This post is part of the Fragments of Wisdom series: a collection of thoughts on living I’ve found worth contemplating.
We are at risk, without quite fully realizing it, of living lives that are less our own than we imagine.
Unlike money, attention is a resource that is finite and must be spent in every moment. Where attention goes, energy flows. In The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, Tim Wu shares the story of how, over the past two centuries, attention has become an increasingly valuable industry commodity, who has competed for it (snake oil salesmen, Hitler, Oprah and Facebook, just to name a few…) and why we should take notice.
Tim explains how over the past century, in a “grand bargain that has transformed our lives” we have “accepted a life experience that is in all of its dimensions—economic, political, social, any way you can think of—mediated as never before in human history.”
At the core of this bargain is capitalism’s insatiable need for growth and our willingness to trade our waking moments for new conveniences and diversions.
This has allowed the Attention Merchants to infiltrate, but “gradually enough that we should now find nothing strange about it” what until recently, many considered to be the most sacrosanct areas of our lives.
“At one time, tradition set limits on where people could be intruded upon and when. Even with the necessary technology, it was not always so easy to reach people in their homes, let alone while walking or in a taxi. For the majority, religious practice used to define certain inviolable spaces and moments. Less formal norms, like the time reserved for family meals, exerted considerable force as well. In this world, privacy was the default, commercial intrusions the exception. And while there was much about the old reality that could be inconvenient or frustrating, it had the advantage of automatically creating protected spaces, with their salutary effects.”
Today, those spaces are shriveling up.
“An earlier generation would find it astonishing that, without payment or even much outcry, our networks of family, friends, and associates have been recruited via social media to help sell us things. Now, however, most of us carry devices on our bodies that constantly find ways to commercialize the smallest particles of our time and attention.”
The game of “harvesting human attention,” which used to play out in a fairly obscure, backyard sandbox commercially speaking, has now become one of the world’s biggest battlegrounds for tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Apple.
“Without express consent, most of us have passively opened ourselves up to the commercial exploitation of our attention just about anywhere and anytime.”
Nowadays we all suffer from having our attention constantly hijacked, which has likely contributed to the surge in popularity of meditation and other mindfulness practices in recent decades.
“Whatever our personal goals, the things we’d like to achieve, the goals of the attention merchants are generally at odds with ours. How often have you sat down with a plan, say, to write an email or buy one thing online, only to find yourself, hours later, wondering what happened? And what are the costs to a society of an entire population conditioned to spend so much of their waking lives not in concentration and focus but rather in fragmentary awareness and subject to constant interruption? In this respect our lives have become the very opposite of those cultivated by the monastics, whether in the East or the West, whose aim was precisely to reap the fruits of deep and concentrated attention.”
Ultimately the very nature of our lives are at stake, “for how we spend the brutally limited resources of our attention will determine those lives to a degree most of us may prefer not to think about.”
“At bottom, whether we acknowledge it or not, the attention merchants have come to play an important part in setting the course of our lives and consequently the future of the human race, insofar as that future will be nothing more than the running total of our individual mental states. Does that sound like exaggeration? It was William James, the fount of American Pragmatism, who, having lived and died before the flowering of the attention industry, held that our life experience would ultimately amount to whatever we had paid attention to. At stake, then, is something akin to how one’s life is lived. That, if nothing else, ought to compel a greater scrutiny of the countless bargains to which we routinely submit, and, even more important, lead us to consider the necessity, at times, of not dealing at all.”
If we want to strike a different deal, says Tim, we must do two things:
“We must first acknowledge the preciousness of our attention and resolve not to part with it as cheaply or unthinkingly as we so often have. And then we must act, individually and collectively, to make our attention our own again, and so reclaim ownership of the very experience of living.”
What’s needed is akin to a “human reclamation project”:
“Over the coming century, the most vital human resource in need of conservation and protection is likely to be our own consciousness and mental space. In practice, a movement might begin with individuals making incremental changes, ones as simple as setting aside blocks of time, like the weekend, to be spent beyond the reach of the attention merchants. The first stirrings can be seen in the existing practices of ‘unplugging’ or taking ‘digital Sabbaths.’ The same impulse can lead also to reclaiming more physical sanctuaries, not only the writer’s backyard shed, but the classroom, the office, and the home, as well—any place where we mean to interact with one another or achieve something we know requires a serious level of concentration. In this way, the practice starts paying communal dividends as well as profiting the individual.”
As I write this post from Blagdon, a small village in the English countryside, I watched as a drone flew over my grandmother’s backyard.
Hopefully it’s not too late.
*Featured photo is of the Mediterranean on a recent trip last to Marsaille, France.