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The Cassandra of the Internet Age

From a recent New York Times piece by Charlie Warzel:

Michael Goldhaber is the internet prophet you’ve never heard of. Here’s a short list of things he saw coming: the complete dominance of the internet, increased shamelessness in politics, terrorists co-opting social media, the rise of reality television, personal websites, oversharing, personal essay, fandoms and online influencer culture — along with the near destruction of our ability to focus.

Most of this came to him in the mid-1980s, when Mr. Goldhaber, a former theoretical physicist, had a revelation. He was obsessed at the time with what he felt was an information glut — that there was simply more access to news, opinion and forms of entertainment than one could handle. His epiphany was this: One of the most finite resources in the world is human attention. To describe its scarcity, he latched onto what was then an obscure term, coined by a psychologist, Herbert A. Simon: “the attention economy.”

These days, the term is a catch-all for the internet and the broader landscape of information and entertainment. Advertising is part of the attention economy. So are journalism and politics and the streaming business and all the social media platforms. But for Mr. Goldhaber, the term was a bit less theoretical: Every single action we take — calling our grandparents, cleaning up the kitchen or, today, scrolling through our phones — is a transaction. We are taking what precious little attention we have and diverting it toward something. This is a zero-sum proposition, he realized. When you pay attention to one thing, you ignore something else.

This makes a lot of sense when I think back to what the world was like in the 1980s. Sure, the Internet wasn’t yet in most people’s lives, but TV and radio were, and in increasing quantities. The Internet merely accelerated the erosion of our time and attention, something that had been underway for several decades already.

His biggest worry, though, is that we still mostly fail to acknowledge that we live in a roaring attention economy. In other words, we tend to ignore his favorite maxim, from the writer Howard Rheingold: “Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.”

Where do we start? “It’s not a question of sitting by yourself and doing nothing,” Mr. Goldhaber told me. “But instead asking, ‘How do you allocate the attention you have in more focused, intentional ways?’” Some of that is personal — thinking critically about who we amplify and re-evaluating our habits and hobbies. Another part is to think about attention societally. He argued that pressing problems like income and racial inequality are, in some part, issues of where we direct our attention and resources and what we value.

As someone who writes about online extremism, I found one line of his eerily compelling. “We struggle to attune ourselves to groups of people who feel they’re not getting the attention they deserve, and we ought to get better at sensing that feeling earlier,” he said. “Because it’s a powerful, dangerous feeling.”

To my mind, the global Climate Justice and Black Lives Matter movements are the most prominent examples of this attempt to refocus society’s attention onto the issues that really matter. And the tactics used by those seeking to blunt both movements are all based around distraction and deflection.

Attention is a bit like the air we breathe. It’s vital but largely invisible, and thus we don’t think about it very much unless, of course, it becomes scarce. If that’s the case — to extend a tortured metaphor — it feels as if our attention has become polluted. We subsist on it, but the quality has been diminished. This is certainly true in my life, where I’ve become so reliant on the constant stimuli of our connected world that I find myself frequently out of control of my attention. I give it to others too willingly — often to those who will abuse the privilege. I’ve also become dependent on the attention of others, even those who bestow it in bad faith. I’ve become a version of the very person Mr. Goldhaber described in 1997, for whom “not being able to share your encounters with anyone would soon become torture.”

Maybe you feel this way too.

I think this is one of the reasons why blogging is so important to me — it’s not simply a way to spool out my life in exchange for likes, shares, etc., but more of a means to increase my awareness of the world around me through reading and writing.

I highly recommend reading the full article. And yes, I’m linking to the copy I made of the original to the Internet Archive, because that way you’re guaranteed to see it in full, not hidden by the NYT’s subscription nagging.

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