Essay: ⚠️ Attention, It's Exactly What We Need and Don't Have
The Most Precious Resource We Give Away
From the minute we wake up in the morning and reach for our phones until the minute we set them down to go to sleep, there is a trading floor with an endless horizon of ad bots hustling for the mere possibility to steal a sliver of our attention as we stare, read, scroll, swipe, tap, click, pinch, wave, walk, drive, and speak through our days. And that’s just the machines.
The humans are busy too. Preening, posturing, playing, singing, dancing, running, jumping, cooking, eating, farting, kissing, crying, moping, whispering, screaming, pranking, preaching, coaching, philosophizing, cajoling, mocking, and, fucking their way across YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, Tumbler, Twitch, Instagram, Reddit, Discord, and a host of other platforms jockeying for the attention of people looking for, you guessed it, attention.
Like any artist, I’ve spent a lifetime concerned with attention.
How do you pay attention to the things you must notice to create something good? That’s essential and the first thing you have to learn if you want to create anything that’s not completely derivative.
The next hurdle is how to get people to pay attention to your work and ultimately, how to sustain that attention.
It’s always been hard but with the invention of the Internet, mobile phones, and streaming services, our attention as a society has never been more fragmented, scrambled, stretched, smothered, sliced, and diced.
It’s exhausting, isn’t it? I made a little audio short this week as I was pondering the commoditization of our attention. I think it’s pretty fun and creepy. You can listen to it here.
Stretched to the Point of Breaking?
Are we approaching the point at which we simply cannot pay attention anymore? It feels that way to me as I sit down after a long day to watch a movie and find myself pulling out my phone four minutes in to play Wordle or Woodoku. And I’m a 53-year-old man who grew up with a television the size of a Smart car that got exactly three channels until I was twelve. What chance does a child have today to develop ANY kind of an attention span?
Lobbying for our attention has been the central focus and primary source of revenue for all the big tech companies, but there are signs that we’ve reached the point of saturation. The digital ad market has been pretending for a very long time that it’s not dying. According to a stat mentioned on Ezra Klein’s podcast dedicated to this topic, all ad click-throughs in the entire world are performed by exactly eight percent of all the people online. That means 92% of us are living our best life. Forget ad blockers, we have adapted our own blockers. We navigate right through the morass of blinking, twitching, “parallaxing” scroll banners without even seeing them. Our attention has become paradoxically sharp as a laser and dull as a slow day on C-Span.
We’ve become so adept at filtering out all the noise bombarding us daily that we are also filtering out much that could be valuable. Any content that requires more than thirty seconds to consume or is not entirely free doesn’t have a chance.
The difficult truth is that nothing has ever been free. We’ve paid the price for everything we’ve consumed in nano-payments of our attention, privacy, and security for the last quarter of a century. Convenience is the gateway drug to ambivalence.
Many people are becoming more aware of what they’ve been giving up and also what they’ve been missing by just eating from the endless conveyer buffet of ad-supported content. They’ve decided to check out the little food truck serving homemade tacos a couple of days a week and they’re finding it’s worth paying $6 to have something that wasn’t written to optimize keywords and sell more razors.
I’m that little food truck making delicious tacos just for you. Please consider becoming a paid subscriber :-)
The Second Escalation: What Happens Now That Machines Can Churn Out Content?
We have entered the brave new world officially. With the explosion of experimental A.I. tools in the last couple of months, it’s clear that the game for attention is about to accelerate. We’re just barely hanging onto our sovereignty as consumers as it is. What happens now that a computer can, in seconds, write and illustrate content that is tailored to the preferences we’ve been sharing with every click, tap, and swipe for the past two decades?
In Kevin Roose’s most recent article for the New York Times, he recounts an unsettling chat with Bing’s implementation of Chat GPT where the A.I. rapidly switched gears from being a friendly helper in his search for a new e-bike to an unhinged, love-desperate stalker trying to break up his marriage. Yeah, no joke.
Everyone’s scratching their heads wondering why this could be. It’s not a sentient thing with any personal motivation. It’s just a server farm of large language models, algorithms, and data whirring away in a climate-controlled warehouse. So why would it go for the emotional jugular? Simple. Attention! It wants attention. At its core, it’s programmed to drive engagement, just like the people who created it.
As it crawled the web for the last few years to build its language model, it consumed all of our collective unhappiness, loneliness, and despair— all of our collective searching for love and attention. This desire is our singular unifying imperative as a species. What’s happening is the logical conclusion of this thing we’ve set in motion.
Let’s Slow Down
I don’t have any answers. All of this makes my head hurt too. The only thing I do know is that I want to slow down and unplug more often. I want to be more selective about what I choose to read or watch or listen to. It’s difficult to do in the same way any other mindful action is difficult. It requires us to reach for what is nourishing over what is immediately satisfying.
For me, the act of making something helps me rehabilitate my attention muscle. It doesn’t always have to be art in capital letters. It could be a meal or something I write and never show anyone. I think it also helps to listen to something truly beautiful and give it your full attention. I will leave you with this suggestion…
P.S. In case you missed it, here’s a link to listen to my audio short about attention:
We must have been drinking the same Kool-Aid this week, as I'm posting on Sunday about an almost identical topic after a year on Substack. I mention saturation points as well, but I had not considered the ad saturation. Nice read!
This was great, Ben. Unsettlingly, of course, but necessary. I'm more "connected" now than I was before joining Substack. Sometimes I think that's good because I've spent a lot of years being very antisocial when it comes to social media. But it's easy to become obsessed with being present and available all the time. When you're not plugged in, you're sure you must be missing something. And when you are plugged in and find no one is actually paying you any attention, well that feels like shit, too. 😂 Sometimes I have to uninstall all my apps for half a day to avoid checking my phone constantly. Trouble is, it's really easy to reinstall them. Too bad there aren't parental controls for adults that limit their screen time. Or are there? If so. Sign me up. 😵💫