Paying Attention in the Information Age

Distracted mind concept

Over the last twenty years, our world has been transformed by information. 2001 was only twenty years ago, yet it was a completely different world. There were no iPhones or tablet computers. Google Drive did not exist. The earliest iteration of Facebook was still three years away. Apple was a second-rate computer company filling a niche for artsy people and schools. Home WiFi networks were uncommon. Palm Pilots and early-generation BlackBerry devices were toys for the technological elite or for those who fancied themselves big shots. In the short span of time between then and now, our world has been completely transformed by technology. Our psychology, however, doesn’t evolve quite so fast. We sometimes struggle to cope with the new experience of being constantly bombarded by stimuli. We receive a steady stream of text messages, email notifications, comments on social media, news alerts, weather updates, and promotions from our favorite shops. New must-see content from our favorite creators is pushed from our favorite streaming app. Our attention is subject to the constant pull of distractions from every angle. While technology gets better and better at exploiting our cognitive weaknesses and biases, our psychology lags behind. While the age of information has brought us astonishing technologies that have improved life for the better, it has also become a steady source of distraction, psychological distress, and alienation. How can we learn to navigate the attention economy and thrive in the new age of information?

Attention Please

Dr. Charles Chaffin is an expert on how human beings interact with information. An experienced educator, he has taught every academic level from Kindergarten through Doctoral programs and obtained his own doctorate by researching how people manage their cognitive workload when performing complex tasks. This abstract science has important real-world ramifications: knowing how, say, a neurosurgeon manages their cognitive workload may lead to innovative training techniques or new insights into human thought that enable us to perform ever more detailed work. He has also studied the information economy, specifically focusing on how various entities compete for our attention. Over the course of his career, Dr. Chaffin has published multiple academic papers and contributed to several textbooks. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s written a book — entitled “Numb” —about how human beings are affected by the constant stimulation of the information age. If there is anybody who can help us understand how to live meaningful and thriving lives in this age of constant stimulation, it’s Dr. Chaffin.

The key to thriving in the information age, according to Chaffin, is proactively managing our attention. Attention is a powerful thing. Think about how nice it is when your partner gives you their undivided attention, or how empowering it feels when the boss really listens to you. Children love to solicit the attention of their parents, their peers, and sometimes random strangers who look interesting. Our inner children still find attention rewarding. Our hobbies, interests, and relationships thrive on attention just like we do. A houseplant that is tended with attention and care will thrive. That side business you’ve been dreaming of launching will only succeed and turn a profit if you give it attention. Your relationships grow stronger when they’re given plenty of time and attention. In many ways, our environment is shaped by what we pay attention to and what we choose to ignore. In order to thrive in the information economy, we have to be judicious with our attention and learn to treat it as the irreplaceable resource that it is.

If we don’t learn to manage our attention, media companies will do it for us. Since our attention is the product they are actually selling, they have become highly skilled at finding ways to attract and maintain our attention. Media companies employ psychologists and behavioral experts whose sole function within the company is to find ways to increase user engagement. Media companies, and especially social media companies, use operant conditioning techniques to reinforce consumer behaviors that make the company money. The algorithms that control our content are explicitly designed to take as much of our attention as they can. If we are not careful, they will consume attention that could easily be given to our families, friends, and passions.

That’s not to say that social media platforms are all bad. They are very good at connecting friends and family, and also like-minded strangers who share an interest or an idea. It’s nice to be able to load an app and immediately see what your social circle is up to or to get updates on current events. There are plenty of legitimate use cases for social media, and it is in many ways a highly valuable tool for the average person. But if we are not judicious about how we spend our attention, those who sell it to others will find ways to take more and more of it. Tech companies employ entire teams of programmers and scientists whose jobs it is to obtain as much of our attention as possible, and they are very, very good at what they do.

Existentialism In the Information Age

The problem with the modern information age is that the merchants of attention have a myopic focus on making money. Much like the tobacco giants of old, media companies have little to no concern for the genuine problems that their products cause as long as they continue to make money. And make no mistake, modern tech does cause problems. The near-constant level of engagement with social media and media products that defines the information age is causing acute psychological issues. We are continuously stimulated with new information: new memes, videos, rants, and screeds. The endless onslaught of information overwhelms us and depletes our psychological reserves of things like compassion and empathy. When we pick up the phone and scroll, we see a stream of ennui. Political memes are designed to inflame passions and generate engagement. Lighthearted issues or feel-good stories are latched onto by attention merchants and inflated into click-worthy arguments about some topic or another — arguments that are largely devoid of nuance because nuance doesn’t drive clicks. Tragic or scary news stories are pushed to the top of the list because they get the most attention: are you more likely to read about a grisly murder or to read the minutes of the school board meeting? Which one is worth your attention in a meaningful way? Is any of this really worth spending your finite reserves of attention on?

Our near-constant engagement with information products is a wellspring of stressful stimuli. This constant stress generates a phenomenon similar to compassion fatigue. Our reserves of empathy and compassion are depleted, and we feel as though our world is drowning in troubles, yet we can’t care about it anymore. We become numbed, anesthetized, depressed. This emotional depletion has two significant effects. First, it makes us more likely to buy products. If we feel stressed and out of control, maybe purchasing that shiny new product in the feed (thereby making money for the very product that is causing our distress) will give us a few precious molecules of dopamine or serotonin. This hypothesis isn’t new — thinkers like Robert Anton Wilson were making arguments like this in the sixties when modern advertising was still relatively new. Second, it causes us to become alienated and detached from the world around us. Who can possibly solve all of these problems? Our creeping despair converts us from actors to audiences: we fail to engage with the world in a meaningful way because we’ve been conditioned to shrug and scroll on.

In many ways, according to Chaffin, social media is primed to create an existential crisis. We crave authentic and meaningful connections with other people. We are social animals who are wired to gather and share with each other. We are meant to be engaged with one another and with the world around us. Think of your most cherished memories: they are probably authentic experiences that involve a meaningful connection with another human being. Your wedding day, that fantastic trip to Italy with your lover, playing in the yard with the kids, or spending a pleasant afternoon chatting over coffee and snacks with a close friend are the kind of experiences we tend to derive real value from.

Since we’re wired to seek genuine and authentic experiences with others, the promise of easy and convenient connection makes the products of the information age very appealing. Unfortunately, most of our interactions in the information age are devoid of any true authenticity, purpose, or meaning. They are cunningly crafted and engineered facsimiles of authentic experiences, but they leave us feeling empty and unsatisfied. The emptier we feel, the more we scroll, searching for that sense of connection, that ping of dopamine. The more we scroll, the worse we feel; the worse we feel, the more we want to scroll. Like an alcoholic chasing a buzz, we consume more and more until, eventually, it consumes us. This pernicious cycle can affect our ability to engage with the few authentic experiences we still get to have: how many family gatherings are spent with participants staring at their phones? How much time did we spend on vacation editing photos and crafting posts to get those dopamine-inducing likes, and how much time did we get sucked into spending on the endless scrolls of modern media? Did that add any real value to our authentic experiences? Did your time online serve any useful purpose for you? Chaffin says that social media is a lot like saltwater for the thirsty – it’s not going to satisfy the needs we think it’s going to satisfy, and consuming it is going to make your problems worse.

Time, Attention, and the Future Self

Time and attention are intricately intertwined. Paying attention to something consumes time. According to Insider Intelligence, the average American spends between five and six hours a day engaging with their phone in some way. Sure, some of this time is filler time: time spent on the toilet, sitting at red lights or riding the subway, or waiting for the other team at work to finish something so you can do your part. But do we really have five to six hours a day of filler time, or are we just spending a lot of time on our phones?

Time, like attention, is a finite resource. While we in American culture are fairly detached from the realities of our own mortality, the fact remains that we have a very limited amount of time to spend in this life. There is no way to get more time or to give back time wasted on regrettable pursuits. This, Chaffin argues, is why it is critical to learn to ask questions about how we are spending our time and our attention. When we are at the end of our lives, will we think back on those four hours a day of scrolling time and fondly remember the great memes and the insightful commentary? For some, the answer might be yes — and if you find value in spending five to six hours a day on your phone, then you should continue allocating your time that way. But for the average person, things like our phone and our social media accounts are more of a distraction.

What exactly is it a distraction from? That depends entirely on you. Chaffin recommends that we re-learn the art of contemplating our future selves. What kind of person do I want to be? What are my goals in this life? How do I want to spend the time I’ve been given? What activities now will make my future self the happiest? These are basic questions of self-reflection. Asking these questions provides us with a point of reference to evaluate our current actions. If we want to be wealthy and retire early, is it valuable to spend four hours a day doom-scrolling? If we want to have strong relationships with our children and our partners, will we get there by sharing memes or watching an extra hour of cable news?

In many ways, the information age discourages this kind of self-reflection. Despite having nearly infinite information at our fingertips, we are more reluctant than ever to turn inwards and think about ourselves, what we want, and what we need. We have become accustomed to the merchants of attention telling us what we want based on what they’ve learned about us from our interactions with their platforms. Our ability to consider our future self and decide what we want in an independent way has been thwarted by the machinations of the algorithm. This likely contributes to the sensation of emptiness and disengagement from reality that so many people are experiencing: our independent sense of self, our vision for a fulfilling future, has been replaced with algorithmic determinations of what we will or won’t like. We aren’t just experiencing existential crises and compassion fatigue: we’re experiencing a crisis of the self, driven by constant external demands on our attention.

Pay Attention to Yourself

It seems that the age of information has also become the age of compassion fatigue, distraction, and existential despair. The devices that have improved our lives in so many ways have opened a Pandora’s Box of unforeseen psychological and social problems. There is a wide body of scientific research that links smartphones, social media, and the other trappings of the information age with increases in mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. In some cases, researchers have found that excessive use of smart devices and social media can bring out latent psychological traits like narcissism and sociopathy. How can we change this set of circumstances to make our lives better?

Chaffin suggests that we begin by paying attention to ourselves in a meaningful, focused, and attentive way. Social media and modern technology tend to reward us when we focus on ourselves in toxic ways: jonesing for likes and follows, endlessly filtering and editing our photos, cultivating shallow interests, and displaying a carefully cultivated but completely inauthentic persona to the world. The kind of self-attention promoted by the information age is designed to leverage your psychological need for the attention of others to benefit the platforms. The more people that see your selfies and screeds, the more engagement you drive and the more money they make.

Breaking free from this cycle requires us to pay attention to ourselves in a more purposeful way. Instead of asking questions such as “How can I get more likes?” We should be asking questions such as “What do I want to accomplish in my life?” This is not a novel concept: Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living back in 400 BC. The cruel irony is that in an age of nearly endless information from the outside, we’ve turned away from a detailed examination of our own inner information in terms of our needs, wants, and ambitions. We’ve allowed the merchants of attention to shape our self-perception.

Developing an idea of what we want our future self to look like gives us a lens through which to view our current activities. If you want your future self to be able to run an eight-minute mile and have a master’s degree, you now have a point of reference. Once you have an idea of your future self, Chaffin says that a useful way to decide how to allocate your time and attention is to ask yourself the question: is what I am doing giving me traction toward my goal, or is this a distraction from what I want? Chaffin’s traction-distraction continuum is an easy way to evaluate whether a particular activity is worthy of your very finite time and attention. Is doom-scrolling for three hours giving you traction on what you want, or is it just a very engaging distraction? Is watching two hours of inflammatory commentary on TV giving you any traction toward your future self? This concept can be further distilled into three simple words: is this helpful?

Tethered to phone with notifications
Adobe Stock

You Dont Have to Do This: The Power of No

Even after identifying sources of distraction in your life, it can be challenging to eliminate them. Social media can be complicated to disengage from. In fact, a growing body of research suggests that it can sometimes be addictive. But what do we do with that information? It’s one thing to know a fact but quite another to understand what to do with it.

This conundrum is, ironically, a microcosm of the larger problem: what do we do with all this information? When we’re presented with an endless barrage of data, facts, statistics, memes, tragedies, and crises, we eventually shut down. Our empathy reserve is depleted. We are constantly drained, and we lose our ability to feel compassion. What do we get out of this arrangement? Why do we subject ourselves to this sustained psychic assault against our emotions? Is this helpful?

It is not helpful. Social media overuse can have adverse effects on our psyche. And since it is not helpful, Chaffin suggests that we draw boundaries around it. Setting firm boundaries around things that do not help you generate traction toward a more meaningful goal is one of the most effective things you can do to cope in the information age. Remember: you don’t have to participate in any of this. You’re not required to be on any social media platforms at all. You don’t even have to own a smartphone. It is possible, and some might say desirable, to live a more ascetic lifestyle. It is a real option to say no to the distractions of our age and doing so is highly empowering. By saying no, you are exercising your own control over your most valuable resources.

That’s not to say you have to delete your accounts and log out forever. The information age offers many comforts and conveniences that add real value to our lives. And while Chaffin is a realist about the problems inherent to modern social media, he also recognizes that these platforms can often be highly valuable to the consumer. There are times when half an hour of scrolling on your favorite platform is relaxing and fun. But there are also going to be times when half an hour of relaxing turns into two hazy hours of scrolling. Modern technology is exquisitely engineered to consume our attention, and it can be very hard to resist the siren song of the endless scrolls of infotainment at our fingertips. Learning to say no to things that are designed to distract you will help you regain control of your compassion, time, attention, and sense of self.

Self-Compassion and Accepting Imperfection

Your time and attention are valuable whether you have grand ambitions or just want to spend more time with the kids. The finite and transient nature of time and attention makes them especially precious. It would be best if you directed them towards things that will prove the most rewarding. But you should also approach this endeavor with realistic expectations. Devices and social media sites are hard to get away from. When we decide to take a break from social media or our electronics, we often have some grand idea that we’ll just go cold-turkey and immediately be living a more rewarding life. When we don’t find what we’re looking for, we end up back online and feel like a failure.

This is where learning the art of self-compassion becomes essential. Recalibrating our habits is difficult. It’s going to require patience and a willingness to be realistic. Saying you’re just logging off and never coming back is a great goal, but for the average person, it’s a bit of a stretch. Set a more realistic kind of boundary, and when you experience a failure, dust yourself off and carry on. Part of managing time is learning from the past and moving on. Failure is a great opportunity to reexamine your goals or reorient yourself to reality.

Part of self-compassion is accepting that you’re not perfect and being kind to yourself. Being compassionate to yourself might sound very new-age or nebulous; perhaps it doesn’t sound like the kind of concrete and transformational advice that would help you survive in the information age. But the science shows that Chaffin is right: researchers at Stanford have validated the notion that self-compassion can function at a higher level by improving confidence, reducing stress, and building resilience. In many ways, self-compassion is the direct opposite of the self-flagellation that social media puts us through.

Bringing Back Compassion for Others

It sounds great to just opt out of the information overload, but ignoring problems like climate change or homelessness won’t make them go away. Isn’t it just a little bit selfish to shrug it off and opt-out for your own self-development? Absolutely not. Remember, even though we are constantly exposed to the problems of the world, there’s no way that one person can solve all of them. You can’t put out the wildfires and resolve poverty and feed everybody and suck the carbon out of the atmosphere. You can’t know all of the problems all of the time. Feeling everything all of the time is going to drain your emotions like an enthusiastic kid drains a milkshake. Clicking the “sad” emoji in response to a photo of starving refugees accomplishes nothing. This is an example of how social media and modern technology present us with a facsimile of meaningful connections with reality. Consider the famous photo from 2015 of the drowned little boy on the beach in Greece. He was maybe four or five, a Syrian refugee who had been washed ashore after drowning at sea. Exposure to a tragic photograph like this is a good way of generating awareness about a problem, but much of the awareness ends up being empty: people click the sad react, say “Wow, bummer,” and scroll on to the next tragedy. Is this helpful?

Meaningful compassion for others requires attention and time — attention and time that is often spent scrolling ever onwards. This is not helpful to us psychologically. We are not meant to be barraged with trauma all day, every day. And in a cruel twist, the very technologies that bombard us with stressful stimuli deplete the attention and time that could be devoted to solving an actual problem.

Chaffin suggests that the solution is to tune out the distractions and select a cause you feel passionate about, then get involved in a real and tangible way. Perhaps you’re an animal lover who feels great compassion for creatures. Take some of the time you might otherwise spend doom-scrolling and volunteer at the ASPCA or an animal rescue. Perhaps you’re passionate about helping the homeless. Instead of sharing memes and pointed tweets with like-minded chums on the internet, go volunteer at a local shelter. Collect donations that can make a difference for your local homeless community, or make “grab bags” that have food, water, hygiene supplies, and maybe a few bucks. The most meaningful thing you can do is to devote some of your limited time and attention to something. Social media and modern devices rob us of both and destroy authenticity.

Earn Your Experiences

The information age is simultaneously a sci-fi wonderland and a dystopian hellscape. We enjoy astonishing conveniences and comforts that would be inconceivable to our ancestors. However, the age of information thrives on an economy of attention that is designed to capture and keep the attention of the user for as long as possible. The modern human condition is that of being endlessly presented with inauthentic experiences that leave us hollow and empty and seeking more — which in turn brings us back to the same inadequate patterns. The truth is that time and attention are the keys to authentic and meaningful experiences. If you feel disengaged, alienated, or burned out, if your life seems hollow and unfulfilling, remember that your time and your attention are yours alone to spend. Spending them on things that will help you engage with the world and develop into your ideal future self is a valid and empowering thing to do.

View this article in the December 2021 issue of MP.