The War on Attention

Thoughts on information and self-control in a modern attention economy

I like information. After all, it’s the removal of uncertainty from our minds. And boy, do we hate uncertainty. We just want to know it!

It…? What is it? It is anything…and it is everything. No partially this or partially that. We just want to know, one way or the other.

We are now creating more information each second than it had taken thousands (and billions, depending on who “we” refers to) of years to previously create [1][2].

But damn…isn’t it just plain hard nowadays to manage it all?

A lot of you will have already clicked on the various links in the previous sentences, and maybe even made sure to open them in a new browser tab, so as to not take you away from this page. That implies you love organizing information too. But how do we manage all of that information in an age where it is exponentially more prevalent than we’ve ever had to deal with before? This prevalence is both a gift and a curse.

A Gift

It’s a gift because we now are able to resolve uncertainty at unprecedented levels. A world of information is literally at our fingertips, with the relatively negligible (all things considered, at least) weight of a computer or mobile phone. On any given day, you can decide to learn about almost any subject, and likely also do so without much, if any, financial loss. This kind of luxury was only a pipe dream for previous generations, where obtaining a new skill likely meant massive financial commitments, re-location, and lugging around several pounds worth of textbooks. For what it’s worth, universities aren’t completely unlike this today; they are, however, similar to a much smaller extent.

A Curse

But slow down for a moment. There are also some severe negatives to these rapid changes in the world. This unprecedented level of inbound information flow has also led to unprecedented amounts of stress on our brains, due to all the uncertainty introduced. The universe is a closed system, with finite resources to drive change in the form of evolution. However, it’s plausible to say that our technological progress has (at least, to date) been advancing far more rapidly than, our biological selves can.

Take a moment to close your eyes. Think about the last time you were in a place completely removed from anything digital. Maybe it was a walk on the beach during a beautiful orange sunset. Maybe it was a cool, morning hike on your favorite mountain trail with your best friend. Bask in the memory of how quiet, peaceful, and equal-tempered your surroundings were.

Now…let your attention rush back into the present, and you’ve likely found that countless things have already sucked you back in. Televisions, phones, computer displays, car horns, billboards, etc.

These things pack a ton of information in them, and a lot of them do so very explicitly. But this information doesn’t just resolve uncertainty; it also creates more, and often more than it had resolved in the first place. Take, for example, checking your phone. You hit a wake button and your are flooded with work emails, pictures from your friends, questions from your parents, voicemails from recruiters, voicemails from spam, attempted fraud on your bank account, etc. Through this information, you’ve just resolved the uncertainties of whether those events have occurred or not. However, they’ve also seized your attention for the foreseeable minutes of your life to resolve the additional uncertainties they have created. Obviously, some of these notifications are leaps and bounds more useful than others (protecting your bank account vs. laughing at a meme). However, we need to learn as humans and as societies of humans how to more effectively manage this explosion of information to retain our sanity.

There’s another factor of information overload at play here: others profiting from controlling your attention. With the spread of free knowledge and software, a leading way to profit in platforms such as mobile apps and news media is advertising. This strategy provides information to you for free, but profits from allowing other entities to come along for the right and try to whisk you away with a quick “Hey, look at me! Click on me! Make me money.” These methods even are designed to optimally take and keep your attention, since it’s how the success of the designers’ methods is measured.

Think about that: someone else prospers when they can keep you focusing on what they want you to be focusing on, even if it causes record-breaking amounts of stress for you. Granted, they likely aren’t viewing it like that; they’re just trying to make money to help their own efforts and to get by in life. However, if you allow the thousands of designed attention-grabbers to jerk your focus one way or another constantly, you end up just a spiraling pawn in their attention game.

The Good Fight

Now, we’re fighting to take control back. We feel a little less human when we find ourselves being tugged back and forth between a focus on this and that. We’re talk about attention as an ever-more scarce resource. We’re framing all this digital information as being sometimes too much to efficiently process, and therefore something that we need to detox from. But who is to blame for all of this? The designers and marketers? The politicians? The laws of physics? Ourselves?

Perspective

I’m not interested in blame in this setting. I’m interested in taking control where I can, and re-achieving the daily sense of calm I used to easily have before the whirlwind of digital information reached me. One control we will hopefully always have is what we choose to allow to reach our senses, and therefore divert our attention. I’m not going to blow this article up into a to-do list for iPhone notification settings. What I will way though, is that you have a lot of capability to reduce the distracting signals in your everyday environment, whether it’s software settings, work environment setup, or home-life setup. What I think you’ll find is that the more you chip away at things like constant notifications, sounds, and attention shifts, the more you’ll get back in touch with that endorphin-inducing sense of focus and serenity that leads to a happier and more meaningful day.

I’m interested in anybody’s time-proven methods for achieving this goals. Please share!