On the cost of distraction, economy of attention, and how to tame the digital whirlpools.


Oxford Dictionary defines distraction in the following ways:

1. a thing that prevents someone from concentrating on something else
2. extreme agitation of the mind

In other words, it describes either a one-time occurrence, presumably with a positive or negative connotation (diversion vs. interruption), or a general state of mind (distress, agitation). Here, we are concerned with the first class.

While you might experience diversions from a humdrum task as welcome and interruptions when you are in the zone as vexing, both of them break the flow and divert your attention from what you had originally planned to focus on. We shall, therefore, treat them alike.

Before we dive into the realm of digital interference, it is only fair to question whether distractions are worth our attention at all. The answer might lie on the flip side of the same coin: focus.

The ability to focus has a swathe of benefits, but let’s just zoom in on one of the purely pragmatic ones, namely efficiency. In Deep Work, Cal Newport argues that: “[Deep focus] is a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.”

Myelin, a fatty tissue that acts as an insulator around neurons, provides a physiological basis for this claim. How so? Repetitive use of individual circuits in the brain triggers specialised cells (oligodendrocytes) to sheathe neurons in additional layers of myelin. The more myelin, the faster — and more efficiently — these circuits can fire in the future.

Focused mind has much easier time isolating the circuits that need to be bolstered to cement a skill or commit a piece of information to memory. In a distracted mind, on the other hand, too many unrelated circuits fire haphazardly; as a result, none of them are myelinated, or not to a consequential degree.

This is why deliberate, single-minded practice works so well. It gets you properly myelinated, building extra lanes on your neurological highway for signals to race through. Needless to say, distraction is the chief adversary of this propitious state of mind.

From an evolutionary perspective, getting distracted makes a lot of sense.

Regardless of what you are doing, a rustle in the bush — betraying a potential presence of a predator — should draw your attention; let alone a roar of a lion or stomping of heavy feet indicating an imminent arrival of a family of irate hippos. However, those with brains attuned to filtering out the inconsequential false positives have very likely failed to catch at least one life-and-death matter. Such blunder would render them stumps in the vast jungles of evolution.

But this very mechanism, crucial for survival of our predecessors and therefore embedded deep in the ancient parts of our brains, makes us vulnerable to trifles.

Digital Arena

The digital world is teeming with distractions non-essential for our well-being. The Shallows, a book on the impact of internet on our brains, explains that sometimes the interference is completely unintended.

Initially, for example, we assumed that hypertext was conducive to fostering deeper understanding through providing contrasting perspectives. This intuition, unfortunately, turned out to be flawed.

Every time you encounter a link, your mind needs to switch from constructing an in-depth comprehension model to reaching a verdict: “To click or not to click.” It is as if you were reading aloud to someone and every now and then, they would ask you whether you want to change topic for a short while. Although this back-and-forth only takes a fraction of a second, it significantly reduces your ability to acquire profound understanding of the subject at hand.

(This is why links to all the material mentioned here are bundled at the end of the post. See if you can read all the way through and only then check whatever still feels relevant.)

The author Nicholas Carr asserts that if we were to construct a system catering to the short-term reward-seeking nature of our minds, we would end up pretty much exactly with the digital realm we have today: continually updated, multi-threaded environment with multiple apps and tabs, encouraging us to shift focus constantly.

Unceasing attention shifts come at a price, as a Stanford study from 2009 clearly showed.

Not only are those of us who frequently multitask “suckers for irrelevancy” distracted by unimportant events, but we also perform worse on memory tests than those who tend to focus on one thing at a time. Stunned, the research also found that we are worse in that one thing that we repeatedly do: We underperform in switching between tasks.

Another issue with multitasking is that we only have a single mind. As Chamath Palihapitiya, a former exec at Facebook, points out, it is impossible to act in a certain way online (distracted, impulsive actions, fishing for short-term rewards) and expect it will not affect us while building healthy relationships or running a business (striving for long term thinking and delayed gratification).

Recent studies show that mere presence of your phone occupies certain amount of space in your mind, thereby leaving less resources available for other tasks and undercutting cognitive performance. In other words, even if you are not consciously aware of your phone lying silently on a table, it gnaws at your focus constantly.

Our mind is like a muscle: The way we act in whatever domain has a substantial impact on how we think and behave in all the other ones. By spending large amounts of time unfocused, we prime ourselves to act that way in other contexts too.

While sometimes — such as in the case of hypertext — the exploitation of our innate vulnerabilities is purely incidental, a lot of it has been built into the systems on purpose.

Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab, which researches and teaches the mechanisms of building seductive technology, and Hooked by Nil Eyan, a collection of techniques for building “habit-forming products”, are just two better-known examples of a large amount of effort that has recently been poured into the field.

What are the methods to hijack your attention and keep you locked in? Let’s look at just a few to see how subtle, and insidious, these techniques can be:

  1. The addictiveness of slot machines is realised through an essential ingredient called intermittent variable rewards, and many digital services are built the same way. If I refresh the flow, how many new posts are there going to be? When I check my phone, how many red badges are beckoning to me to click on them and get lost inside? You never know what you’re going to get the next time you “pull the lever”, so you keep coming back to play the slot machine you carry around in your pocket.
  2. Controlling the menu is another potent way to hold sway over your users’ attention and actions. From selecting which alternatives to include to their ordering, menus play a significant role in the way you interact with a service. They keep the illusion of free choice alive, but, really, you are being manipulated into picking what the designers prefer. A question always worth asking is: “What options have been omitted and why?”
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Photo by Carl Raw on Unsplash

It’s working fabulously: We check our phones roughly 80 times a day, and 33% of us would give up sex for a week rather than give up the phone for a day. We spend 4 hours and 15 minutes daily on our pocket screens, a number that has risen significantly in recent years (in 2012, it was 2 hours 15 minutes).

Sure, a lot of this is our conscious choice, but multiple times a day, our notion of how we want to be spending our time is disregarded, our plans gently cast into different shapes. Instead of replying to a message and going back to reading a book, that red badge on notifications brings your attention to a friend that has liked your picture, and you are drawn into Facebook for 20 minutes. Instead of checking your inbox twice a day, which would likely suffice, you end up coming back twice every hour.

The system has been designed to do exactly that — divert our attention from the intended course, interrupt us from our lives without our consent and, even more importantly, our awareness.

All of this is happening because our attention is often the main, if not the only, source of income for the majority of digital services.

Facebook and Google need you around as much as possible to infer more information about you, resulting in delivering ads you are more likely to click on. Newspapers need you to keep coming back, too, either to feel it is worth paying your subscription, or to click on ads; the same goes for YouTube and Netflix. Amazon and eBay need you to keep purchasing, ideally more.

Notice how none of this has anything to do with your wishes: what the reasons behind your using of Facebook or Google are, how many articles you want to read, how much you need to buy. It is not about building the most efficient service, presumably one that allows you to solve a problem or satisfy your need in the shortest possible amount of time and come back to whatever you were doing. No, the key is to make you stay as long as possible and bringing you back often. Enter the economy of attention.

Economy of Attention

Put simply by Matthew Crawford: “Attention is a resource — a person has only so much of it.” But then you are just paying for using Twitter with your attention, right? Well, kind of.

Results from the observation of over 200,000 users of Moment (an analytics app tracking iPhone usage) show that by paying more attention to social media once you have reached a fairly low threshold, you are very likely not getting more value out of the service. You are being manipulated into spending more attention — in this case easily equated with time, both quantifiable and obviously very finite — to their benefit. In the best case scenario, this is deception. In the worst one, an outright theft.

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Results of research by Center for Humane Technology and Moment.

Of course, advertising in the physical world operates in a similar way. But in the era of portable phones, tablets, and laptops, you carry the billboard around and interact with it constantly. A billboard that has been designed by a handful of people whose decisions affect hundreds of millions, sometimes billions of people on a day-to-day basis.

Apart from distractedness, overuse of tech is correlated with scores of other negative effects: sleep loss, increase in accidents (resulting partially from that same sleep deprivation and direct use of technology), higher levels of stress and anxiety, and the list keeps on going. There’s got to be a better way.

Let’s start by looking at what you personally can do if you feel like the digital world is eating away too much of your time.

  1. Measure how much you use your phone. There is Moment for iOS and QualityTime for Android. These apps help you analyse how much time you spend away from the physical world. Often, it’s not about going cold turkey, but simply (well, simply…) reducing the amount of time until you feel that the added value of a service is worth the attention it is receiving from you.
  2. Make certain contexts phone-free. Bedroom is an obvious one, but it can be people- or time-specific as well (not using your phone with your partner, not using your phone before 7am and after 9pm).
  3. Meditate. By observing you mind, you learn to notice when it drifts away. Once you become aware of the moments you are using your phone for no particular purpose, it’s so much easier to stop.
  4. Go grey. Colour draws attention and by going monochromatic, your phone becomes much less exciting. A dull phone is one of the best things that could ever happen to you since it motivates you to deploy your time elsewhere.

Naturally, this only fixes the symptoms. What can we do to remedy the underlying issue?

Led by Tristan Harris, once called the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience”, Center for Humane Technology is one of the movements in the front trenches in this war against a distracted world. They raise awareness of the problem and incite designers, developers, and companies to take responsibility for their creations. They inspire Humane Design to fulfil their motto: “Realigning technology with humanity’s best interests”. Their efforts have contributed to Google releasing a commitment to digital well-being, stating that “Great technology should improve life, not distract from it.”

Joe Eldeman, an ex-CTO at CouchSurfing, has a bunch of great videos on Empowering Design, delving both into reasoning and pragmatic solutions. Aral Balkan wrote an Ethical Design Manifesto with lots of practical suggestions. Hack Mental Health organises meetups and hackathons to discuss the detrimental effects of tech and come up with simple ways to help us reclaim our attention. Dark Patterns is a website that identifies tricks commonly used online for manipulation purposes.

If you would like to lend your hand, the following has the highest potential to have a positive impact, in my view:

  1. Raise awareness. Talk about this to your family and friends. If you have kids, discuss their relationship to tech with them, that is absolutely crucial. Question ubiquitous tech, share tips. Engage your colleagues. If you are into bigger things, organise a meetup.
  2. Build humane-friendly services. Our apps have far-reaching moral implications, and we should treat them as such. If you are (part of a team) building a digital product, question the ethical implications of both all the features and decisions.
  3. Pressure the politicians, and the big players. At this point, time spent in a service is its principal measure of success. Companies would, therefore, lose money if they changed their behaviour. Before we set the incentives right, platforms could act as a temporary solution preventing apps from catering to our lizard brains, focusing instead on our long-term well-being and long-term ideals originating in the neocortex. (New versions of both Android and iOS are to include such features.) If you can influence any of the big players, do so.
Quite likely the best intro into the economy of attention.

Get In Touch

At Øredev, we have been raising awareness of the ethical implications of technology (not only) through our keynotes for quite a few years now. We want to be part of the solution.

Do you have an idea for a framework or an event that could contribute to solving the issues outlined above? Are you building a product with ethical principles in mind? Or are you simply passionate about the topic? Shoot us an owl, we would love to grab a coffee.


Dev conference in Malmö, Sweden, Nov 6–8. Fostering happiness through tech, oredev.org.

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