Attention Scarcity

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Discussion

Stowe Boyd:

"This thread of Western philosophical discourse — attention scarcity, future shock, information overload — has become the conventional wisdom. It seems to be based on unassailable and unshakable logic. But what is that logic?

The framing of the argument includes the unspoken premise that once upon a time in some hypothetical past attention wasn’t scarce, we didn’t suffer from too much information, and we had all the time in the world to reason about the world, our place in it, and therefore to make wise and grounded decisions.

But my reading of human history suggests the opposite. In the pre-industrial world, business people and governments still suffered from incomplete information, and the pace of life always seemed faster than what had gone on in earlier times. At every point in human history there have been philosophers claiming that the current civilization has fallen from an earlier halcyon state, that the ways of the ancients had been lost, and modern innovations and practices threatened to destroy all that was good in society and culture.

So, this is merely the most recent spin on an ancient theme, as the Diderot quote indicates.

Imagine for a moment that it is true — there was an idyllic time back in the Garden of Eden — when we knew all that was necessary to know, and we had all the time in the world to make decisions. Maybe. I am betting it is a shadow of our psychology, the same sort of magical thought that believes in guardian angels and reincarnation. Just a slightly more intellectual superstition.

Another thread of this argument is that human beings don’t have the capacity to winnow out the information we need given the torrent of information streaming past, which is in a sense Diderot’s conjecture. But we really don’t know what we are capable of, honestly.

The human mind is exceptionally plastic, especially when young people are exposed to media and symbolic information systems at an early age. This is why those that take up the study of music, or programming, or karate at a young age, and study for 10,000 hours gain mastery of these skills, which can be accomplished before reaching 20 years of age. And even older people can have significant improvements in cognitive skills — like juggling or flight simulation games — with relative small exposure.

I suggest we just haven’t experimented enough with ways to render information in more usable ways, and once we start to do so, it will like take 10 years (the 10,000 hour rule again) before anyone demonstrates real mastery of the techniques involved.

These are generational time scales, people. And note: the only ones that will benefit in the next ten years will be those that expend the time needed to stretch the cognition we have, now, into the configuration needed to extract more from the increasingly real-time web.


The most difficult argument to make is the following:


  • We have always been confronted with a world — both natural and human-made — that offers an infinite amount of information.
  • We have devised cultural tools — like written language, mathematics, and the scientific method — to help understand the world in richer ways, over and above our emotional and inbuilt cognitive capabilities.
  • We are heading into a post-industrial world where information systems and the social matrix of the web have become the most important human artifact, one that is repurposing everything that has come before.
  • We will need to construct new and more complex cultural tools — things like augmented reality, massively parallel social tools, and ubiquitous mobile connected devices — and new societal norms and structures to assist us in using them effectively.
  • Many commentators — including Armano and Peterson — allude to the now generally accepted notion that we will have to leverage social systems (relying on social tools) to accomplish some part of the heavy lifting in whatever new schemes we develop for understanding this new world. But it has only been 10 years since we’ve been talking about social tools, and less than five that we had anything like real-time streaming applications or tools involving millions of users. It’s early days.

I think that the rise of the social web, just like writing, the printing press, and the invention of money, is not really about the the end of what came before, but instead is the starting point for what comes next: richer and more complex societies. These technologies are a bridge we use to cross over into something new, not a wrecking ball tearing down the old.

In the final analysis, I am saying there is no ‘answer’ to those that say we are overloaded, that we are being driven mad by or enslaved to the tools we are experimenting with, or that there is some attention calculus that trumps all other value systems.

I suggest we just haven’t experimented enough with ways to render information in more usable ways, and once we start to do so, it will like take 10 years (the 10,000 hour rule again) before anyone demonstrates real mastery of the techniques involved.

Instead, I suggest we continue experimenting, cooking up new ways to represent and experience the flow of information, our friends’ thoughts, recommendations, and whims, and the mess that is boiling in the huge cauldron we call the web.

There is no “answer” since they are asking a false question, one that hides preconceived premises and biases. Starting out with the assumption that we have moved past our abilities to cope with the stream of information, and therefore something has to give, is a bias.

In part, this arises from the desire of economists like Simon to find what is scarce, and ascribe a value to it. Or to media and PR types, who want to control discourse, and fill it with their ‘messages’ and influence social opinion or buying behavior.

But from a cognitive and anthropological viewpoint, these concerns are something like Socrate’s argument that learning to read and write would debase the cognition of those that had become literate. In his era the ability to remember thousands of verses of poetry was the baseline for being enculturated, and he believed that something fundamental would be lost if we were to rely on books instead of our memories. He believed that writing was the fall from a better time, a lesser way to think and understand the world.

I think that the rise of the social web, just like writing, the printing press, and the invention of money, is not really about the the end of what came before, but instead is the starting point for what comes next: richer and more complex societies. These technologies are a bridge we use to cross over into something new, not a wrecking ball tearing down the old.

There is no golden past that we have fallen from, and it is unlikely that we are going to hit finite human limits that will stop us from a larger and deeper understanding of the world in the decades ahead, because we are constantly extending culture to help reformulate how we perceive the world and our place in it." (http://www.stoweboyd.com/post/764818419/the-false-question-of-attention-economics)


More Information

  1. Attention
  2. Attention Economy