Greetings, human! Unbeknownst to you, you have been targeted by a powerful enemy which we will henceforth refer to as “the attention economy.”
This, my friend, is the tobacco industry of the 21st century.
Over the last decades, this enemy has grown stronger and more brazen. It has gained footholds in every facet of society. Whereas enemies of old have had to lay sieges on cities, your brethren have welcomed this new enemy to their workplaces, homes, and even bedrooms with open arms. (Don’t judge them — you do have a phone in your bedroom, don’t you?)
This enemy masquerades as helpful (“You’re living in an information-rich world! Rejoice at your good fortune!”) or hides in the shadows. The more powerful your enemy has become, the more your resilience, creativity, and productivity have been drained.
It is getting to the point where your species has two options:
- recognize the danger you’re in and do something about it, or
- help turn the movie Idiocracy into a documentary.
Which will it be, little human?
Oh, you think I’m exaggerating, don’t you? Like one of those crazy people running around and shouting that doomsday is near? That’s a rich accusation coming from a member of a species which recently celebrated that it does not actually have a shorter attention span than a goldfish.
But fine, I will indulge your reservations and make a coherent case for my warning. Let me ask you this: what’s your biggest asset when it comes to achieving your goals?
It’s your attention.
The late psychologist and philosopher William James wrote that attention “implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.” In other words, you could think of attention as a highlighter, telling you what to pay attention to and what to ignore. It’s a filter that allows you to function in the world.
Your attention is one of the few things you have a lot of control over. While you can’t control our environment, the system, or the situation you are born into, you can, to some extent, control what you pay attention to and the actions you take based on that. As author Jenny Odell put it her book How to do Nothing: “attention may be the last resource we have left to withdraw.”
In the battle of attention, that precious resource of yours is the coveted bounty of marketers everywhere, referred to as “consumer attention.” No matter how they call it, to you it’s the one thing that allows you to steer your life as much as possible.
When your attention is divided, everything suffers. While some distractions to your attention are unavoidable (for instance, if you’re waiting to hear back from the results of an important test), many of them are brought to you courtesy of the “attention economy.”
What is the attention economy?
“Now when we speak of an information-rich world, we may expect, analogically, that the wealth of information means a dearth of something else — a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”
In other words, the economics of attention may be the logical outcome of a world where you can immediately access millions of songs, articles, and websites. A world with more books or films than you could ever consume, even if you lived to be 1000 years old. And the rate at which new data and content is created is accelerating. It is estimated that by 2025 “463 exabytes of data will be created each day globally that’s the equivalent of 212,765,957 DVDs per day!”
In this environment, companies compete with each other to control your attention. The more time you spend on Social Media, or YouTube, or news sites, the more information companies can gather about your viewing habits and the more advertising messages they can serve you. Right now, the business model of some of the most powerful companies in the world is based on grabbing your attention in order to increase advertising revenue.
Here’s how popular vlogger Hank Green put it in this book A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor: “The most sophisticated software in existence is tasked with figuring out how to keep you from leaving a website.”
The problem is this: when powerful companies compete with each other on the battleground of attention, it’s your neighborhood that’s suffering the most. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings put this really bluntly when we said: “At Netflix, we are competing for our customers’ time, so our competitors include Snapchat, Youtube, sleep, etc.” That’s right, companies are competing with your body's need for sleep!
Are you angry yet?
If you wonder why the default option on Netflix and YouTube is to autoplay the next video, it’s because of this relentless battle of attention. Instead of opting in to continue watching, you need to opt out. It’s a way to steer your attention (just like the infinite scroll on Facebook).
Adding this feature doesn’t cost the companies anything except the time it takes to develop it… but it costs you the most precious resource you have: your time (and sleep and productivity and attention). If you have ever binged a series and later felt bad about it, chances are that the autoplay featured was involved.
When I put it like this, it sounds like a grim and hopeless situation, doesn’t it? However, you have power in this situation, little human! You can, in fact, take back your attention and the freedom that comes with it.
How to take back your attention in 5 steps
The following steps can help you become less impervious to attempts to control your attention:
Get clear on the biggest drains to your attention
Make a list of times when your attention is hooked against your will. Are you spending too much time reading the news? Are you getting lost on social media? Are you binge-watching shows? Are you always on your phone? Once you identify these drains to your attention, you can come up with a strategy for plugging them.
Get your mobile device under control
These days, phones might as well be running the lives of humans. The key to change that is to make them as non-addictive as possible, for instance by removing Social Media Apps from your phone, by turning off notifications and sounds, and by changing your phone display to greyscale to make it more boring (how to use this color filter varies depending on your device but you can often find this option under “Accessibility”).
Install Newsfeed Eradicator on Facebook
The Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator has been around for many years and will help you from disappearing into the black hole of your newsfeed. By eradicating the newsfeed altogether, it safely contains the evil sorcery that is otherwise known as the infinite scroll. You can find similar apps for other Social Media platforms, such as the Twitter Timeline Eradicator, the Insta Feed Eradicator, or the LinkedIn Newsfeed Eradicator. These are your secret weapon against the sinister tactics of the enemy. Fight fire with fire!
Disable distractions on your electronic devices
For some humans, removing distractions includes having their phone on perpetual Do Not Disturb mode unless they’re expecting a call from someone. If you can’t do that, you should at least consider disabling all but the most important notifications on your phone and laptop (so your don’t get distracted by a “breaking news” story or an incoming email).
Get your mobile device under control
Often, the default settings of your electronic devices or apps are not in your favor. They’re meant to keep human attention, not increase human well-being. One example of that is the autoplay function. When you disable autoplay on Netflix, YouTube, and various Social Media platforms, you get to take back your power of choice. Going forward, you’ll make the conscious choice to watch something, instead of having that choice made for you.
How does this sound? I have one more recommendation for you:
Bonus tip: Decrease the time spent on your electronic devices
By limiting your digital time and the time spent on electronic devices, you get grounded in the physical world. There are many ways to achieve that, such as meeting with friends instead of watching a show or choosing physical books over digital ones (bonus point: in most cases, physical books are actually better for the environment than digital ones).
Let me end this message on a note of hope. As the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe put it in his novel Elective Affinities:
“None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who believe they are free.”
You’ve been led to believe you are free. I regret to inform you that you are not.
But once you realize it, you can leave the battleground of attention. You can become free. Let those who want to fight fight. Meanwhile, you can write that book. Build your business. Spend time with your loved ones.
You can sit on a bench in the park, sip your favorite beverage, and watch the sunset.
That, dear human, is worthy of your attention.
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