Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Attention Economy

There is nothing so disobedient as an undisciplined mind.
There is nothing so obedient as a disciplined mind.

Note: This post was to be written in the dog-days of summer with light content to match the lightness of the days. However, with the beginning of the school year, the post has become heavier and more dense like our own schedules of the season... Enjoy!

As a teacher, I'm still unsure as to the purpose of education. Is it to teach content? Is it to teach youngsters how to think? It is to babysit people's kids? Like any good question, there doesn't seem to be one good answer but as my own preference seems to dictate, I prefer the "middle way" or the middle option of teaching students how to think while getting in some content and babysitting on the side. But whichever way we choose to teach students, it's of little doubt that school is where we have our minds trained. As painful as it can be (like any good workout class) we can't help but get our mental wheels turning through the papers we write, the lectures we attend and/or the discussions we carry on. And there does seem to be this discrepancy in society which posits education as something elite and "other" (although the two things are almost mutually exclusive). In general, education may not make you a better person but for better (not worse) it often gives you a stronger mind, a facet completely necessary as we move into our brave, new world.

Several months ago on Real Time with Bill Maher, a guest named Tristan Harris (pronounced Trist-on) was featured and spoke about something coined "the attention economy." While I had to break through my initial judgement towards both his name and occupation (he formerly served as a design ethicist at Google), I found he truly had some relevant things to say about what appears to be a new and emerging "market." According to our friend, the attention economy is the new battle for our individual attentions. Having broke free from the chains of regularly scheduled programs, we, the consumer, are at liberty to search a multitude of sites, social media platforms and such other things for entertainment. Knowing full well that the foxes must now chase the hounds, companies and other entities, are in fierce competition to grab our attention where they can get it. And as quickly as our interests might veer from site to site, their entreats for our fixation and ultimately, our cash, must be increasingly catchy. But while the products sold by such companies come at a cost, so might their marketing strategies.

When I was younger, I once found my father watching Zorba the Greek. Intrigued by the fact he was sitting and relaxed while the sun was still up (not one of his typical past times), I sat beside him and watched with curiosity what had grabbed his attention. Growing bored with the black and white film, however, I was about to get up when I heard my father murmur to no one in particular, "they don't make films like the used to. Now scenes have to be short and full of action. They just don't let the story unfold." While I still walked away, I was intrigued.

Just like an actual economy, the attention economy seems to be based on the concept of scarcity. Since, theoretically, there are not enough goods to go around, how we chose to distribute them warrants its own field of study. In the attention economy, however, it is our attention which lies scarce in comparison to the onslaught of information from news and social media and the advertisements which give both platforms a general reason to exist. In this sense, news stories, stories on Snapchat and/or advertisements must become increasingly exciting, provocative and/or interesting in order to grab our attention when so many other things are reaching for it. And while competing for our attention can be innocent enough in its own right, appealing exclusively to our limbic systems or upping the level of stimuli to our brains can take its toll on how we process the world around us. 

Within the aforementioned show, Tristoooooon stated that within this new "economy", since information is so vast, news sources (and the advertisers who support them) find that, showing quick, sensational stories which confirm our beliefs garner more attention than complex stories which leave us with more nuanced versions of reality (a.k.a. stories which make us think for ourselves). And while this can leave us in the dangers of our own echo chambers of political divisiveness, it's ability to spark addictive behaviors can be even more of a hazard. Since we are playing the roulette wheel when we open our phone (perhaps we've gotten a text, perhaps we'll see a salacious article, etc.) it can become an addictive entity. So where does this leave us? As I believe, it comes full circle to the issue of education. 

Perhaps education is, like reality, an ever-shifting experience without one particular purpose. While we don't teach much in the way of agriculture now that we exist in a more tech-based environment, perhaps it is prudent to strengthen students' attention spans in an age when so many sources are reaching for it through technology itself. While one could argue that companies are not looking to do explicit harm through their ads, their loyalty (I've heard) lies more with their shareholders and less with their customers. Ergo, between the food companies who seem to stop just short of addiction with their products and advertisements which don't require much more than a reptilian brain to interact with, we owe it to ourselves (and our students) to maintain our independence against forces which don't appeal to our greater goodness. But what to do? Here is where my simple idea from the summer comes in...

As I spend much of my time in the car, driving between school and tutoring, a simple trick I employ to expand my bandwidth of attention is to simply listen to a song in its entirety. Much like the news and social media, Sirius XM (while a great product) has opened our listening experience to a multitude of stations. And often, when I'm bored with a song on Hip-Hop Nation, I know there's a good chance that I'll like what they're spinning on Shade45. But with such ease of having our attention satisfied consistently, it's easy to forget that life outside (in the literal and figurative sense) does not cater to our desires so readily. So, in efforts to guide my attention through the excitement and boredom of a single song, I try to listen the whole way through and I've found it helps. Recently, I've been letting my mind languish through a song rather than click click away. I've also noticed I've chosen songs to listen to which I otherwise would have dismissed (think Regulators over Gin & Juice). So it's quite an experiment. I like it... a little challenge for the car ride. 

So, congratulations! You've effectively sustained your attention through one of my longer (and more boring) articles. Well done my friends. Stay woke, as the kids say and jam on...

Figured we'd (appropriately) end with a twelve-minute diddy.


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