Supply & Demand.
In 1971 Herbert A. Simon had a modest prediction about the growth of information technology and how it would affect us. His description demonstrates the issue with the attention economy.
“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consume. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently.”
His premonition is identical to the current state of multimedia. As content increases, attention regulates our consumption more than access to information.
Attention itself is a limited resource. We only have so many hours awake and distractions abound. Distracted minds are actually a good thing for content producers. They want us to consume or interact with content as often and as long as possible. And they know an entertaining product can pull us away from even the most important work.
What it interrupts or how much enjoyment we get out of it couldn’t be less important. As long as we continue to attend, tech companies can guarantee our business.
Originally, information technology was the constraint between attention and consumption. Sluggish internet, limited distribution, and high fees meant content handled better offline.
As with all things technology these obstacles were overcome. We have an endless stream of media at our fingertips. But our limited processing power, choice agency, and attention are outside Silicon Valleys scope.
Advertisers and app creators know and understand these constraints. The attention economy provides incentives for companies to manipulate our constraints. The more time we have on their apps, the more ad revenue they earn, the quicker they can grow.
It’s not exactly evil, it’s just how a market economy works.
A primary externality of the attention economy is information overload. Every company sends out as much content as often as possible, relying on you to choose what you’ll consume.
But that’s a pretty inefficient way to make a choice. Overload often means settling rather than making an informed decision. If you’ve ever flipped through channels in boredom, you know how easy it is to settle.
Overload occurs when the amount of information exceeds our processing power. The personalization of content, reproducibility of information, and access have made information overload a prominent feature of our society. The attention economy helps drive this phenomena. Notifications on your phone and browser push for your attention. Each delivers morsels of information meant to pull you away from your current focus.
Not all researchers think that quantity of information is the problem. Instead our inability, or the producers inability, to filter information, termed “filter failure” is to blame. If we, or the companies providing information, knew what we needed there’d be no issue. Sadly, knowing ahead of time what you’ll need in the moment is impossible.
If technology filters our information, we’re likely to fall into a echo chambers. We’ve seen that in our most recent election cycle. Currently we work in tandem with content distributors to filter information. We provide some data about ourselves and they make suggestions. But those subtle nudges can override our best judgement.
The amount of multimedia available to us now is staggering. Both Google and Apple have over two million apps in their stores. Dozens if not hundreds of ways to stream video. An endless supply of games triple-A and indie. And, a proliferation of news channels and podcasts. Yet the growth of each of these media types increases several fold each year. For those of us that love to relax or kick back we’ve got one major issue, how do we take it all in?
Even as we do other work we keep a constant buzz of distraction in the background. A report from Deloitte noted, “more than 90 percent of US consumers now multitask while watching television.” With millennials admitting they balance up to four additional activities while watching TV. And, as we know, multitasking means they’re not getting much out of any of these media sources. At best, each is distracting from the other.
It’s estimated we spend 6.5 hours per day on multimedia, but manage to consume 8.5 hours in that time frame. We double up, scrolling through Instagram while Netflix plays, text with music on, and let the tv go while playing video games.
We always have something to hold our attention, for now this works out great for creators. Even if we only catch a glimpse of their content. They can still pull in revenue from ads. But as more tech companies jostle for position, they’ll need more of our attention to make it worth their while.
In the Face of Attention Scarcity
To stay competitive in the attention economy media companies have to invest in content and consumer data. Including how our brain regulates attention. The goals of the attention economy are often in direct contrast to our individual goals. Whether you want to spend more time with family or get in shape is irrelevant, even detrimental, to media companies. Because all those moments away from technology impact their bottom line.
YouTube autoplays videos, removing us from the decision making process. Facebook and Twitter push us further into our favorite niches, giving us more content we agree with without allowing us to see another side. Snapchat confuses friendship with streaks. And every other app has some form of notification meant to prompt you into paying it attention.
As we struggle to understand our own mind, tech companies continual research the underpinnings of cognition. They deploy their research through subtle developments. Almost imperceptible in everyday use. We usually shrug them off as minor changes. Or worse, we take for granted that they’re for our benefit. But we know that’s not always the case.
Each addition means to increase consumption and reduce time away from our screen. Notifications and automated video shift how you interact with your phone or computer. Over time these consumption patterns become habits changing your perception of what’s important. Eventually changing what you attend to and how you make decisions. Your brain starts functioning on autopilot around technology. If you’ve ever closed an app only to immediately reopen it, you know what I mean.
Reclaiming Time in the Attention Economy
To take control we need to understand how companies manipulate our attention.
Our primary connection to these companies is through the apps on our phones. They pull us in with notifications, reminders, accessibility, and promised entertainment. Tristan Harris and his team have several recommendations for taking back time. Notifications should come from people, not applications. Apps should only have access to your attention if give it to them. Only friends, family, and coworkers should have the instant access cell phones provide.
Second, you should add a few taps between apps for entertainment and you. Keep tools like maps, calendar, note takers, and workout trackers on your home screen. The rest should go where they belong, on the apps tab. Adding steps between use and consumption gives you a few more moments to think over your best use of time.
With computers you can install apps like RescueTime, StayFocusd, and Adblock plus. RescueTime monitors and reports the amount of time you spend in individual apps and web pages. A great tool for highlighting what apps you spend too much time in. It also serves as a stepping stone for managing your consumption. It’s far easier to reduce time in apps if you know how much you spend on each.
Adblockplus does exactly as the name implies. Each ad it removes is one less source of information your brain needs to filter through. One less distraction to fight against. Giving you back more energy to focus on what’s important.
StayFocusd limits the time you spend on distracting websites like Netflix or Facebook. Instead of trying to manage your own browsing you can let this extension work for you. A true tool for productivity.
On your phone you can download Forest. An app that lets you lock yourself out of your phone with a couple quick taps. It’s easy to get back in, but you have to go through a couple shame inducing prompts to do so. Hopefully those are enough to dissuade you from whatever distraction you’re seeking.
How Will You Pay Attention?
While Simon’s prediction for the future of information may have come to pass, what happens next is up to you. Do you make changes in your life to counteract the effects of multimedia companies or do you let them tighten their grip on your attention? If you’re willing to let more time pass into the hands of an outside influence, then your choice is made.
If you feel as though your time is better spent elsewhere you’ll need to take the steps above to regain your time.
For further information watch this talk by TimeWellSpent co-founder James Williams.