Tag: attention

Friday fablings

I couldn’t ignore these things this week:

  1. The 2010s Broke Our Sense Of Time (BuzzFeed News) — “Everything good, bad, and complicated flows through our phones, and for those not living some hippie Walden trip, we operate inside a technological experience that moves forward and back, and pulls you with it…. You can find yourself wondering why you’re seeing this now — or knowing too well why it is so. You can feel amazing and awful — exult in and be repelled by life — in the space of seconds. The thing you must say, the thing you’ve been waiting for — it’s always there, pulling you back under again and again and again. Who can remember anything anymore?”
  2. Telling Gareth Bale that Johnson is PM took away banterpocalypse’s sole survivor (The Guardian) — “The point is: it is more than theoretically conceivable that Johnson could be the shortest-serving prime minister in 100 years, and thus conceivable that Gareth Bale could have remained ignorant of his tenure in its entirety. Before there were smartphones and so on, big news events that happened while you were on holiday felt like they hadn’t truly happened. Clearly they HAD happened, in some philosophical sense or other, but because you hadn’t experienced them unfolding live on the nightly news, they never felt properly real.”
  3. Dreaming is Free (Learning Nuggets) — “When I was asked to keynote the Fleming College Fall Teaching & Learning Day, I thought it’d be a great chance to heed some advice from Blondie (Dreaming is free, after all) and drop a bunch of ideas for digital learning initiatives that we could do and see which ones that we can breath some life into. Each of these ideas are inspired by some open, networked and/or connectivist learning experiences that are already out there.”
  4. Omniviolence Is Coming and the World Isn’t Ready (Nautilus) — “The trouble is that if anyone anywhere can attack anyone anywhere else, then states will become—and are becoming—unable to satisfy their primary duty as referee. It’s a trend toward anarchy, “the war of all against all,” as Hobbes put it—in other words a condition of everyone living in constant fear of being harmed by their neighbors.”
  5. We never paid for Journalism (iDiallo) — “At the end of the day, the price that you and I pay, whether it is for the print copy or digital, it is only a very small part of the revenue. The price paid for the printed copy was by no means sustaining the newspaper business. It was advertisers all along. And they paid the price for the privilege of having as many eyeballs the newspaper could expose their ads to.”
  6. Crossing Divides: How a social network could save democracy from deadlock (BBC News) — “This was completely different from simply asking them to vote via an app. vTaiwan gave participants the agenda-setting power not just to determine the answer, but also define the question. And it didn’t aim to find a majority of one side over another, but achieve consensus across them.”
  7. Github removes Tsunami Democràtic’s APK after a takedown order from Spain (TechCrunch) — “While the Tsunami Democràtic app could be accused of encouraging disruption, the charge of “terrorism” is clearly overblown. Unless your definition of terrorism extends to harnessing the power of peaceful civil resistance to generate momentum for political change.”
  8. You Choose (inessential) — “You choose the web you want. But you have to do the work. A lot of people are doing the work. You could keep telling them, discouragingly, that what they’re doing is dead. Or you could join in the fun.”
  9. Agency Is Key (gapingvoid) — “People don’t innovate (“Thrive” mode) when they’re scared. Instead, they keep their heads down (“Survive” mode).”

Image by False Knees

People will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think

So said Neil Postman (via Jay Springett). Jay is one of a small number of people who’s work I find particularly thoughtful and challenging.

Another is Venkatesh Rao, who last week referenced a Twitter thread he posted earlier this year. It’s awkward to and quote the pertinent parts of such things, but I’ll give it a try:

Megatrend conclusion: if you do not build a second brain or go offline, you will BECOME the second brain.

[…]

Basically, there’s no way to actually handle the volume of information and news that all of us appear to be handling right now. Which means we are getting augmented cognition resources from somewhere. The default place is “social” media.

[…]

What those of us who are here are doing is making a deal with the devil (or an angel): in return for being 1-2 years ahead of curve, we play 2nd brain to a shared first brain. We’ve ceded control of executive attention not to evil companies, but… an emergent oracular brain.

[…]

I called it playing your part in the Global Social Computer in the Cloud (GSCITC).

[…]

Central trade-off in managing your participation in GSCITC is: The more you attempt to consciously curate your participation rather than letting it set your priorities, the less oracular power you get in return.

Venkatesh Rao

He reckons that being fully immersed in the firehose of social media is somewhat like reading the tea leaves or understanding the runes. You have to ‘go with the flow’.

Rao uses the example of the very Twitter thread he’s making. Constructing it that way versus, for example, writing a blog post or newsletter means he is in full-on ‘gonzo mode’ versus what he calls (after Henry David Thoreau) ‘Waldenponding’.

I have been generally very unimpressed with the work people seem to generate when they go waldenponding to work on supposedly important things. The comparable people who stay more plugged in seem to produce better work.

My kindest reading of people who retreat so far it actually compromises their work is that it is a mental health preservation move because they can’t handle the optimum GSCITC immersion for their project. Their work could be improved if they had the stomach for more gonzo-nausea.

My harshest reading is that they’re narcissistic snowflakes who overvalue their work simply because they did it.

Venkatesh Rao

Well, perhaps. But as someone who has attempted to drink from that firehouse for over a decade, I think the time comes when you realise something else. Who’s setting the agenda here? It’s not ‘no-one’, but neither is it any one person in particular. Rather the whole structure of what can happen within such a network depends on decisions made other than you.

For example, Dan Hon, pointed (in a supporter-only newsletter) to an article by Louise Matsakis in WIRED that explains that the social network TikTok not only doesn’t add timestamps to user-generated content, but actively blocks the clock on your smartphone. These design decisions affect what can and can’t happen, and also the kinds of things that do end up happening.


Writing in The Guardian, Leah McLaren writes about being part of the last generation to really remember life before the internet.

In this age of uncertainty, predictions have lost value, but here’s an irrefutable one: quite soon, no person on earth will remember what the world was like before the internet. There will be records, of course (stored in the intangibly limitless archive of the cloud), but the actual lived experience of what it was like to think and feel and be human before the emergence of big data will be gone. When that happens, what will be lost?

Leah McLaren

McLaren is evidently a few years older than me, as I’ve been online since I was about 15. However, I definitely reflect on a regular basis about what being hyper-connected does to my sense of self. She cites a recent study published in the official journal of the World Psychiatric Association. Part of the conclusion of that study reads:

As digital technologies become increasingly integrated with everyday life, the Internet is becoming highly proficient at capturing our attention, while producing a global shift in how people gather information, and connect with one another. In this review, we found emerging support for several hypotheses regarding the pathways through which the Internet is influencing our brains and cognitive processes, particularly with regards to: a) the multi‐faceted stream of incoming information encouraging us to engage in attentional‐switching and “multi‐tasking” , rather than sustained focus; b) the ubiquitous and rapid access to online factual information outcompeting previous transactive systems, and potentially even internal memory processes; c) the online social world paralleling “real world” cognitive processes, and becoming meshed with our offline sociality, introducing the possibility for the special properties of social media to impact on “real life” in unforeseen ways.

Firth, J., et al. (2019). The “online brain”: how the Internet may be changing our cognition. World Psychiatry, 18: 119-129.

In her Guardian article, McLaren cites the main author, Dr Joseph Firth:

“The problem with the internet,” Firth explained, “is that our brains seem to quickly figure out it’s there – and outsource.” This would be fine if we could rely on the internet for information the same way we rely on, say, the British Library. But what happens when we subconsciously outsource a complex cognitive function to an unreliable online world manipulated by capitalist interests and agents of distortion? “What happens to children born in a world where transactive memory is no longer as widely exercised as a cognitive function?” he asked.

Leah McLaren

I think this is the problem, isn’t it? I’ve got no issue with having an ‘outboard brain’ where I store things that I want to look up instead of remember. It’s also insanely useful to have a method by which the world can join together in a form of ‘hive mind’.

What is problematic is when this ‘hive mind’ (in the form of social media) is controlled by people and organisations whose interests are orthogonal to our own.

In that situation, there are three things we can do. The first is to seek out forms of nascent ‘hive mind’-like spaces which are not controlled by people focused on the problematic concept of ‘shareholder value’. Like Mastodon, for example, and other decentralised social networks.

The second is to spend time finding out the voices to which you want to pay particular attention. The chances are that they won’t only write down their thoughts via social networks. They are likely to have newsletters, blogs, and even podcasts.

Third, an apologies for the metaphor, but with such massive information consumption the chances are that we can become ‘constipated’. So if we don’t want that to happen, if we don’t want to go on an ‘information diet’, then we need to ensure a better throughput. One of the best things I’ve done is have a disciplined approach to writing (here on Thought Shrapnel, and elsewhere) about the things I’ve read and found interesting. That’s one way to extract the nutrients.


I’d love your thoughts on this. Do you agree with the above? What strategies do you have in place?

Friday frustrations

I couldn’t help but notice these things this week:

  • Don’t ask forgiveness, radiate intent (Elizabeth Ayer) ⁠— “I certainly don’t need a reputation as being underhanded or an organizational problem. Especially as a repeat behavior, signalling builds me a track record of openness and predictability, even as I take risks or push boundaries.”
  • When will we have flying cars? Maybe sooner than you think. (MIT Technology Review) — “An automated air traffic management system in constant communication with every flying car could route them to prevent collisions, with human operators on the ground ready to take over by remote control in an emergency. Still, existing laws and public fears mean there’ll probably have to be pilots at least for a while, even if only as a backup to an autonomous system.”
  • For Smart Animals, Octopuses Are Very Weird (The Atlantic) — “Unencumbered by a shell, cephalopods became flexible in both body and mind… They could move faster, expand into new habitats, insinuate their arms into crevices in search of prey.”
  • Cannabidiol in Anxiety and Sleep: A Large Case Series. (PubMed) — “The final sample consisted of 72 adults presenting with primary concerns of anxiety (n = 47) or poor sleep (n = 25). Anxiety scores decreased within the first month in 57 patients (79.2%) and remained decreased during the study duration. Sleep scores improved within the first month in 48 patients (66.7%) but fluctuated over time. In this chart review, CBD was well tolerated in all but 3 patients.”
  • 22 Lessons I’m Still Learning at 82 (Coach George Raveling) — “We must always fill ourselves with more questions than answers. You should never retire your mind. After you retire mentally, then you are just taking up residence in society. I do not ever just want to be a resident of society. I want to be a contributor to our communities.”
  • How Boris Johnson’s “model bus hobby” non sequitur manipulated the public discourse and his search results (BoingBoing) — “Remember, any time a politician deliberately acts like an idiot in public, there’s a good chance that they’re doing it deliberately, and even if they’re not, public idiocy can be very useful indeed.”
  • It’s not that we’ve failed to rein in Facebook and Google. We’ve not even tried. (The Guardian) — “Surveillance capitalism is not the same as digital technology. It is an economic logic that has hijacked the digital for its own purposes. The logic of surveillance capitalism begins with unilaterally claiming private human experience as free raw material for production and sales.”
  • Choose Boring Technology (Dan McKinley) — “The nice thing about boringness (so constrained) is that the capabilities of these things are well understood. But more importantly, their failure modes are well understood.”
  • What makes a good excuse? A Cambridge philosopher may have the answer (University of Cambridge) — “Intentions are plans for action. To say that your intention was morally adequate is to say that your plan for action was morally sound. So when you make an excuse, you plead that your plan for action was morally fine – it’s just that something went awry in putting it into practice.”
  • Your Focus Is Priceless. Stop Giving It Away. (Forge) — “To virtually everyone who isn’t you, your focus is a commodity. It is being amassed, collected, repackaged and sold en masse. This makes your attention extremely valuable in aggregate. Collectively, audiences are worth a whole lot. But individually, your attention and my attention don’t mean anything to the eyeball aggregators. It’s a drop in their growing ocean. It’s essentially nothing.”

Image via @EffinBirds

The dangers of distracted parenting

I usually limit myself to three quotations in posts I write here. I’m going to break that self-imposed rule for this article by Erika Christakis in The Atlantic on parents’ screentime.

Christakis points out the good and the bad news:

Yes, parents now have more face time with their children than did almost any parents in history. Despite a dramatic increase in the percentage of women in the workforce, mothers today astoundingly spend more time caring for their children than mothers did in the 1960s. But the engagement between parent and child is increasingly low-quality, even ersatz. Parents are constantly present in their children’s lives physically, but they are less emotionally attuned.

As parents, and in society in general, we’re super-hot on limiting kids’ screentime, but we don’t necessarily apply that to ourselves:

[S]urprisingly little attention is paid to screen use by parents… who now suffer from what the technology expert Linda Stone more than 20 years ago called “continuous partial attention.” This condition is harming not just us, as Stone has argued; it is harming our children. The new parental-interaction style can interrupt an ancient emotional cueing system, whose hallmark is responsive communication, the basis of most human learning. We’re in uncharted territory.

‘Continuous partial attention’ is the term people tend to use these days instead of ‘multitasking’. To my mind it’s a better term, as it references the fact that you’re not just trying to do different things simultaneously, you’re trying to pay attention to them.

I’ve given the example before of my father sitting down to read the newspaper on a Sunday. Is there really much difference to the child, I’ve wondered, between his being hidden behind a broadsheet for an hour, and his scrolling and clicking on a mobile device? In some ways yes, in some ways no.

It has never been easy to balance adults’ and children’s needs, much less their desires, and it’s naive to imagine that children could ever be the unwavering center of parental attention. Parents have always left kids to entertain themselves at times—“messing about in boats,” in a memorable phrase from The Wind in the Willows, or just lounging aimlessly in playpens. In some respects, 21st-century children’s screen time is not very different from the mother’s helpers every generation of adults has relied on to keep children occupied. When parents lack playpens, real or proverbial, mayhem is rarely far behind. Caroline Fraser’s recent biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of Little House on the Prairie, describes the exceptionally ad hoc parenting style of 19th-century frontier parents, who stashed babies on the open doors of ovens for warmth and otherwise left them vulnerable to “all manner of accidents as their mothers tried to cope with competing responsibilities.” Wilder herself recounted a variety of near-calamities with her young daughter, Rose; at one point she looked up from her chores to see a pair of riding ponies leaping over the toddler’s head.

To me, the difference can be summed up quite easily: our mobile devices are designed to be addictive and capture our full attention, in ways that analogue media and experiences aren’t.

Short, deliberate separations can of course be harmless, even healthy, for parent and child alike (especially as children get older and require more independence). But that sort of separation is different from the inattention that occurs when a parent is with a child but communicating through his or her nonengagement that the child is less valuable than an email. A mother telling kids to go out and play, a father saying he needs to concentrate on a chore for the next half hour—these are entirely reasonable responses to the competing demands of adult life. What’s going on today, however, is the rise of unpredictable care, governed by the beeps and enticements of smartphones. We seem to have stumbled into the worst model of parenting imaginable—always present physically, thereby blocking children’s autonomy, yet only fitfully present emotionally.

Physically present but emotionally unavailable. Yes, we need to do better.

Under the circumstances, it’s easier to focus our anxieties on our children’s screen time than to pack up our own devices. I understand this tendency all too well. In addition to my roles as a mother and a foster parent, I am the maternal guardian of a middle-aged, overweight dachshund. Being middle-aged and overweight myself, I’d much rather obsess over my dog’s caloric intake, restricting him to a grim diet of fibrous kibble, than address my own food regimen and relinquish (heaven forbid) my morning cinnamon bun. Psychologically speaking, this is a classic case of projection—the defensive displacement of one’s failings onto relatively blameless others. Where screen time is concerned, most of us need to do a lot less projecting.

Amen to that.

Source: The Atlantic (via Jocelyn K. Glei)

Attention scarcity as an existential threat

This post is from Albert Wenger, a partner a New York-based early stage VC firm focused on investing in disruptive networks. It’s taken from his book World After Capital, currently in draft form.

In this section, Wenger is concerned with attention scarcity, which he believes to be both a threat to humanity, and an opportunity for us.

On the threat side, for example, we are not working nearly hard enough on how to recapture CO2 and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Or on monitoring asteroids that could strike earth, and coming up with ways of deflecting them. Or containing the outbreak of the next avian flu: we should have a lot more collective attention dedicated to early detection and coming up with vaccines and treatments.

The reason the world’s population is so high is almost entirely due to the technological progress we’ve made. We’re simply better at keeping human beings alive.

On the opportunity side, far too little human attention is spent on environmental cleanup, free educational resources, and basic research (including the foundations of science), to name just a few examples. There are so many opportunities we could dedicate attention to that over time have the potential to dramatically improve quality of life here on Earth not just for humans but also for other species.

Interestingly, he comes up with a theory as to why we haven’t heard from any alien species yet:

I am proposing this as a (possibly new) explanation for the Fermi Paradox, which famously asks why we have not yet detected any signs of intelligent life elsewhere in our rather large universe. We now even know that there are plenty of goldilocks planets available that could harbor life forms similar to those on Earth. Maybe what happens is that all civilizations get far enough to where they generate huge amounts of information, but then they get done in by attention scarcity. They collectively take their eye off the ball of progress and are not prepared when something really bad happens such as a global pandemic.

Attention scarcity, then, has the opportunity to become an existential threat to our species. Pay attention to the wrong things and we could either neglect to avoid a disaster, or cause one of our own making.

Source: Continuations

Going deep

I don’t think the right term for this is ‘mobile blindness’ but Seth Godin’s analogy is nevertheless instructive.

He talks about the shift over the last 20 years or so in getting our news and information on primarily via books and newspapers, to getting it via desktop computers, and now predominantly through our mobile devices. Things become bite-sized, and our attention field is wide by shallow.

Photokeratitis (snow blindness) happens when there’s too much ultraviolet–when the fuel for our eyes comes in too strong and we can’t absorb it all. Something similar is happening to each of us, to our entire culture, as a result of the tsunami of noise vying for our attention.

It’s possible you can find an edge by going even faster and focusing even more on breadth at the surface. But it’s far more satisfying and highly leveraged to go the other way instead. Even if it’s just for a few hours a day.

If you care about something, consider taking a moment to slow down and understand it. And if you don’t care, no need to even bother with the surface.

This isn’t a technology issue, it’s an attention issue. Yes, it’s possible to argue that these devices are designed to capture your attention. But we all still have a choice.

You can safely ignore what doesn’t align with your goals in life. First, of course, you have to have some goals…

Source: Seth Godin

Using your phone wisely

I’m a big fan of The Book of Life, a project of The School of Life. One of the latest updates to this project is about the pervasive use of smartphones in society.

To say we are addicted to our phones is not merely to point out that we use them a lot. It signals a darker notion: that we use them to keep our own selves at bay. Because of our phones, we may find ourselves incapable of sitting alone in a room with our own thoughts floating freely in our own heads, daring to wander into the past and the future, allowing ourselves to feel pain, desire, regret and excitement.

I feel this. I want my mind to wander, but I also kind of want to be informed. I want to be entertained.

We have to check our phones of course but we also need to engage directly with others, to be relaxed, immersed in nature and present. We need to let our minds wander off of their own accord. We need to go through the threshold of boredom to renew our acquaintance with ourselves.

The diminutive digital assistants in our pockets do our bidding and unlock a multitude of possibilities.

Our phone, however, is docile, responsive to our touch, always ready to spring to life and willing to do whatever we want. Its malleability provides the perfect excuse for disengagement from the trickier aspects of other people. It’s almost not that rude to give it a quick check – just possibly we might actually need to keep track of how a news story is unfolding; a friend in another country may have just had a baby or someone we vaguely know might have bought a new pair of shoes in the last few minutes.

It’s a cliché to say that it’s the small things in life that make it worth living, but it’s true.

Our phones seem to deliver the world directly to us. Yet (without our noticing) they often limit the things we actually pay attention to. As we look down towards our palms we don’t realise we are forgetting:

  • The curious delicacy of a friend’s wrist
  • The soothing sound of traffic in the distance
  • Moss on an old stone wall
  • The pleasure of feeling tired after working hard
  • The excitement of getting up very early on a summer’s morning, in order to have an hour entirely to oneself.
  • A bank of clouds gradually drifting across the sky
  • The texture and smell and colour of a ripe fig
  • The shy hesitancy of someone’s smile
  • How nice it is to read in the bath
  • The comfort of an old jumper (with holes under the armpits)

Every technology is a ‘bridging’ technology in the sense of coming after something less sophisticated, and before something more sophisticated. My hope is that we iterate towards, rather than away, from what makes us human.

We are still so far from inventing the technology we really require for us to flourish; capitalism has delivered only on the simplest of our needs. We can summon up the street map of Lyons but not a diagram of what our partner is really thinking and feeling; the phone will help us follow fifteen news outlets but not help us know when we’ve spent more than enough time doing so; it emphatically refuses to distinguish between the most profound needs of our soul and a passing fancy.

As ever, a fantastic article.

Source: The Book of Life