On Attention

In a wide ranging, often insightful, occasionally politically passive aggressive article, Craig Mod writes about how he got his attention back. It’s long and given the attention span of the Internet these days, chances are you didn’t even read it. Wow, speaking of passive aggressive. I digress. I do think it’s important piece that feels around the edges of what has gone wrong with our society, not just this year but beginning decades ago when we stopped paying attention to those things that weren’t immediate. He talks about the 2016 election as if it was a huge surprise, a geologic shift in the tectonic plates of our nation when in reality, it was the logical conclusion of our click-bait, always on, flood of misinformation economy. The fact that Donald Trump as President is a surprise to people shows how little we pay attention.

The information society has become machine scale. No longer can you pick up one paper and know approximately what is going on in your town or nation or world. Perhaps you never could but only those things that were actually important bubbled to the top. Now, false stories are spread at the click of a button and because the information landscape is so chaotic, we have no hope of performing the necessary validation ourselves. Any rebuttals are missed entirely because they don’t fit our world view. We live in echo chambers where people post and repost and tweet things that are demonstrably false but that fuel our moral outrage. They fit our world view and so have long and unjustified lives. Michael Tracey has been one of the few I’ve seen writing about this. The net effect is that we are actually less informed and we are less able to feel outrage when it is truly justified and necessary.

The current chaos is the natural progression of information flow. Fifty years ago, information was limited, slow and filtered. Now it has become unlimited, immediate and unfiltered. It is the difference between human scale and machine scale. We are uniquely unprepared to deal with it because the scale is so immense. We are driven by the reptilian feedback mechanisms to try and keep up which only results in anxiety and loss. Studies have shown that we check our phone 85 times a day on average. Let that sink in for a moment if you can. Of those 85 times, almost none of them are truly important. Perhaps none of them are. We have fully achieved the consumption society. We spend all day eating and drinking junk food while ingesting huge quantities of empty, sugary information. We live with attention deficits and nutritional deficits and financial deficits and physical deficits. Not only do we live with them but we actively pursue them with a zeal and a pride that when analyzed closely is at least mildly terrifying.

Of course, when you attempt to check out, people look at you like a Luddite. My aunt recently deleted her Facebook account. When someone does this, they are often accused of not wanting to hear about things they don’t agree with. But throughout recorded history, we have done fine not hearing about things we don’t agree with and also many of the things we do agree with. Those times were not more scary than the times we now live in when everyone is “informed”. People could think and act for themselves then. Now our opinions are given to us in a constant stream of media soundbites, many of them false or misguided, all of them driven by some bias we can’t verify. We are the most informed and yet uninformed generation.

The irony is that just when we need our collective attention most to sort through the chaos, we have precious little experience in it. Just like you must work hard physically for long periods of time to be strong enough to handle times of shock, our attention should be cultivated and exercised so that we can handle times of informational chaos. That is not the state we find ourselves in. We find ourselves on the informational couch, fat, lazy, hands covered in the Cheeto dust of informational nuggets of nothingness. At the very time when our President and media are actively making the media landscape more chaotic and warlike and we need to rise up and fight, we cannot walk up a flight of stairs to defend ourselves.

Of course, we find ourselves in this position because it is all so much easier. It is easier to buy something you can’t afford on a credit card. It is easier to buy a Big Mac than it is to make a decent meal at home. It is easier to sit on the couch than it is to go for a walk. It is easier to read Twitter than it is to create art. It is the path of least resistance and with few exceptions, we have gone down that path until we can hardly walk or stuff another calorie into our face or another byte into our head. Of course, with physical or nutritional deficit, we know we have failed. It is obvious all the time. But with attention deficit, there is no physical representation of our inability to focus, no out of breathness when we reach the top of a hill. And that is the most dangerous kind of debt, one you cannot see until it is too late.

Is there hope? There is always hope. The more people check out and return their focus to their families and the community and their local leaders, the more good it does. The collective effort of people doing small things for people who matter to them will change more than any consumption of information ever will. A key quote from Mod’s article:

There is a qualitative and quantitative difference between a day that begins with a little exercise, a book, meditation, a good meal, a thoughtful walk, and the start of a day that begins with a smartphone in bed.

Or a smartphone at any time. Gathering our attention back in, refusing to parcel it out to whatever outrage happened today, using it to actually do something, those things create quality. Perhaps slowly, over time and with great effort, we can regain our attention. That would be the greatest success of all.

Laserlike Focus In A Thunderstorm

I went to happy hour tonight with some of my coworkers and much merriment was had though they probably think I’m an anti-social sociopath by now. Many interesting topics came up, all of which I had some misinformed opinion on (I had been drinking of course) but one that I want to expand my thoughts on was the idea that no human being operates at peak efficiency in an environment where distractions and interruptions are the norm.

Gary said that he disagreed and that he knew at least one person who could, to quote “Focus like a laser in a thunderstorm”. Well, maybe I should say to paraphrase since again, I’d been drinking. I didn’t buy that at the time but upon more sober reflection, I realize that we were talking about two different things which is almost always the cause of disagreement between reasonable people.

Gary was talking about focus under difficult circumstances which not only possible but really the stuff of legends. Most people believe the ability to concentrate in trying circumstances to be a gift, one that people like Tiger Woods, Audie Murphy or Michael Jordan seem to be born with. However, I think anyone can learn to do this. Concentration is a skill, just like any other, and can be learned and improved upon through practice and hard work. Granted some people seem to be more talented than others but every one of us can get to the point where we can focus in trying circumstances.

Of course, this wasn’t what I was talking about, even though I was talking at the time (stupid beer). I was referring to the ability to perform difficult, mental work while operating under divided attention. I strongly believe that no human can perform any task, mundane or difficult, with divided attention as well as they could using undivided attention. I’ve written about Scott Berkun’s article Attention and Sex before but it still rings so true. No novel, no symphony, no scientific discovery, no anything has ever been accomplished while also texting, emailing, IM’ing and tweeting, whatever the hell that last thing is. Studies upon studies have been done showing that divided attention steals from our abilities while gratifying our base knowledge insecurity honed through years of evolution.

Forced interruptions are a form of divided attention. This decreases the ability of the individual to perform at his highest level. Regardless of your ability to concentrate in difficult circumstances, interruptions are by their very nature parasites on productivity. Tiger Woods may be able to concentrate better than any other golfer in the world during an 18 hole playoff in the US Open but that’s different from hooking him up to a remote Taser and randomly zapping him throughout the course of his round. The best golfer in the world would be reduced to a below average hacker if he had no control over his environment.

The ability to focus is wonderful but it does you no good if you can’t control your environment. Good software requires not only the ability to focus but also the freedom to concentrate. One without the other reduces even the best developers in the world to average.