More Thoughts on Attention

James Titchener / @mistertitchener

Facebook and Google have been increasingly scrutinized over it's practices around data, and for good reason. You can literally run a Facebook ad targeting married men who make $65,000 a year and are sexually attracted to Asian women. That's not a joke.

As bizarre as this is, I think there's a bigger problem with these companies that grabs fewer headlines—they're stealing our attention and with it our happiness.

The value of our lives is a function of the time we're afforded and how we spend it. Each of us is allotted some undefined amount of time, and regardless of our health and life circumstances, we never know how much time remains. We can be confident that we're not going to live to the ripe age of 2086, but we can't be certain that we'll make it beyond the very moment we find ourselves in.

Despite this constraint on our time, it's becoming increasingly easier to forget the brevity of our lives and waste our time aimlessly. Death is taboo in the West. And wasted time, and more importantly attention, is the fodder of our global economy.

I'm going to put aside Facebook and Google, because I think they're easy targets. It's more widely known that these companies, especially Facebook, is taking huge amounts of attention and demonstrably making people unhappy.

I'm going to start with a fan favorite. Netflix has 182 million subscribers worldwide, with an average of 72 minutes watched per subscriber per day. In a year, 76,716,000,000 hours of pretty good content is streamed globally. And this is just Netflix. This doesn't include cable, Disney+, YouTube, or Netflix's biggest competitor by their own admission, and it's not HBO, the video game Fortnite.

Why Fortnite? Because Netflix isn't playing the streaming game, they're playing the attention game, and Fortnite is taking a lot of attention. The free-to-play online over 350 million registered users and its growing like gangbusters. Especially in a post-Covid world, today's youth lives on Fortnite. Literally. The game came out in July of 2017, and there's a player that has 520 days of game time logged. I'll let you do the math.

I lay out this data not to say that all of this time is wasted. Playing video games and watching dumb dating shows can be fun. But these activities, especially watching TV and scrolling on social, have been shown to be far less enjoyable than we'd expect.

Csikszentmihalyi's research on flow (the state of being in the zone) indicates that the quality of our attention makes a huge impact on the quality of our lives. And the quality of our attention when consumed by Netflix and Instagram, and then back to Netflix, just isn't good. We call these activities "mindless" for a reason, and it turns out that using our minds, even on activities like work that we think we dread, actually makes for higher states of wellbeing.

And just as low attention activities tend to make us unhappy, so do distractions and multi-tasking. The world's biggest companies are fighting to distract us from one mindless activity to the next. And ironically, this issue doesn't seem to be getting much attention.

How we spend our attention and on what we spend it on are really the only questions that matter. But I don't think it's controversial to say that these aren't questions that are forefront on our priorities as individuals and societies. I didn't even know what the quality of attention was until I started meditating. And only when I started meditating did I realize just how little attention I was actually paying to my experience and the world around me.

Unfortunately, I don't think our minds are well-suited to tackle these questions. We default to being lost in thought. And when we're lost in thought, our lives will inevitably follow the norms set by evolution and societal pressures. Without control of our attention, we're destined to fall in with the crowd, and the crowd just isn't using their attention wisely.

There's a rule-of-thumb that I'm finding increasingly attractive that's relevant here—if the majority believes it, it's almost certainly wrong.

Maybe this isn't saying much. Science is basically the process of proving what was true to be wrong. That is until the next batch of scientists and innovators come along to prove this new set of treasured truths to be false, and so on.

But these innovations in knowledge always start on the edges. It starts with a tiny minority fighting against the collective beliefs of the majority until the minority spreads their newfound knowledge broadly enough to where it becomes widely accepted.

It's for this reason that I think that attention spent pushing majority or even large minority positions is better used elsewhere. Innovation and progress is found within the neglected. The returns on attention diminish when most people are already paying attention to it. Even if the majority is spending their attention on a worthy cause, there's likely unpopular paths that will net greater impact per unit of attention.

But there's risk in being contrarian. Contrarians are crazy until they're proven right—except for the majority of the times when they're just crazy. And speaking from experience, straying from the crowd can be lonely. But at least it's not boring.

•••

If you liked this, here's my first post on attention.

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