“Drowning in information, starving in wisdom,” E.O. Wilson remarked at the turn of the century. Today, thanks to the stream of news and notifications we get through our smartphones and other devices, our mental lives are more fragmented than ever. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, it has never been easier to run away from ourselves.
The “attention economy” has emerged as a term to make sense of what’s going on: our attention is limited, hence valuable, and various stimuli are constantly competing to grab it.
Is this just a matter of our relationship with our smartphones and other gadgets?
Not solely. As Jon Kabat-Zinn has commented, the biggest distractor is not your iPhone, it’s your own mind. Moreover, concerns surrounding the hyper-connectivity of the smartphone era bear some semblance to dystopian forecasts following previous advances in information technologies: the church rebellion to introduction of the printing press, for instance, or public fears around the intrusion of television sets into home life.
That said, both the extent and the way in which we find ourselves glued to our phones throughout the day – whatever we are doing, wherever we are – does feel like a step change. Tech companies get us hooked by serving us targeted content, such as our personalized social media and news feeds. The algorithms that determine what we see (and when) are designed to tap into our psychological vulnerabilities, powered by masses of data and neuroscientific insights. In the words of Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook vice president: “You don’t realize it, but you are being programmed.”
Understandably, the media tends to focus on the mental health side of this issue: how we increasingly suffer from “technostress” or digital addictions, how we can’t bear to be alone with our thoughts and are distracted nearly 50% of the time. But the ‘crisis of attention’ also has far-reaching implications in the political, social and economic spheres of our lives. Understanding these issues lies at the heart of the Paying Attention initiative I am leading at Perspectiva.
Here, I sketch out these three dimensions of the crisis of attention before reflecting on a few ways in which we might respond.
If it’s true that algorithms are able to understand us better, behaviorally, than we understand ourselves, then at which point do our decisions about what to click on reflect ‘the code’ as much as our own preferences?
This quickly becomes a political issue. Jonathan Mair links the ‘post-truth’ age to cognitive weaknesses – including the inability to sustain attention – that have been exacerbated by information and communication technologies. Spending hours in social media echo chambers has real political consequences.
The “weaponization” of social media in political campaigns, in particular, has been well-documented. Huge swathes of online data can be used to capture the ‘digital footprints’ that we leave on social media each time we post, Like, and Retweet; in addition, data can be bought from third-parties on subjects’ attitudes and consumer preferences. All of these data can be used to predict individuals’ personality profiles and hence nuance the messaging such that it “resonates more effectively” with certain key groups. To help these messages land, armies of ‘bots’ on social media platforms may be employed to spread tens of thousands of variants of the campaign ads each day, taking forward the ones that got liked and shared the most.
At the heart of such approaches, then, is the use of data analytics to capture the attention of individual social media users; algorithms to re-optimise those messages; and the employment of fake social media accounts to propagate them. Which methods we deem as fair needs careful debate, but there is no doubt that aggressive competition for our attention lies at the heart of digital campaigning, with huge ramifications for political outcomes.
When it comes to how we pay attention in social situations, there’s a lot on the line – both in terms of the quality of our interactions and the development of social capacities. Communications technologies, clearly, have the potential both to help and to hinder social interactions: on the one hand, we can connect with loved ones whenever, wherever; on the other, it can be pretty frustrating speaking to someone who is semi-distracted by their phone.
Sherry Turkle, an expert in social connectivity at MIT, has written extensively on this topic. In Reclaiming Conversation, she looks at the effects of digital technologies in various conversational contexts – teachers and students, colleagues and clients, friends and family. Overall, she concludes that when we replace or interrupt conversation with electronic communication, we risk not only the quality of our interactions but also the development of empathy, friendship and intimacy.
She cites, for instance, a recent Pew Foundation study showing that around 90% of adults in the US took out a phone during their most recent social interaction. Roughly 80% reported that doing so diminished the conversation. She also argues that smartphone usage is to blame for the steep decline in measures of empathy among university students over the past 20 years. Of greatest concern, though, is parent-child relations. She writes that:
‘Parents give their children phones. Children can’t get their parents’ attention away from their phones, so children take refuge in their own devices. Then, parents use their children’s absorption with phones as permission to have their own phones out as much as they wish.’
As Jonathan Franzen observes, it is through the conversational attention of parents that children acquire a sense of ‘enduring connectedness’ and a habit of talking about their feelings, rather than simply acting on them. Parents are playing with fire, Turkle warns, if things like texting during breakfast and dinner become standard practice, with no space carved out for giving our attention free from interruptions.
In the UK, we are already seeing how this plays out. According to the charity Childline, thousands of children are receiving counselling for loneliness because, all too often, parents are too distracted ‘by smart phones and work pressures’ to pick up on clues that their children were suffering. There is a danger, the charity says, that chats over the kitchen table are becoming obsolete.
The world economy has become increasingly digital in nature. Often, the narrative behind this development centres on data – the new oil that lies at the heart of the business models of Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft, the five most valuable listed firms in the world. These tech giants are able to see the value (and future revenue streams) in hoarding, commodifying, and monetizing data. And as more and more objects, from watches to cars, connect to the internet, the volume of data to be harnessed for commercial use continues to increase at an unprecedented rate. Even industrial giants like GE and Siemens now sell themselves as ‘data’ firms.
An alternative lens, however, at least on the consumer-facing side of the digital economy, views it as increasingly centered around our attention: that is, as a system that revolves around paying, receiving, and seeking what is “most intrinsically limited and not replaceable by anything else,” to quote Michael Goldhaber. The profits of Facebook, Google and Twitter come from their advertising revenues: the longer we spend on the site or app, and the better targeted the ad, the more likely we are to click through a banner and buy something. This pushes everything we interact with online towards the single incentive of grabbing and holding our attention on platforms that yield advertising revenues for their owners.
So again, it’s the addictive design of apps and phones that is the problem here – especially when our goals are not aligned with the goals of the tech companies that write the algorithms governing our interactions with our devices. James Williams argues that it is tempting to think of your smartphone as functioning as something like “GPS for life”: it helps you when you want to order a new ink cartridge, or message a friend, and so on. In other words, relax and “Make Google do it” as the information giant’s latest advertising mantra goes. But the GPS-for-life analogy offers a misleading picture of reality if the incentives of tech giants like Google and Facebook are geared towards making it hard for you to tear your eyeballs away from your phone.
Williams would argue that when you wake up in the morning, checking your phone on average once every six minutes is probably not a goal you would set for yourself. And the way this clash of goals – ours versus tech companies’ – plays out in Silicon Valley is revealing: according to Jaron Lanier, the higher up the management ladder you go at the big tech companies, the more restrictive employees are with letting their kids use smartphones or social media at all.
There are many angles from which we can collectively work to redress the problems of the new attention economy. Turkle advocates preserving “sacred spaces for conversation,” advising us not to put a phone between ourselves and the person we are sharing a meal with. Critics such as Jaron Lanier and John Battelle argue for reform of the ad-based business models of tech companies if we want to move the online economy towards one that better serves society. Politically, how to respond is a complex issue but one can look at whether the downsides of allowing anonymous social media accounts outweigh the merits, or whether ‘social’ platforms like Facebook should move away from featuring political content altogether.
Relevant to all three domains is our relationship with digital technologies. A key part of the solution therefore lies in developing approaches to tech design that lead to our gadgets and apps working for us, not the other way around. The Center for Humane Technology, founded last year by Tristan Harris, has some excellent suggestions in this area.
Most fundamentally of all, however, we need our political economy – and public discourse – to appreciate our attention as something that is precious and intimate. Over a century ago, William James wrote that “what we attend to is reality.” This point is as profound as it is utterly obvious: what we pay attention to, and the manner in which we do so, determines everything. It both joins us with, and shapes, our reality – moment to moment, but also day to day, year to year.
For this reason, contemplative practices could play an integral role in our response to the battle for our attention. Training ourselves to pay attention in certain ways, for instance being present to our immediate experience with an open and compassionate attitude, can improve our ability to focus. More fundamentally, it can open up a new way of seeing the world. Talking about the transformative potential of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes that we are so seduced by thinking and emotion that we don’t realize that awareness is at least as powerful a function: one that can hold “any emotion, no matter how destructive,” and “any thought, no matter how gigantic.”
Looking ahead, given the scale of the upheaval – and uncertainties – in the political, social and environmental spheres of our lives, together with the continued expansion of information technologies set to intersect with our inner lives in new and heterogeneous ways, our ‘attentional environment’ shows no signs of easing off by itself. There is no silver bullet to solving the problems that flow from the constant battle for our attention. But we know the direction we need to move in: towards a political economy, first of all, that recognizes the need for our attentional capacities to be respected and protected. As others have noted, contemplative practices are an established method for inculcating this kind of change. In fact, when you look at our political, social, and economic challenges through the prism of attention, it becomes clear that contemplative practices could lie at the heart of our individual and collective response to what is perhaps becoming the defining issue of our time – attention.
Dan Nixon leads Perspectiva’s initiative on ‘Paying Attention’ and is a freelance writer on themes relating to the human mind, technology, and the future of the economy.