On Attention

The selection pressure of the information age is the human attention span. Because the amount of entertainment available to choose from--be it in the form of novels, movies, video games, YouTube videos, albums, paintings, interpretive dances or Internet memes--is, from the perspective of single human, limitless, the media that people choose to spend their time on is necessarily the media that gets passed on to the next generation of people. Few of the books published by the ancient Greeks and Romans are still with us; only the books that people--and the ideologies of their governments--choose to preserve are leftover. This might sound like a banal point, but I think it's worthy of special focus in the attention-starved world that we live in.

It's easy to romanticize the loss of culture that has occurred across the span of history--the books burned in the library of Alexandria contained knowledge that can never be recovered--but the loss of old media is what allows new media to find a niche in the human attention span. It is these cultural developments and their selective pressures in which the highest ideals of our species find a place in the collective human psyche. They are also a place where the darkest and most primitive desires of humanity are made manifest. In short, it is this cultural selection process which has shaped human identity since the dawn of language. With each new generation countless books are written, countless song are composed, countless movies filmed. But with each passing generation just as much is lost. It makes me wonder if the bulk of what we pass down to the next generation truly worth passing down. After all, it is this culture which shapes the dreams and aspirations of us all.

Most of the media we consume is forgotten almost as soon as we consume it--cultural detritus that manages to hold on to our minds for a brief time before inevitably slipping out of our collective memory. We look to the art of the past with nostalgia and rose-tinted glasses because the only art that has survived that long selection process is the art that was truly memorable.

The reason you hear people claiming that music used to be better when they were a kid probably isn't because music from their childhood was actually better. It's because if you take a random sample of all the art available to us today you'll find that 95% of it is disposable, unoriginal fluff. People die, but their culture lives on. And their cultures in turn influence the next generation of people in a grand evolutionary process that has been going on since humans were ever human.

So if this cultural selection process is what shapes human identity, what should we think about the fact that so much of our attention spans in the digital age are taken up by what advertisers want to deliver to us, by what corporations want us to see, and by what governments want us to believe? Advertisers can pay to mainline whatever content they want straight into our brains through ad-space, and if you watch TV or don't use an ad-blocker you are an accomplice in this transaction. Ideas--like glue--are sticky, and regardless of how resilient you think you are to advertising, ads are nevertheless are very good at sticking ideas into your brain.

One of the great difficulties of modern life is choosing how to best allocate your daily attention budget. At the end of the day, it is the collection of things that you chose to focus on during that day that make up your life. If your day was spent focusing on things that other people wanted you to think, are you really being yourself?

Of course, we are all influenced by each other in countless ways. That's a good thing and it's what has helped us to get where we are today. The point I am making here is that we have a collective say in how we influence others, including future generations, by how we act now. Civilizations do not fall through the act of any one human, but by the collective actions of us all. The Berlin wall was not torn down by one person, but by millions.

It's easy to forget that we even have a choice when we consider how much of our lives are lived on autopilot, with us mechanically going from one task to the next, performing our daily rituals, stuck in the eddies of modern civilization. Your attention is a valuable commodity, and advertisers and content creators are willing to spend a lot of money to get a slice of it. Be careful what you give out, because the moments of your life you give out are moments you can never get back.

Humans, to paraphrase Proust, are creatures of habit. From a young age, much of our lives are lived by rote, as if we were the mere actors of our lives rather the the omnipotent stage-writers. In a way this is only natural. Our brains are small and the world is large. Our brains have developed ways of extracting relevant information out of our environment while ignoring most of the rest of it. Humans became a successful species because of our ability to quickly and accurately process information in the external world. Is that snake poisonous? Is that a rock or a bear? If we had to process half the information present in any given visual scene, we would all become actionless hypochondriacs, unable to move or think or really understand the world. This narrowing-down of information we call attention is what allows us to function as rational agents in the natural world, but when so much of our mental lives are lived out in an unnatural world of advertising and fads and muzak, how much is this biology helping us and how much is it harming us? I don't know for sure, but with the global challenges that we will all face in the next century, I have a hunch we will begin find out.

Oct 15, 2018