Herbert Simon said it in 1971, which is that
“What does an abundance of information create?”
…A scarcity of attention basically, right?
We relish living in the Age of Information; where information is widely available, freely accessible and increasingly becoming more convenient to obtain. Our innocent, yet uneasy relationship with our tech devices is driving our insatiable appetite for more information, better and faster. I know this well, I am a perpetual triple-device (ab)user. As I write this blog entry, I have the TV on. Netflix to be exact, to satisfy my binge-watching habit. Spooks is playing and I have three more seasons to go through. Then I have my iPhone next to me just in case I need to look up any particular character on IMDb or conduct an impromptu search on Google. Finally of course, I’m on my laptop, writing, with five browser tabs open: Evernote for my notes, WordPress for this blog and Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.
With a literal tap of my fingers, I can now find information about anywhere, anyone or anything.An alarming side-effect of our desire for instant gratification, in an ‘always on’ society, with the increasing pressures of work and family, is that we can no longer concentrate on a task at hand. We fill our lives with stimulation, whether it is filling gaps of boredom, some of solitude. Everywhere we go, it seems, we’re confronted with some kind of noise – whether it’s background music in stores and restaurants, cars and airplanes going by, or something else. In our modern world, we’re losing the ability to pay attention. Our mental lives are becoming more fragmented, and I have to ask whether one can even maintain a coherent self in this pace.
Our diminishing attention spans and concentration levels are causing us to forget vital details. We are becoming totally reliant on Facebook to remind us the birthdays of our dearest family and closest friends which we would have otherwise missed or forgotten. Our time management dependent on the alarm notifications we set in our e-calendars to remind us of the appointments to meet. Our inability to remember the most important phone numbers, even if it’s our own. Overall, it is safe to say that our attention span has been horribly degraded.
We now see healthy people who want to enhance their mental prowess are turning desperately to brain performance enhancing drugs. One such drug is Ritalin, a drug prescribed to treat patients with ADHD, to help focus a task in hand. For example, used by students who are cramming for their final examinations, surgeons who are performing long-hour surgeries, air-traffic controllers and graveyard shift-workers. I am very concerned, to say the least, that our attempt for a solution to retain our attention cannot be a chemically induced addiction. Just because this type of ‘white-collar’ drug abuse and addiction is not frequently exposed to the public, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exists.
We experience ad nauseam daily. At the supermarket check-out, we swipe our credit card to pay for groceries. There will be interval moments between swiping the card, confirming the amount, entering the pin and waiting for card authorisation where we are shown advertisements. If you are a frequent traveller, at an airport, before we board our flight, we are bombarded with an endlessly reoccurring loop of ads along the travellator. As we approach the departure gate, we cannot escape the constant chatter of CNN in the waiting lounge.
To the advertising geniuses who painstakingly create the ad, plan the media and execute it in a fashion – that is in the moment we find ourselves in, we are considered in this situation – a high-value, captive audience. I know this. I’ve been in the advertising industry for over 13+ years. I can be blamed for some of these that happens. When enhanced with increasingly intelligent capabilities in ad serving, such as daypart messaging, contextual placements, and personalisation, assumed to be mere artefacts of the communication technology, now seem to be more deliberately calibrated. Everyone can now vie for our precious attention – political candidates, Victoria Secret, technology manufacturers, restaurant chains, YouTube, media outlets, more brands, websites, blogs, children, friends, even cats. In big data, we find ourselves in the object of attention-grabbing techniques that are not only pervasive, but increasingly better targeted. As a result, our thoughts and actions become impeded by the proliferation of choices.
The advertising industry has essentially found a way to monetise our head space. Marketers and ad land folk alike tell us that we are in charge, that it is our choice to opt-in. But are we? Are we really in charge? Every surface of public space now has the capability to be auctioned off to serve somebody’s interests, for private interests. The idea of ‘public’ is being eroded. In our digital lives too, we need to strike clarity between the right of privacy versus the right not to be addressed, especially online when many do not show their faces whilst treating our minds as a resource to be harvested. Intrusive advertising is the tip of the iceberg. Yet, we are helpless to do anything about it.
Think about it – when our ancestors were sitting out on the Savannah and the tree next to them rustled, the ones that didn’t look over to see the lion coming to eat them are not our ancestors. The ones that did look though, only to see it was a harmless bird, are. We’re wired to pay attention to new stimuli. It is better known as cognitive orienting response. We cannot help but turn our heads towards a particular source which grabs our attention or a new stimulation. It’s an adaptation in the world of predators. ‘Predators’, in this context, can be a TV. If it is within view, it is very difficult not to look at it. The intention to look is even heightened when there is an introduction of novelty in the field of view.
Our average attention span is now 8 seconds… 1 second less than a goldfish.
So, as we are faced with new things every second of the day which makes a demand on us, we train our brains to pay attention to distracting things. However with more practice, we are less able to even concentrate for brief periods of time. Our mental lives are becoming more fragmented, we are easily distracted. Our attention is no longer ours to direct. We have only ourselves to blame because we have invited these distractions to enter our lives. Case in point, candy crush.
The attention-seeking and grabbing technologies that seem to be exploiting our orienting responses which pre-empts sociability is in fact directing us away from one another and toward a manufactured reality by parties that have both material and commercial interests. Our attention is treated as a resource, limited and each person can only have so much of it. We have begun to take attention for granted, such as resources we require in common: water, oxygen because of their widespread availability, which makes everything else we do, possible.
So, we desperately try to find some solace in ourselves – burying our head in a book or using headphones to tune out the piped chatter or the awkward silence in a Tube carriage on the way to work. The public spaces we spend so much time in, are no longer social. Our mind is elsewhere from our bodies.
Alternatively, the absence of noise can also be acknowledged as a resource. Silence is what makes it possible for us to think. To see ourselves in the world beyond our heads. About maintaining our coherent selves.
But we give it up too willingly in the company of people we know and when we open ourselves to serendipitous encounters with advertisers. Because we have allowed for our attention to be monetised, we find ourselves needing to pay for it to have it back. For instance, silence can be considered as a luxury good. In VIP/business class lounges at airports, decision makers who actively need to soak and retain information which possibly creates wealth during the idle hours, require silence.
Our ability to be comfortable with ourselves in silence is critical to getting our work done efficiently and enjoyably, especially if our work requires us to spend large amounts of time focusing on a single task. Too often we heed the advice to eliminate the distractions in our lives – which we know is impossible, thus leading to failure and disappointment. Instead, we must take it onto ourselves to phase out self-distractions to regain our attention spans and rebuild our concentration levels. Learn to leave the car radio off while driving, play a board game with your partner/housemate rather than watching TV or learn to leave the personal mobile phone at home while at work. These are some of the types of things which we are in control of.
On the other hand, according to Matthew Crawford, we are now experiencing a crisis of attention. When our attention is treated as a standing reserve of purchasing power to be stirred according to innovative marketing techniques by marketers, it is not creating wealth rather it is the transfer of wealth. The scarcity of attention in an increasingly crowded marketplace has driven the demand for new ways of capturing people’s attention. This leads to what is better known as the ‘Attention Economy’. Many organizations are learning that in this new environment the way to win is to be generous. Instead of subsidising existing content creators just for the privilege of competing with their content, why not just create their own? Resulting in yet more forms of distraction. It then becomes a predatory invasion of our consciousness. Marketers will use every possible technique to colonise our minds and emotions at the most elemental levels in a relentless attempt to prod us to buy, buy, buy.
If the latter looks like more the reality in which we live in, we must seek to preserve the private enclosures of our minds because as it stands currently, our mental environment is mostly the province of commercial interests.