Can you feel it too?
The way the mind splinters, zipping around like a hummingbird with too much sugar in its system? Bzzzzrrrr, flitting from one thing to the next.
I wrote that sentence, and then I remembered that I wanted to buy my sister a gift. She had casually mentioned that she wanted a weighted blanket. So I started hunting for weighted blanket brands and found one with a decent amount of reviews. I added the book Untamed by Glennon Doyle to the cart, because I can’t resist recommending more books than there are spots on her bookshelf. Then I asked her for her address and searched how zip codes are meant to be formatted in her country. When I got to the checkout page, I remembered that I don’t have a Dutch bank account, which I needed in order to avoid an extra fee, and also to order lunch.
I researched the top online Dutch bank providers and weighed my options. Finally, I picked one, downloaded the app, and began the process of signing up. After entering all of my information, I was stymied because I don’t have my residence card yet. I texted my expat friend about the dilemma and she commiserated. By then I had moved to a different part of the room, so I picked up my book to read a few chapters, stopping sometimes to message my friend quotes that I found particularly impactful. Hunger reminded me to check if there are other delivery apps that might take a non-Dutch bank account. I looked up restaurants within walking distance.
Then I remembered I had started writing this piece about my fractured attention span.
Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Simon coined the term “attention economy” in 1969. He said, “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention,” whereby information essentially consumes our attention and leaves little left on the table. Later in 1997, Michael Holdaber identified that we are shifting from a material-based economy to one based on attention. As the industrial age winds down, careers in information technology increase. The bottom line for many companies depends on how many people they can “influence.”
I, like most people, think of commodities as objects, material things. The world is shifting, and commodities are becoming us. It’s not until my attention becomes unreliable when I realise how valuable it is– what power it has when it’s concentrated on one singular thing. We are valuable; everything from our time, energy, attention, and sexuality. To sell something, you objectify it, package it up, and provide it for payment. Our attention is the new object, there’s a bidding war out for it, and it’s already being sold.
You might have heard: if a service is free, you are the product, and I used to think, “So what? At least it’s free.” I got what I wanted, and I couldn’t feel the price I had to pay. I’m feeling it now. My internal thoughts and feelings are a private sanctum, yet I feel my attention seized by social media like a thief snatching a woman’s purse.
Our attention is worth something. Stop thief!
I’m horrified when I pick up the splintered pieces of mine, realising how much I’ve let go throughout the course of the day. Little red badges flag me down, buzzes in my pocket signal a stop to pull over on my bike (what if that’s my friend asking me to pick up something on my way?), news headlines prod my amygdala, flooding my body with fear or shakey rage. Our brains are wired for the wild, not for the manufactured control of capitalism.
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Those in power mine for the gem of our attention, creating cracks in the foundation of our concentration. You are the product. Ironic that after a flurry of activity, I feel productive. But what have I just done? I paid for an item without researching if it was made in ethical ways, through a company (Amazon) that has proven to have unethical practices. I contributed to an economy where fast deliveries reign supreme over efficiency or waste management. I didn’t check how this consumption would affect the world around me. I feel productive because I got things done, but I didn’t stop to think if those were the right things to do.
The hijacking of our attention is an act of biotechnological warfare waged against our peace of mind. Companies and marketers have figured out how to tap into the core, base-level instincts in order to intentionally keep us hooked– addicted to the screen and unable to resist the tug for attention. “It becomes this race to the bottom of the brainstem,” says Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist from Google, now president and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology. He appears in the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, which delves further into the competition for our consciousness. We aren’t being shown the most relevant, most peer-reviewed information, we are being shown things that will tap into our primal selves, articles that enflame us to write a comment, provocative photos that get us to click.
Addictions are a means to escape living life fully. In something else– a drug, a hit, a notification, we chase our own dopamine fix. We numb and avoid painful feelings, shunt away boredom, and forget what it’s like to sit comfortably in our own skin. We are living in pursuit of dopamine but thwarting our own happiness.
Most stumble into addiction naively, but it’s dreadfully insidious that these new addictions are coded in computer labs intentionally. If we create a population dependent on our product, we will become the richest person on the planet. The engineers become a reverse Dr. Frankenstein, turning us into zombie facsimiles, reaching for our phones over 50 times per day.
“The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children,” writes Cal Newport in his book Digital Minimalism, “Because, let’s face it, checking your “likes” is the new smoking.”
One study describes the serious consequence: “Alcohol and drug addiction are primary, chronic, progressive, and often fatal health problems for all of society.” Smartphones tap into the same neurological systems as drugs and alcohol, creating just another malignant form of addiction we need to be cognizant of. The health implications are only beginning to be understood, but studies are already revealing how smartphone overuse significantly increases the levels of depression, anxiety, stress and neuroticism.
I learned recently that Instagram’s algorithms take the “likes” of your photos and wait to show you them after some time has passed. That way, when you initially check your phone you are just a tiny bit disappointed by the lack of engagement, only to be flooded with validation later. This feedback loop encourages the habit to continually check the app for a new dopamine hit. Companies are driven by an “incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction,” writes Jenny Odell, author of How To Do Nothing. She says, “From either a social or ecological perspective, the ultimate goal of ‘doing nothing’ is to wrest our focus from the attention economy and replant it in the public, physical realm.”
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My field of work is dependent on long stretches of focused attention. One study found that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to deep focus after being distracted. I admit I have never done a voluntary phone detox (though I have done so involuntarily when living in remote areas with no internet). However, I think it’s high time for me to make a change.
There are all kinds of tricks to minimize the effects of notifications triggering our distraction. Turning off notifications, making the screen grey-scale so eye-catching red badges are dimmed, keeping the phone charging outside of the bedroom– all of these are small steps on the way to unplugging. There are all sorts of apps out there to help with productivity and cut out advertisements on sidebars. Meditation can teach one to notice when the mind wanders off and nudge it back on track.
I’m torn because I’m in a new country and technology makes it easy to connect with new people and keep in touch with old friends. However, I can still do this in focused, intentional ways. Of course there are tons of benefits to technology, but we’ve been wielding them clumsily, having skimmed the Terms and Conditions without realising what we’ve signed up for, or what rights we’ve signed away.
If information eats up my attention, I’ll keep it away from the table, except for dedicated “meal-times”. I turned off my notifications, made time-blocks in my calendar with auto-response replies, and deleted the apps that were sucking the most time from my life. Your life is the accumulation of your memories, and your memories are what you pay attention to. To save our lives, we have to stop spending them in a digital wasteland.