You Are What You Pay Attention To

distraction sickness

Illustration by Christian Laborin

Fake news is killing people’s minds! This is what Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, said and he wants to do something about. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that fake news isn’t new.

Facebook, whether they like it or not, is one culprit in helping spread fake news and other nonsense. It makes its money by gaining and maintaining people’s attention, optimizing for it and rarely changing anything that disrupts that routine.

In the short-term, it appears fake news was not a strong catalyst in determining the election results. But, Fake news is a real problem for journalism in the long-term. Still, the fact is most people get their news from Facebook, including fake news, and the election results just enhanced their ubiquity.

Some believe society as a whole is developing a type of distraction sickness, where our variety of devices work as a platform for different types of media that battle for our attention.

As someone who values his time, energy and attention, I’m intrigued by Tim Wu’s Attention Merchants where he talks about new media companies are in the business of manufacturing consent:

Author and Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu has written a sweeping book about this industry. Titled The Attention Merchants, it tells the origin story of our distraction sickness: who engineered it, who benefits, and how it became so pervasive.

These peculiar merchants, on Wu’s formulation, are the harvesters of human attention. They create platforms — newspapers, radio, TV, websites, apps — that attain commercial viability by selling the attention they capture, or the clicks they can get, in exchange for the “free” content they produce.

As the industry has grown and evolved over the years, more and more of our lives have become mediated. We’re always being stalked by advertisers and product peddlers, always being sold something by someone, whether we know it or not. Unless you’ve unplugged from the digital world altogether, you’re a pawn in this scheme.

Attention is currency. He who controls eyeballs gets the most dough. And all the big companies have in many ways become Harvesters of Attention. And while it benefits them, it doesn’t benefit any of us. Unfortunately, we’ve never been in a situation such as this one where we’re being bombarded by texts, notifications, ads and such at all times of the day.

When our attention is scattered everywhere and nowhere it leaves us susceptible to cognitive load, reducing our energy and therefore making us less focused on what matters.

What it means for innovation

There’s a reason most people are not innovators: creativity is hard because you have to act differently to think differently; and attention is a key component of this.

There is no innovation without creativity. And there is no creativity without some healthy procrastination to help us stop focusing on the problem; which to me means going for a walk. But for many people procrastination means interacting with social media, TV and other forms of media.

I’m not sure how much junk food is consumed on a daily basis, but the growth and ubiquity of junk food has easily been a driver of obesity and overall laziness. Similarly, consuming media is a lot like eating junk food, you get the feeling of filling your belly without thinking about the long-term health benefits of doing so. Not saying all media is junk, of course, but rarely do we question it’s utility.

This is a problem, because by mindlessly consuming media, especially on Facebook where everything is filtered to fit your worldview, you are suppressing your own curiosity and critical thinking; both critical components of creativity.

People think like they see, hear, read, listen and do. Compared to non-innovators, innovators perceive differently because of what they choose to pay attention to. So, if you get startled by the future, it means you’re not paying attention. And almost everyone isn’t paying attention to the right things. Rather, their attention is everywhere and nowhere; and that’s just from digital media.

Another key component of attention is who you give it to. If all you do is hang out with people who think like you, then that is what you pay attention to. People who have an incentive, or simply are content, to maintain the status quo will not challenge it. So, you’ll be stuck in the same perspective if you hang around people who never question and challenge opinions; mostly these are all your friends and family members. This is the reason Facebook holds so much power: it monetizes confirmation bias.

Unlike imitators who hang around the same types of people and only consume information that confirms what they think, innovators are not wired to network with people steeped in the status quo, they simply talk to them to understand the rules of what they want to change to then break them. Innovators are more interested in networking to accumulate knowledge, exchange ideas, collaborate and experiment.

Remember, you have to change a behavior to get a different result. What and who you choose to pay attention determines your outputs, so you have to break away from your network to innovate.

To be clear, I’m not arguing to be anti-social. Rather, balance it out and be aware of our tendency to seek comfort, and shift to looking for more substance and less superficiality if you want different outcomes.

Technology is ubiquitous, and will only make us dumber if we let it. The question then is: how might we fight distraction sickness?

Bottom line: What captures your attention controls your life. And though voluntary attention is hard, what we decide to focus on is our choice.

Your life experience is what you choose to pay attention to. When you add it all up, your moment-to-moment experience is everything. It is your life, really. – Tim James

I take this quote to heart, and I hope you meditate on it.

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