Eric Brown • • 6 min read
The Internet is Destroying Your Attention: How to Survive the Attention Economy
Can you get to the end of this article?
I’m not asking if you will, I’m asking if you can.
Are you physically and mentally capable of holding your attention long enough to get through this article?
It might be a struggle.
You’ll start to skim. Start to wonder what’s happening on Facebook. Think about that text you still need to send. Habitually, unconsciously, that new tab will pop open.
Recently, we stumbled across this exceptional video from YouTube legend CGPGrey called ‘Thinking About Attention’, which I highly recommend watching:
In it, he discusses the development of recent technologies, tools, and tactics that are used specifically to capture your attention at all costs. To monetize and gamify your focus. To engineer your eyeball movement.
These developments have been called the “attention economy.”
So many major outlets today (technology, media, and politics to name a few) — are built on the backs of collective attention.
Viewing hours, page clicks, time on site, daily average users.
As a result, there are literally teams of people who spend 50+ hours a week with the express goal of manipulating your attention. To capture a sliver of your time when faced with the vast options of the infinite apps and web pages available today.
Not only is the internet destroying your attention, but it’s also doing so very intentionally.
The more we unearth about the human psyche, the more capable these engines of attention become at capturing you and keeping you hooked. We are constantly bombarded with a wealth of information, all begging for our attention, begging for another click, another retweet, another interaction like a junkie that’s gone too long without a fix.
The world is competing for your attention on the biggest, most pervasive stage ever created.
The Value of Attention
At first, it may be difficult to understand the problem here. After all, ‘multitasking’ and busyness have become something of status symbols these days.
Your ability to hop from one task to the next seamlessly is almost worthy of being on your resume. In fact, it’s listed as a requirement in most job descriptions these days.
But here’s the key question: do you do this because you want to, or because it’s all that you can do?
Can you sit and perform a single task for an hour? Half an hour? 10 minutes?
It’s becoming increasingly unlikely.
The problem here is twofold. First, it’s that we as individuals and as a collective society are losing the ability to focus and hold our attention. It’s been said that we have recently developed lower attention spans than goldfish.
Is this the direction we want to go? To be very literally confined to our glass boxes, unable to hold anything in working memory and focusing only on what is beeping the loudest at us?
The second problem here is that a focused mind is an underlying mechanism for most pleasurable experiences in life.
Why do we go to IMAX movies? Why do we chase after flow? Why do we love to lose ourselves in a good video game, conversation, or sporting activity? Why is sex so enthralling?
In almost any desirable and pleasurable situation, the mind is focused. Sharp. Your attention rests only in the present moment, and only on the single experience. Attention is a scarce resource these days.
As Sam Harris says,
“The truth is, just having a concentrated mind — that’s not getting lost in thought — is just intrinsically pleasurable. It’s intrinsically blissful. It’s the emotional bass note of all the good drug experiences.”
Sleepwalking Towards Armageddon
Now make no mistake about this, it’s not entirely your fault.
There are entire companies dedicated to figuring out the best way to push your buttons. Leveraging cutting-edge research to find out just what makes you tick.
And not just what makes you tick, what makes humanity tick.
For he who controls the attention of the people, can control almost anything.
The battle is on. One minute of your time means less ad revenue, lower market share, disgruntled shareholders.
There is a war being waged for your mind. Your attention is an incredibly scarce, and incredibly valuable resource—arguably your most valuable resource.
Do not pander it away. Do not give it away unconsciously. Use it wisely.
If we cannot focus, we cannot synthesize information, we cannot formulate ideas, we cannot understand that we are slowly sleepwalking towards Armageddon.
We quite literally vote with our attention now.
If we all focus on something, it must mean that we enjoy it, that we want it. So our attention must go towards that which we want to see in the world.
We must move away from the polarizing news, away from status and power, and towards the beautiful, the authentic, and the meaningful.
We must reclaim our attention, and control the attention economy.
Surviving the Attention Economy
Deep in the rainforests of Costa Rica during Apotheosis, our host repeated a mantra that has stuck with me ever since,
“You must focus on the wanted.”
The wanted here referring to anything and everything that you want to see in the world, that you want to see in people, and that you want to see in yourself.
It is easy to focus on the meaningless banter in comment threads. It’s simple to focus on the fear-mongering news because it’s blasted across every TV, social network, and radio station in the country. It’s even easy to focus on what you dislike in yourself, to see your faults and shortcomings above everything else.
But when we focus on this, all we do is bring them to the forefront. We focus on the unwanted and bring about more of this in the process.
We must reclaim our attention, and focus on the wanted.
There are many ways to reclaim your attention:
- Train your mind. Practice mindfulness meditation daily. Learn to hold your focus.
- Ruthlessly cut out unwanted information from your life. Unfollow mainstream news outlets, ‘mute’ topics you don’t want to see. A wise man once said, “Effectiveness begins with elimination. Choose your ignorances as carefully as your interests.”
- Remove social media profiles from your phone. This is huge. It’s amazing how dramatically you can cut down your social media use if you take them off of your phone. Use apps like Freedom and Simple Blocker to block the sites on your laptop as well; use them deliberately above all.
- Journal. Take notice of what you think about, what you observe around you, and how others act and react.
- Track your time. To manage your attention, you need to understand where it’s already going. And your memory is not going to cut it, it’s unreliable at best. For 1 week track where your time goes, you might be (unpleasantly) surprised. You can do this easily with Webtime Tracker.
- Take control. What do you want to focus on? How do you want to spend your time? Become very clear on this.
- Check out the Center for Humane Technology. They’re an organization dedicated to taking back our attention and creating technology that is actually optimized to support human values. They offer a great list of tips for reclaiming your attention here.
- Treat your time and attention as sacred. If someone asked us for $20, they’d need a good reason. And yet we so easily give away 20 minutes of our time to anyone who will smile and nod. You cannot earn more time—it’s a non-renewable resource. Your time is intensely sacred. Treat it as such.
The internet is doing it’s best to destroy, dismantle, and capture as much of your attention as it can. It’s not all bad, I’ve certainly learned many a great thing from the vast libraries of the internet’s collective wisdom.
However, the difference here is that this was done with intent, not mindless scrolling. Not closing Facebook only to open it again habitually. We need to focus on the long-term ramifications of these developments and plan accordingly.
We are all soldiers in this war for the wanted. What kind of world do you want to build?
How can you put your attention towards that now?
If you liked this, you’ll love 4 Reasons You Should Pay Attention to Your Attention, and 5 Unexpected Reasons Modern Life Depresses Many People.
And once more, if you’d like these lessons to sink in more deeply, watch this phenomenal video from CGP Grey:
The Attention Economy by Thomas Davenport
As technology becomes more advanced, as we outsource more of our cognitive load to the devices in our hands, the attention economy will continue to rise in sociocultural importance. If you want to prepare to be a soldier in this war, best to read up on it.