Attention, attention.

“The fundamental thing is that you can’t escape the attention economy.”

– Michael Goldhaber

So as I was snowshoeing around my backyard, writing this post in my head, I had a good chuckle at myself. I could tell, just outlining it, that it was going to be a long post and that meant automatically in this era a certain chunk of people wouldn’t read it.

This is not meant as a slight against those folks. They feel like they don’t have the time to read it. Or that’s what they’ve been led to believe. Or that’s how their brains have been conditioned. I know, because I was there too.

To begin, a bit of context. Let me speak to how I’m currently consuming my media – or what also passes for reading online these days.

I currently use an RSS/feed reader, News Explorer, wherein I’ve got a bunch of site subscriptions. For the most part, they’re old-school single-person blogs, but there’s also a few literary and essay sites in there. I used to have mass-media news sites, but it just got so ridiculously out of hand in terms of post quantity every day so those got axed. All told I’ve got about 40 sites I’m subscribed to. On any given day, I’ll get from 25-50 new articles that show up, depending. I have the app on both my desktop and my phone so it syncs and I can ‘favorite’ things to read later. Once or twice a day I’ll go through and check out what’s there, favorite stuff to read later. Anything friends or people I’ve actually engaged with in-person or via email is an automatic read. Sometimes I’ll stop and read a whole article if I’m feeling like it. Often, all these articles have links to articles within them as well that sound interesting too. I’ll sometimes click through and open those up in Safari, and if I want to circle back, I bookmark them to a folder I’ve got there called ‘Junk Drawer/Read Later’.

Lately I’ve also been using ReadUp, and in a similar fashion, I can go through that and ‘star’ articles that I think seem interesting for later reading. These articles too, often contain links to further articles that could be of interest. See the note about Safari above. I also have friends and contacts that will send me links, and links that are in some ways work-related that I’ll get via email newsletters or via work social-media accounts.

I don’t have any personal social media accounts, so I don’t get any links there, but even still, given all the above, I can easily rack up a ‘to read’ list of anywhere from 150-200 articles within any given day. That’s a lot – if not impossible – to keep up with. Which is why I don’t.

There are certain sources I read everything from, regardless, but for the most part in the interest of sanity, I realized the best way to manage it was just to let it all go. I do read a few articles each day, but every day or two, I go through and nuke all those links/articles I’ve saved/favorited. I don’t have time to read the whole Internet – there’s far more there than I could ever get to and I’m ok with that. Still, sometimes weird things happen and stuff that is meant to find you, will.

This is the system I’ve developed to help me ‘pay attention to what I pay attention to’ when it comes to the Internet.

About a week ago, I’d marked this article from the New York Times Opinion section, ‘I Talked to the Cassandra of the Internet Age‘ by Charlie Warzel as a ‘to read’, but at some point, it got culled. But really, the Internet is just 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon when it comes to links.

Two days ago I read an article on ReadUp (it made the cut) and it left enough of an impression that I wrote a post about it. As a rare treat, the woman who wrote it, Lisa Richardson, actually read my post and emailed me and we had a lovely exchange. At the end of her first email, she shared a link she had just read that morning and thought I’d appreciate…wait for it – I Talked to the Cassandra of the Internet Age. I remembered it immediately and told her so. Surely the Universe had sent me a sign.

You should definitely go read the whole article, I won’t spoil it, but the TL;DR (if you’re paying attention, you’ll get that joke) is that years ago – in prehistoric times internet-wise – 1997, physicist Michael Goldhaber wrote an essay in Wired magazine outlining almost to the letter, all the issues we’re struggling with now with regards to the pitfalls of the ‘attention economy’. Thing is, not many folks paid attention back then. Upon reading, it kinda makes me wonder who we’re not paying attention to right now.

Most of this came to him in the mid-1980s, when Mr. Goldhaber, a former theoretical physicist, had a revelation. He was obsessed at the time with what he felt was an information glut — that there was simply more access to news, opinion and forms of entertainment than one could handle. His epiphany was this: One of the most finite resources in the world is human attention. To describe its scarcity, he latched onto what was then an obscure term, coined by a psychologist, Herbert A. Simon: “the attention economy.”

These days, the term is a catch-all for the internet and the broader landscape of information and entertainment. Advertising is part of the attention economy. So are journalism and politics and the streaming business and all the social media platforms. But for Mr. Goldhaber, the term was a bit less theoretical: Every single action we take — calling our grandparents, cleaning up the kitchen or, today, scrolling through our phones — is a transaction. We are taking what precious little attention we have and diverting it toward something. This is a zero-sum proposition, he realized. When you pay attention to one thing, you ignore something else.

– Charlie Warzel, The New York Times

After reading the article, I wrote back to Ms. Richardson, conveyed my story, thanked her and also mentioned that it immediately reminded me of a post I’d written a little over 2 years ago, Using My Attention with Intention.

I’d noticed my own tendency to read only shorter pieces, avoidance of long articles, and deteriorating attention span. Though I’ve been attempting to rehabilitate my reading skills, I’ll ironically point out that old habits die hard. In the case of the article I discuss below, I read it 3 times. The first two I would resort to skimming, looking for hooks and trying to get to the end so I could get on to ‘next thing’. Part of my efforts have been working on stopping, slowing down, and staying with the writing. Too often these days we are in a hurry to ‘get elsewhere’ either virtually or physically and don’t pay attention to the one thing we are actually doing.

– Me, February 2019 – I seem to think about this stuff a lot in February.

The good news is, looking back, over the past 2 years I have been very successful in my endeavor to use my ‘attention with intention‘. I’d say this is due to a number of factors. Working from home, finally jumping off social media (for good), and practicing a lot of what Cal Newport talks about in Digital Minimalism. A regular practice of meditation has been huge in this regard. Sam Harris makes this perfectly clear in his audio clip from his Waking Up app:

In his recording, “Don’t Meditate Because It’s Good for You,” Harris says that meditation is a profound life process, analogous in some ways to reading—“one of the most important skills our species ever acquired.” Meditation, like reading, has “sweeping implications” for human life, so that over time, “almost everything we care about depends on it.”

In reality, our daily working lives find ourselves “always meditating on something”— habits, worries, desires, obsessions, expectations, insights, prejudices and the like. He emphasizes: “We become what we pay attention to,” so that we are effectively changing our brains in each moment. Mindfulness is “the ability to notice this process with clarity and to then prioritize what you pay attention to.”

“Why not focus your attention on things important to you,” he asks, rather than on a host of “trivial things that clamour for it?”

Elizabeth Shih, storytellingcommunications.ca

Here’s the audio clip, set to an animation:

We’ve come to the point – or past it – that Mr. Goldhaber wrote about in his initial WIRED article, in that our attention is now a commodity and it is being bought and sold by the likes of social media, news outlets and advertisers. Interesting that those of us talking about the ‘attention economy’ and its associated perils are pretty much relegated to using the very tools, platforms and devices at the core of the economy itself. It would seem we have no choice. However, even Mr. Goldhaber acknowledged this.

“It’s not a question of sitting by yourself and doing nothing, but instead asking, ‘How do you allocate the attention you have in more focused, intentional ways?’”

– Michael Goldhaber

It took a lot of my attention to sit and write this and compile all these quotes and links. Arguably I’m doing it to get attention – as outlined by Mr. Goldhaber in his WIRED article. We all are. We all need attention – though the amount varies by person. I guess what all this has me thinking is it possible anymore to pay attention to the right things given the state of the ‘attention economy’ today. Are we even able to accurately determine what those things are?

“Rule Number One is to pay attention. Rule Number Two might be: Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.”

– Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community

The best part of all this, is searching out Howard Rheingold – whom Mr. Goldhaber cited in his WIRED article, I found his twitter page and therein was a link to a clip from Thelonious Monk from 1966, playing Blue Monk. If you’ve read this far, you deserve to be rewarded. Whatever you do, give at least the first 12:10 of this your full attention.

‘Renegade’ and The Authentic Moment

Neuroscientist/Philosopher Sam Harris tells a story of walking on stage to give a talk somewhere and upon seeing that there was bottled water on a table next to the podium he did what so many of us do and thought to himself, “oh good, they put some water there.” He then asks – why is he thinking that and who is he thinking it to? He sees the water there – his brain registers it, he already knows it’s there, but why is there this internal monologue or voice that reaffirms it to ‘himself’ when really, ‘himself’ already knows the water is there?

We all have this internal monologue or voice and it’s uniquely ours. It speaks in language and tone and with colloquialisms and slang that indeed often only we know and recognize. It’s an infinite loop of inside jokes with ourselves.

Saturday morning I was sitting in a grassy clearing behind a subdivision watching the sun come up. There wasn’t much to watch actually, it was an overcast day. I watched the world around me get lighter. At the edge of the clearing there were some deer grazing that I don’t think had really noticed me sitting there – the grass was pretty tall and I was hidden.

When I stood up to leave, they froze a bit and realized I was there. Inside my head, my internal voice said a line it uses all the time in these situations, “the jig is up, the news is out – they know I’m here.” The first part of that, “the jig is up, the news is out” comes from a line in a Styx song that I first heard so long ago I can’t remember when. It often pops into my head in instances like this where it fits. Why it does is a totally different blog post, because I’ve never even really been a Styx fan or listened to one of their records all the way through. I will tell you it has something to do with that ancient technology, radio.

I don’t usually listen to music when I’m riding my bike, but I chuckled at this opportunity and dialed up the song on my phone in Apple Music, set my speaker volume as loud as it could go, a proceeded to tear through the gray suburbs of Fredericton’s North Side with it playing 3 times in a row.

I didn’t see anyone. It was very early on a Saturday, but I bet some folks saw or maybe even heard me through sleepy, coffee-fueled gazes out of kitchen windows. Maybe some dog-walkers heard strange noise a block away but couldn’t quite pinpoint it as it was moving. Some guy up early to wake-n-bake in his backyard probably thought, “whoah this is some great shit, I think I just heard Styx.” I enjoy doing my part to keep Fredericton weird.

It occurred to me that the whole transaction – from that moment when I thought of the lyric through to fishing out my phone, searching it up and hitting play – that is what digital companies are trying to capture and ultimately monetize. That’s the hook.

The voice in my head is uniquely mine, but science has basically determined that – leave arguments about the true nature of consciousness aside for a moment – those thoughts, my internal monologue (or dialogue, since it seems to be two-way with someone) is merely electrical impulses zapping through my brain that I quite literally have no control over.

The March of Technology continues to advance. I’ve heard discussions on podcasts and elsewhere about the eventual availability of ‘neural nets’ – the mess of wires and transmitters that measure brain activity you see in the science shows – potentially in the form of wearables like hats or headbands and coupled with devices and apps to read your brain activity. Most of the discussions I’ve heard are about the beneficent use of this tech – say for example an app to help you quit smoking that can read your brain activity faster than you can even think and then prompt you via an app or otherwise with a behavior or thought that works counter to the craving.

Ostensibly, one day there will be surgical implants that can be placed into your head, connected to your brain to then connect with external devices – such as a phone – but then again, at some point, there’ll no longer be a need for the external device. Everything will happen right inside your head. Your phone calls, reminders, music – all right there.

In the case of my Styx example, the process would change from a clunky physical one – thought of the song, reaching for phone (or even asking Siri to play it) – pressing button – to simply thinking of the lyric and then thinking “oooo, play that,” and my head will ring with 1979 era rock. I guess the downside is that the neighborhoods I ride through won’t be able to hear it – which ruins most of the fun.

More ominously though, if our internal monologue/dialogue is just electrical impulses, then eventually, the technology will exist for the implant in your head to be 2-way. It will no longer just ‘listen and monitor’ – it will respond or prompt. And the response will indiscernible from your own thoughts. It will speak to you in that same voice and language that you’ve known your whole life. The device will – of course – be connected to external sources via wi-fi, bluetooth, and/or whatever new invisible data transfer technologies are created between now and then. At some point it will be very lucrative and very compelling for advertisers, organizations, causes, or anyone really – to be able to get into your thoughts – and you won’t even know it.

So it begs the question, at what point will your experience of the moment become inauthentic?

Because I know you’re wondering, Sunday’s ride soundtrack was The Bosstones. Now you’ve been inside my head, no fancy gadgets needed.

Really, It’s OK to Do Nothing Sometimes

The latest episode of Douglas Rushkoff’s Team Human podcast is pretty good. The guest, Tiffany Shlain, has written about about unplugging from screens one day a week in a practice that is sort of a modern day throwback to the notion of a weekly ‘sabbath’ or ‘Shabbat’. Some really interesting discussion ensues.

They talk about the notion that people don’t know how to just sit with themselves anymore – or that it’s become thought of as a bad thing to ‘sit idly’. I feel the generations my kids belong to will especially have no concept of this, or construe it mostly as ‘wasting time’ having been exposed/connected to tech their entire lives.

The reality is that in many cases time spent in self reflection, or simply being present in the moment with others without the distractions of tech, is time better spent but we’re not taught that anymore and indeed, most tech companies/platforms are trying to encourage the very opposite.

When Good Intentions Go Bad

https://fs.blog/jonathan-haidt/

Great stuff here from Shane Parrish over at Farnham Street on The Knowledge Project podcast. I’ve posted stuff before in relation to Jonathan Haidt and he continues to be full of insight and useful information. I’ll post a few standouts here, but the whole thing is really worth a listen – I can’t transcribe all the worthwhile commentary:

Some people have sent me quotes from ancient Greece, where they complained about the kids today and how they don’t respect their elders, and things like that. So partly, it is a constant generational thing. But the reason why Greg Lukianoff and I think that this is so different is because, never before have the mental health statistics just gone haywire for generations so quickly. So, whatever we’re doing, kids born after 1995 have really high rates of anxiety, depression, self harm, and suicide.”

As a parent – this should be a required listen. It’s at turns informative and terrifying if you let it be, but ultimately empowering.

I’m realizing that, in some ways, I have missed the boat a bit with my older two kids and I’m almost too late with the younger two, but there’s still value and ideas to be gleaned from this discussion. I wish I’d had this podcast – and Haidt’s insights in general – like, 6-8 years ago – but, if you listen, you’ll realize that in many ways we as a society and as parents had no way of knowing then the way the internet and social media would effect kids and their mental health, it was simply new, uncharted territory.

Any parents who are listening to this podcast, I urge you to follow a few simple rules. That is, two hours a day of screen time, not counting homework. And no social media until high school, and lots of free play outside. Let your kids out, especially by the age of seven or eight. Let them out to have unsupervised time with other kids, in a place that’s physically safe.”

These seem like, “well, duh” type revelations, but speaking from experience, I know I got very much caught up in the tendency and social pressures to over protect and shelter kids – with the best of intentions – versus how my generation was raised.

If you can imagine growing up, where in your teen years you’re always self censoring, you’re always careful, we think this is what’s happening. This is what many students tell us it’s like. They often just accept it as normal, because that’s all they’ve known. And this means we might have a generation that’s afraid to take risks, afraid to play with ideas. Afraid to challenge dominant ideas. It’s going to lead to a lot more conformity, a lot less creativity.

And much more great discussion here on learning the importance of how to disagree with people, how to engage with those you disagree with and the importance of surrounding yourself with people you disagree with and expose yourself to ideas that you might not like in order to grow as an individual which in turn makes you more of a benefit to society as a whole.

Why What You Think You Know is Wrong – And Right – at the Same Time

Why we can’t have nice things. Or agree.

Great episode here of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast. Discussion centering around tribalism and polarization and the misconceptions we have about how we view what are ‘facts’ and what aren’t. Why what can be ‘true’ for one person is not necessarily so for another.

In this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast, we spend time with political scientist Lilliana Mason and psychologist Dan Kahan, two researchers exploring how our tribal tendencies are scrambling public discourse and derailing so many of our best efforts at progress — from science communication, to elections, to our ability to converge on the truth and go about the grind of building a better democracy…

…Now this is something we talk about a lot on this show. In fact it’s the foundations of everything you are not so smart about. We are unaware of how unaware we are, yet we proceed with confidence in the false assumption that we are fully aware of our motivations and the sources of our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. In fact, much of the time, if not most of the time, the true source of those things, the true motivations behind our behaviors, is often invisible or unknowable, or in the case of tribal psychology something we’d rather not believe about ourselves. None of us wants to think that we are simply parroting the perspectives of elites or going along with the attitudes of our tribes, but the work of Dan Kahan and Lillanna Mason and many others suggests that for many issues that is exactly what is happening.

David McRaney

Podcast transcript available here if you’re more of a reader.