In a World Fighting for Attention Span

In a word, they failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” — — Aldous Huxley

Any close friend of mine knows that I have self-claimed Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Although everyone who has clinically diagnosed ADD says I do not, they look exactly the same to me as any non-ADD people any way. This all started when I was sitting in the front seat of a Uber car one day while the driver complained about too many pop-up apps and he thought he was trained to have an ADD. Hearing that, I said “I think I have it too!” Two other people sitting in the back said “Oh, me too!”

Self-deprecating jokes/reality aside, I was amazed by how many social media accounts people in San Francisco have after moving from New York, where not every one even has a Facebook account. Here if you are tech/start-up/VC related, what are the chances you have a Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, Instagram, Crunchbase, Angelist, Pinterest, Tumblr account? Oh, of course, let’s do not forget about the Medium one.

As an information receiver, not only “you are what you eat”, but also what information you consume. Yes, you choose the information receiving channels and how to process them. But I chose “Medium” largely because it is popular in the Silicon Valley. Is not that true to you too? To this extent, self-choice is a little bit over-rated. For the Generation Me, it is hard to tell whether “me” is truly more or less powerful in choosing how this world is perceived. One benefit from the massive and easier to be obtained information is that your brain naturally gravitates from the very impressive to the very very impressive, an expert opinion. I am a believer of “ten thousand hours” from Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Any expertise needs a dedicated practice, and focus needs a lot of strength. As Seth Klarman said “It is easy to stray but a continuous effort to remain disciplined”.

As an information sender, “the only thing that is worse than being talked about is not being talked about”. Tons of people make a living by how to get into others’ attention span. I am not trying to discredit this, as I am one of the beneficiaries as well. And hey, this helps to bring inflation down which is a whole another topic. The 1988’s Manufacturing Consent argues that the mass communication media of the US “are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function, by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship, and without overt coercion”. How about for the different forms of mass communication media than what Noam Chomsky mentioned here three decades ago? There have been a lot of coverage on this, like What Facebook Did to American Democracy and Why It Was So Hard to See It Coming in the Atlantic: “Across the landscape, it began to dawn on people: Damn, Facebook owns us.” The conclusion here is fuzzy, but feels right. It is more like most people believe the rising of technology sector is distorting the Philips Curve, but it still stays only in the media, instead of your text book. But we are definitely getting there.

In most cases, everyone is an information receiver and sender at the same time, which helps to shape the culture of an industry, a city, or even on a larger scale. “New York, with its restless energy, competitive spirit, and pockets of extreme wealth, acentricated some aspects of my own irrational nature that are conductive to good investing. I needed to be in a place where I could think calmly and invest for the long term without the pressure of other people’s expectations or the distraction of all the frenzied activity buffeting me in New York”. This is one of the biggest reasons why you would see proportionally more long term value investors in Boston than New York. And of course, the most successful one is actually in Omaha. Do you find this sound familiar too if “investing” is changed to “technology start-up”, and “New York” is changed to “Silicon Valley”? Does this have to be part of the feed-back loop of any fast growing ecosystem?

We live in a world constantly sending and receiving information. If you have made this far to this article, I’ve successfully secured your attention span for the past several minutes.