It’s not just you.
It’s harder and harder for everyone to stay focused and productive.
The world has changed.
In the last ten years, ubiquitous smartphones and high-speed internet have transformed our lives.
^^^ This sentence is the same tired idea that is trotted out by every journalist, on every topic that even remotely brushes with tech:
Post mortems of the 2016 election.
Reviews of the latest iPhone.
Hollywood industry news about the streaming media giants.
And now, the latest scandal with Facebook and their misuse of your data.
We’ve read so many introductory paragraphs proclaiming that “… as we all know smartphones have changed everything” that we’ve become blind.
Journalists pay lip service to the big changes wrought by this tech and we just roll our eyes.
When we talk about smartphones changing everything, we’re talking about ourselves directly. But because you feel like your same old self, it’s easy to brush off any real concern. And yet…
We’re all frogs being slowly boiled alive.
Without realizing what’s happening.
The media (social and otherwise) that we consume through these devices is fundamentally altering our behavior, and not for the better.
It’s not just your ability to focus that’s being cooked. As the proverbial water starts to warm and bubble, we’re experiencing tectonic shifts in the way we live our lives.
The Pay-Per-Click Economy is the fire that’s boiling us — and our ability to focus — alive.
To understand what technology is doing to our minds, we have to understand the underlying economics of the internet and the media that inhabits it.
Since the internet went “mainstream” (i.e. large numbers of normal people accessing it), the big question has been: How is money gonna be made online?
The dotcom bubble, the subsequent meteoric rise of e-commerce giants like Amazon, the ubiquity of valuable non-profit sites like Wikipedia… all answer this question in economically impactful ways.
But the biggest business model to emerge from the internet is the Pay-Per-Click model that monetizes your attention as a consumer.
Businesses operating with this model can all be defined as “media” companies. Social or news media — they’re the same thing:
These businesses are not selling products to you. They’re selling YOU, to advertisers.
Specifically, media companies from Facebook to CNN to Buzzfeed have figured out how to sell your eyeballs — your attention and concentration — to the companies that want it. This attention is sold via two “units”: The Click and The Impression.
It’s the nature of capitalism and economics itself to optimize any business model. Competition demands optimization. So what we’ve seen — as the Pay-Per-Click economy has evolved — is these media companies getting terrifyingly effective at grabbing our attention.
They call it being “Compelling” and “Engaging” and you should know that teams of psychologists and computer scientists at companies like Facebook and Instagram are sitting around thinking up strategies to make their platforms MORE of both these things.
(I like to believe that at the old school media companies, a bunch of editorial staff are sitting around semi-reluctantly doing the same thing, as they feel the pressure to compete in this new internet/smartphone world!)
When things get more “Compelling and Engaging” it means that you’re spending more of your time, concentration and focus being compelled and engaged by these media sources.
These companies are on a quest for ever-more optimization. They see the world as a non-zero-sum-game where there’s no limit to the amount of eyeballs to be compelled, or to the number of hours in a day those eyeballs can be engaged. They need more and more — more eyeballs, more engagements — to make their shareholders happy.
The natural forces of capitalism — coupled with these dynamics of the Pay-Per-Click Economy — are resulting in a user experience of the internet/media where it’s getting harder and harder to stay focused.
Consumers — that’s you — are having their attention sold to the highest bidding advertiser so expertly that their actual everyday behavior is transforming. And not for the better.
The News Media have figured out that fear and outrage are two of the most “Engaging” and “Compelling” emotions. To win market share — literally measured by more eyeballs than the competition — they’re “optimizing” as much content as possible to hit those emotions.
Social Media companies have figured out that FOMO and controversy are their keys to “Engaging” and “Compelling” the shit out of their users. Then they’re also supporting the fear/outrage of the New Media using social platforms to distribute content.
The result of all of this? Clickbait titles. Partisan new stories that foster outrage. Fake news. Psychologically optimized notifications to keep users coming back and back for more.
None of this stuff is a temporary hiccup in the march of technological progress. Fake news and the wider trend of your focus and attention being manipulated are here to stay. These dynamics are fundamental profit-driving strategies of the Pay-Per-Click Economy.
… And they’re distracting you throughout your work day. They’re making you afraid. They’re driving people apart through tribalist identity politics.
Perhaps most concerning of all, the Pay-Per-Click Economy and the dynamics of optimization within it are frying your ability to concentrate and focus.
“Failure of self regulation is the major social pathology of our time”
Social psychologist Dr Roy Baumeister said this ^^^, warning of the crisis to come. The guy has devoted his life to to researching the links between human fulfillment and flourishing and self-regulation ability.
Here are just a handful of the most unexpected, impactful changes that the smartphone/internet powered pay-per-click economy are wreaking upon us:
1. Teenagers are leaving their parent’s homes less than ever
The need to actually go out — or sneak out — to socialize has been almost totally removed by the instant connection provided by social media and messaging apps.
Young people can fulfill their emerging social needs more effectively when they’re alone in their bedrooms than through face-to-face interaction, because technology enables one-to-many communication with vastly MORE bandwidth than simply “hanging out” in the old fashioned sense.
The popular kids are no longer those standing (literally) in the largest circles of friends, but rather those with the highest online follower counts. The funny kids, the attractive and the gregarious ones are building relationships with many more people through their screens. As are the freaks, the misfits and the dorks.
Actually going out and being with people IRL is a missed opportunity for young people. It means deliberately lowering valuable social bandwidth so that only a dozen or so meager social interactions can occur instead of the hundreds (or thousands) of connections begging to be made online.
The implications of this for the way attention is distributed amongst young people, who “speaks” and who “listens” and how emergent sexual relationships are forming … is profound.
We’re only just scratching the surface on the effects these technologies will have on the entire post-millennial generation.
2. We’re erecting information bubbles around ourselves.
It’s the nature of algorithmically enhanced media content (social and otherwise) to give us more and more of what we want. The more things we click on — whether it’s a “like” or visiting a specific hyperlink — the more these vast platforms learn about our preferences. And the more they serve us stuff we can’t resist.
The depth of this feedback loop is seldom fully appreciated. Even the news media are playing the game: Driven by a need to optimize online ad revenue, editors are increasingly digging into reader analytics to find out what their audiences are paying attention to. Then, they make more of it.
The means that we’re seeing less and less of what we don’t want to see. The media industry is incentivized to figure out what we like. And, to make sure we don’t stumble onto anything we find distasteful. Or worse: Boring.
The upshot of this is that we’re getting stupider. We struggle to digest and actively interpret information that isn’t optimized for engagement. Deep learning — digging into ambiguous complexity to uncover powerful truths — requires a set of muscles that listicles and you-won’t-believe-what-happened-next headlines both actively cause to atrophy.
We’re only just starting to see a hint of what it means for our civilization to forgo literary deep reading and learning. Certainly, conditioning the populace this way does not bode well for egalitarian opportunities for upward mobility in a knowledge economy.
3. No one is present. Nothing is getting done.
Meanwhile, in the same home in which children are increasingly alone in their bedrooms but plugged into the entire world… things have changed for the parents too. For everyone.
Attention as a behavior — the ability to be present and stay mentally focused — is evaporating.
People of all ages are finding it difficult to watch even gripping television without pulling out their smartphones to scroll through their feeds. The average American checks their phone forty six times per day. It’s a totally normal behavior for a married couple to sit on the couch together, studiously ignoring one another while consuming media (social and otherwise) online.
This isn’t making people happier. It may actually be a cause of depression. It’s definitely eroding our productivity and creativity during work hours.
Sitting down to accomplish something meaningful, whether it’s the creation of art, engaging in the game of entrepreneurship or simply making a difference from within an organization… it’s all gotten harder.
Creative output occurs, when it occurs, in brief spurts and flurries constantly interrupted by checking feeds, messages and media sources.
People are creating less and consuming more, than ever.
For the entrepreneurs I work with, this last change is a terrifying catastrophe.
Our attention and focus are finite resources. You can think of them as a sort of money or financial allowance. They’re something you can chose to spend on a variety of different things.
Increasingly, entrepreneurs — and really anyone who wants to thrive in the modern economy — have to make the deliberate, highly conscientious and difficult decision to un-hook from the pay-per-click economy.
If they wish to accomplish their goals, they must carefully spend their attention and focus to create something. Instead of consuming information.
The buffet of engaging, optimized, compelling delights that the internet presents is specifically designed to rob the average person of as much of their faculty for attention and focus as possible.
The bottom-line shareholder obligations of the companies operating in the Attention Economy demand that they suck away everything you’ve got.
As we stride into the future, my hunch is that the new predictor for success — entrepreneurial, economic upward mobility and break-away distruptive innovation — will be an individual’s ability to reclaim their attention and channel it toward creative labor.
A new dichotomy has arrived.
There are now two types of people in the world.
Those who consume and those who create.
Those who’ve given away their focus to the pay-per-click apparatus and those who’ve done the hard work to reclaim it.
We have to decide, before it’s too late, which group we want to be in.
I’ve published a sister-article to this one that outlines practical steps for creating instead of consuming…
Thanks for reading! If what I’ve said here resonates with you, I’d appreciate you hitting the 👏 button – a bunch of times, ideally. It helps other people discover this piece.