comes with a price. We are now forever reachable and forever connected, which brings with it the expectation of attention. An email must be read immediately, news must be discovered on the go, messages will be automatically received. Additionally, almost all modern public transportation has USB charging ports, indicating an expectation that we will be constantly using our phones. Our ability to remove ourselves from the attention economy is denied and we are rendered as passive participants, unless we physically switch our devices off. You can have all the best intentions about screen time and tech-cleansing, but the reality is that digital interaction is always present. Ironic when it is those same screens you presumably left the house to get away from.

    Our agency in what receives our attention in public isn’t just eroded through social conditioning. Increasingly, advertising companies are utilizing state-of-the-art surveillance technology in urban furniture to more effectively target potential buyers. Since adverts are intended to guide the public to specific actions, reaching out to an excess of the population who won't be interested results in wastage. The more people you reach, the less relevant that advert will be to each individual. In his article, The material geographies of advertising: Concrete objects, affective affordance and urban space, Dr. Thomas Dekeyser describes how through number plate recognition software, a Renault ad campaign personalized billboards with phrases such as ‘Hey you in the silver hatchback’. In the UK, digital marketing company Clear Channel had by 2018 installed over 2,000 bus shelters with image-recognition technology. By 2019 BT had replaced its old phone boxes with 435 InLinkUK units, comprising of a large digital advertising banner, ultrafast internet, mobile phone charging ports, the ability to make phone calls and use other digital services including maps…oh, and three cameras each for thermal imaging, facial recognition, and tracking requirements.

    Dekeyser incorporates Gilbert Simondon’s idea of concretization to describe these technological developments in urban furniture. Concretization is roughly defined as making technological objects and their environments more compatible by allowing greater interaction in new dimensions through technological advancement. So an InLinkUK digital advertising unit with state-of-the-art surveillance features, protective casing, and high-resolution LED screens would be highly concretized. Dekeyser says “concretization renders urban space ever more commercially compatible with advertising objects,” and thus, ever more attention-sucking. The use of surveillance can also be more covert. In 2012, a start-up company called Renew installed 100 recycling bins around London, all equipped with digital screens for advertising. They also fitted several bins with tracking devices to connect with the smartphones of passersby. The bins would record the unique identification number (MAC address) of any pedestrian unlucky enough to leave their phone Wi-Fi turned on, as a sort of real-world ‘cookie’ that could track data, such as a person's route to work. The marketing industry uses the term ‘geofencing’ and ‘geotargeting’ to describe this type of targeted advertising. Geofencing involves creating virtual boundaries that track the mobile device of whoever enters the area. It can then send notifications to that device advertising local businesses or products. Geotargeting then goes a step further by targeting users based on demographics, behaviors, interests, and location. Attention in urban spaces isn’t just bombarded, but actively hacked.

    So, if the choice of what we focus our attention on is taken away, what are we encouraging through the prevalence of DOOH advertising? Naturally, adverts relentlessly push a very capitalist message of consumption. They also promote materialistic values, which some studies suggest leads to increasing anti-welfare attitudes. That which holds our attention is often lifted up in status and notoriety, whether we have chosen to give it our attention or not. According to Dr. Eleftheria Lekakis, adverts present us with a superficial choice of consumption, which hides a political choice about engaging with the advert to begin with (accept it, refuse it, subvert it, protest it, etc.). DOOH advertising can promote a certain political viewpoint or encourage obedience through placative signaling on social justice issues (e.g., greenwashing—deceiving consumers into believing a company's environmental credentials). The advertising marketplace is also open to manipulation with a hierarchy of elites, celebrity influencers, and multinational corporations receiving privileged attention. Particular attention is often given to the Global North whilst other areas of interest remain invisible, or are depicted in abstract, alienating ways that suppress actual engagement with issues. This reminds us that promotional culture does not equal progress automatically. We need to be careful what we give our attention to.

    This capitalist drive for our attention also has a significant environmental impact. According to AdBlock Bristol, in one year a single digital advertising screen will use as much electricity as four households. In summer months, the electrical consumption is even greater due to the need for air conditioning that cools down the LED screens. On top of that, there’s the massive amount of energy needed to run data centers to store all the tracked attention these screens might be getting. Just as personal responsibility for attention is rendered ineffective by DOOH advertising, personal responsibility for environmental choices is heavily negated by the presence of digital technology in public spaces.

    So what to do? Fight against the tech or embrace the digital age with a more critical perspective? The question is a difficult one for local authorities who often rely on advertising for revenue. A digital bus shelter might also be very useful to the public. The previously mentioned InLinkUK systems utilize real-time information to provide services such as weather forecasts, messages to the community, and travel updates. One could imagine how interactive technologies in urban spaces and better connectivity could have really positive uses. However, current DOOH advertising appears to be trending further towards surveillance tech. In order to fight back, it might require a larger change in social conditioning, taking back control over privacy in public spaces as well as addressing general concerns on tech-driven advertising like visual amenity. Public spaces should not be for sale and displays in common areas should be treated as belonging to the public at large, rather than any specific corporation.

    Some cities are beginning to fight back. São Paulo introduced the Clean City Law in 2007 to remove over 15,000 billboards, leading to public discourse on inner city inequalities that were previously hidden by large advertising hoardings. In 2014, Grenoble banned street advertising outright, replacing signs with trees and community noticeboards. Tehran similarly replaced all of its billboards with artworks by Rembrandt and Rothko for 10 days in 2015. However we choose to address technological advances in advertising and interactive public spaces, attention must be paid to the cultural and societal implications of what we allow on our public streets. Our attention should not be taken for granted.