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The Political Economy of Distraction in Digitized Denmark

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - DISTRACT (The Political Economy of Distraction in Digitized Denmark)

Reporting period: 2020-01-01 to 2021-06-30

Bridging anthropology, sociology, economics, psychology, political science, and data science, DISTRACT combines advanced data science tools and established social science analysis to explore the political economy attention/distraction in the age digitized technologies. DISTRACT departs from five linked hypotheses: 1) The attention is commonly seen as finite; ⇒ (2) As such, it is a scarce resource subject to competition and regulation; ⇒ 3) This is not new but it is acquiring unseen urgency in the current data economy; ⇒ 4) An interdisciplinary social data science approach allows for solid and novel investigation of this unmet scientific and societal need; and ⇒ 5) As the world’s most digitized country (and homogeneous population and state-of-the-art public databases), Denmark is an ideal site to study this political economy of distraction. Combining qualitative and quantitative data from four case studies, DISTRACT aims to trace and analyse the mental, social and material techniques by which attention is captured, retained and deflected in digitized Denmark. DISTRACT comprises four subprojects.

Subproject 1 - Distraction Politics explores dynamics of political attention among Danish politicians, political parties and other key agents and contexts of public debate. The focus is both on how politicians forge ideological positions around the question of digital distraction - and digitalization more generally– and on how they themselves actively seek to capture, retain and distract attention among their followers and the wider public on and through the use of social media. By combining qualitative data and methods and quantitative ditto, the ambition is to contribute to state of the art scholarship among sociologists and other social scientists on “issue attention” and other questions concerned with how politicians and the public interact and influence each other through digital platform

Subproject 2 - Coding Distraction. This subproject seeks to contribute to a detailed empirical understanding of the emerging software practices, infrastructures, and valuation regimes of the digital “attention economy”, from the point of view of its instantiation in and as code and coding practices. Towards this aim, the subproject team deploys a combination of (n)ethnographic and computational approaches, taking the Danish app development market as its shared object of research and point of departure.

Subproject 3 - Defying Distraction aims to investigate and map the emerging digital backlash in Denmark, which takes the form of practices such as digital disconnection and digital detoxes, the moral panics and ethical discussions about what a good life means in the digital age, as well as the attentional technologies and practices that are part of such limitations of digital device and platform usage. Methodologically, the project seeks to investigate and theorize digital detox and disconnection from a variety of social science and data science angles, in order to chart these tendencies as matters of concern for different actors in society.

Subproject 4 - Regulating Distraction. The overarching objective is to explore the mental, social and material techniques by which attention is captured, retained, and distracted in Danish work and school contexts. More specifically, through a combination of quantitative (e.g. controlled experiments) and qualitative (e.g. ethnographic fieldwork) data and methods, we seek to contribute to an empirically informed understanding of how the attention of some actors (employees, students) is regulated by other actors (e.g. employers, teachers) to reach certain goals.
Overall DISTRACT is delivering as planned on its objectives in spite of the national and international restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of the planned internal and external research seminars as well as workshops have taken place, including by online means. Internal meetings and seminars have focused on research methodology, ethics and GDPR processes amongst others. In each of the four sub projects, ethnographic observation methods, semi-structured interviews and focus groups play important roles, in addition to a range of quantitative methods and computational techniques. Naturally, the use of the former set of methods have been hampered during subsequent Covid lockdowns and restrictions. Still, physical interactions with case study participants have to some extent replaced by first online interactions and eventually also offline ethnographic activities, so a diverse and already quite comprehensive data-set originating from both quantitative and qualitative sources have been collected within each of the four subprojects at this stage.

Key achievements include:
(1) An international, method-focused workshop (held as a kick-off in late January 2020) with participants from several Danish and international research institutions and consultancy companies involved in social data science/digital methods research, the result of which is now in press with the journal Big Data and Society.
(2) Also based on a workshop held around the start of DISTRACT, a special issue on "Digital Trust" has been accepted for consideration by the Journal of Cultural Economy
(3) Following a sustained collaboration with Tufts University, an article entitled “The Political Economy of Attention” under print in the Annual Review of Anthropology.
(4) New research opportunities arising from Covid 19 especially for Subproject 1 (Political Attention) and Subproject 3 (Defying Distraction). Several projects and papers completed pertaining to so-called issue attention dynamics on Danish social media as well as lockdown working and social dynamics. Moreover, the launch of a Danish-language blogpost on DISTRACT and other SODAS Covid-19 research in the early summer of 2020 (see have since given rise to significant attention from Danish media, which has resulted in several newspaper interviews, podcasts and radio and tv appearances for PI and other team members.
(5) An article on the relationship between smart phone usage and academic performance, based in data from previous SODAS-based research but involving analytical and theoretical work carried out by co-PI Dreyer-Lassen, has been published in the journal Psychological Scienc
In keeping with the original objectives of the project, DISTRACT is on track towards advancing the state-of-art pertaining to the political of economy of attention (understood in the broad sense of the term) within numerous scientific literatures and discussions cross-cutting anthropology, sociology, economics, political science and psychology. Methodologically, the project team has already accomplished the ambition set out by the project when it comes to bringing together and integrating in both novel and cogent ways disparate social and data science data, techniques and methods, ranging from sensor and meta-data logged on digital devises to text data scraped from social media, to ethnographic data gathered through fieldwork and other qualitative methods. In addition to these expected results, the project has also ventured into new empirical territory and broken novel methodological ground as a result of the team's work on political attention and issue dynamics in the Danish public sphere in the course of and subsequent to the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown.