In a world where everything is infinite, only your attention is limited and precious.
The Most Precious Commodity: Your Attention
In 1997, the year I got my first email address, Michael W. Goldhaber proposed that the new economy of the future would be based on a currency of consumer attention. He called it the “Attention Economy.” We live in a world filled with infinite quantities of information and Goldhaber’s ideas make more and more sense as technology takes over more and more of our lives. The limiting factor on the infinity of messages, advertisements, pleas, flirts and photos is the limited quantity of attention that we have to consume them.
Take music for an example of the Attention Economy at work. When I was a teen in a suburb of Vancouver in the 1980s, I felt we had 2 or 3 cool radio stations to listen to. There was the main “rock” station, a “pop” station, and sometimes, if the antenna-gods were on our side, an edgier station from Seattle. We had no choice but to listen to the same songs over and over again, interspersed with copious advertisements and DJ chatter. Our attention was forced by the entertainment industry into a few pre-selected streams and the vast majority of world music was closed to us. Nowadays, of course, we have an infinite choice, but do we take advantage of it?
In a World of Infinite Choices, Why Are We So Boring?
The entertainment industry leaders have to be very clever and forceful in order to keep our attention focused in ways that will be profitable for them. They have to streamline and focus our attention away from an infinite choice to a profitable (for them) choice. A suburban kid from Canada today could become an aficionado in Moroccan Rai music or Vietnamese rap if she wanted to. Thanks to Garageband, the same kid can even start composing her own music. But will she? Or will she just stick with the American top 40, because there are only so many hours in the day, all her friends are listening to it, and she is swamped by ads, cameos, lip-syncs and references to current top 40 in all the Social Media she follows?
A couple of years ago, I was working in a middle school in the Middle East where the students were all issued a Chromebook. The students thought of the Chromebooks as clumsy, prehistoric implements but grudgingly adapted, since their glittering state-of-the-art devices from home were strictly forbidden on campus. Whenever they had free time of any kind, they chose to be on their Chromebooks. In fact, they begged for Chromebook time, and this seemed very encouraging to us at first. These young people had the whole world at their fingertips. It was an educational revolution and a great leveller. This generation would not have the same blockades put up against them that my generation had faced. They wouldn’t constantly bump into dusty dead ends in their underfunded school libraries. They could master a foreign language, calculus or coding before they finished Grade 9. They could make their own TV show, start a social movement or promote their own music. What would these bright young minds do with this POWER?
Well…the results were a little depressing.
There was a clear gender split. The boys, given the nearly infinite choice of anything on the internet preferred to watch videos of other people playing computer games. I thought that was a little disturbing. At least kids ten years ago played their own video games and that was already annoying. These inheritors of the digital universe seemed content to just watch someone else play. The girls, despite having been force fed a diet of superwoman role models like Malala, Sheikha Moza, Greta Thunberg, and Rosa Parks by well-meaning teachers, did not seek to transform the world or pursue lofty academic goals. Rather, they were very happy to sit and watch videos of other people cooking and preparing food. In the girls’ defence, watching disembodied hands swirling rivers of chocolate sauce is pretty hypnotic. One more point for the girls was that a lot of them actually went home and tried to video themselves hypnotically preparing food as well. So at least some creativity arose from the expensive Chromebook experiment.
Some of the other teachers rolled their eyes. There were some nasty comments that could be classified as racist and will not be repeated here. Ok. I rolled my eyes a little at first too. I mean, watching someone else play a video game?
But then I started to reflect on my own habits and I honestly can’t say that I have anything to be proud of. The internet wasn’t prevalent enough to be useful until I was about 27 years old. Now I’m 50. What have I done with that vast wealth of knowledge and opportunity in those 23 years? I have written a lot of letters, answered a lot of text messages, taken some selfies, indulged in online shopping, read a few articles… you get the picture. I, unlike my students, was a fully formed adult when the internet came along. I can forgive hormone-addled teenagers for lack of focus, but should I forgive myself?
The Next Challenge: The War for Your Attention
The big challenge that the Baby Boomers faced, as a generation, was deconstructing and overcoming postwar and postcolonial conventions. Attention was focused into a kind of two-sided battle between the conservative old order and the liberal ideas and behaviours we now all take for granted and enjoy (Thank you again and again Baby Boomers). My generation (Gen X), grateful as we are to the Boomers, faced the challenge of being “surplus” in a world that had already been created for and staffed by a healthy and ambitious older generation. A lot of us felt like it didn’t really matter what we did with our attention, because, until dial-up modems fired up in our late 20s and early 30s, nobody really cared anyway.
Gen Y & Z, on the other hand, are growing up in a world where there is an infinite torrent of demands on their attention. They are at the vortex of an infinite galaxy of suggestions, distractions and demands. A young person’s success and sanity depend, at least in part, on their ability to pull out valuable information and tune out distractions long enough to produce or complete something. Social Media stars, who epitomize this era, cannot possibly maintain their supremacy without focusing and disciplining their attention. They have to tune out millions of messages, comments and distractions for long enough to create something. Not only do they have to create something, but it has to be compelling enough to lure overloaded consumers to trade in a bit of their precious, finite attention. With millions of competitors, “attention-grabbing” takes a lot of thought and planning. So, ironically enough, success in the attention economy can only really be achieved by strategically tuning out the cacophony of demands for your attention.
The Attention Challenge
Infinite demands on our attention combine with a limited capacity for us to consume. We can only absorb so much in one day and we tend to quickly reach limits on what we can accept or understand. Algorithms exploit this and feed us an internet that seems to place us, our politics and our interests at the vortex. Getting outside of our comfort zones online sometimes seems almost as impossible as finding Indie music in my hometown in 1986. I think that the next challenge in our culture will be to understand that our attention is a commodity that people are vying for and profiting from.
Goldhaber, M. (1997, December 01). Attention shoppers! Retrieved April 05, 2021, from https://www.wired.com/1997/12/es-attention/