Life in our Attention Society

By Leah Kramer, ESF

Throughout history there was always a finite good — something everyone wanted but not everyone could have. This of course was the root of all conflict and hierarchy throughout the ages, which could lead us to wonder about the present: What is the current finite good? 

For most of human history, land has been the finite good. Its fertility, so how much food you could get from it, and how much of it you had. Everyone’s mind revolved around it, and most everyday economic and political problems were somehow related to it. People spent their days thinking about what land they would work, what they would grow, what kind of harvest they would expect and so on. Food was always high on the agenda. 

As the Industrial Revolution hit, the primary scarcity was no longer land, as machines could now help grow more than enough food for everyone. But you needed many trained people to operate all those machines, meaning the focal point was now labour. So, for a few centuries the organising principle of society was based on labour — who you worked for, how much you earned… 

Then, in the 20th century, more was produced than any one person could ever need or buy. People now had so many choices of what to buy with their hard-earned money, but no clue which product to buy. So, people spent time gathering knowledge about which brand of toothpaste was best and cheapest. The fields of advertising and marketing were invented and dominated society as they spread the information people needed to allocate to their resources appropriately. 

Now, welcome to the modern era. We have plenty of land, labour and knowledge. With the rise of the internet, we are exposed to more knowledge we could ever hope to sort through. If we want to find out which toothpaste is best and cheapest, we can have hundreds of Amazon reviews up within minutes. But that’s exactly the issue: there is so much knowledge available to us, we don’t have the attention to sort through it all. The big fight is now about which webpage you spend your precious time on. 

Seeing as we have access to so much, we naturally have to have some filters in place: the most exciting information about the topics we find interesting is usually all we see. “Exciting” here is a bit worrying. This means only the most bizarre, positive, negative information is what gets through to us. We don’t learn about the every-day stuff, the things the majority of people experience regularly. And this leads to people having a warped world-view, thinking the world is crappy and not seeing all the good things going on (like how child mortality is at 4%, compared to 43% in 1800 and 22.5% in 1950). For some individuals, this can lead to becoming extremist, polarised, overly negative.  

This is truly worrying, as all areas of society are affected. Psychologically, mental health issues are becoming more common partly due to being trapped with negative content; physically, higher rates of obesity because people are losing the motivations to go out; economically, people using their influence to mislead people into investing in GameStop for imagined “revenge”; politically, again, people using their influence to mislead people into storming the Capitol with non-existent tangible goals. All areas of society are being impacted and disrupted. The new attention economy can be terrifying. 

This piece was inspired by work by Mark Manson.