Magicians know your secret. The stage conjurer, the card trickster, the grand illusionist, all understand that humans have a weakness. It’s how they pull the rabbit from the hat, or find our card in a deck. And that weakness is all about
This essay was written in parts for days 1 to 7 of my 30 day Attention recovery program. Our attention has been scattered, perhaps even shattered, by the internet, by social media and by digital online life.
This is a little note on why recovering our attention matters.
The Attention Problem.
How do we decide what to pay attention to? It might sound simple, but this is one of the hardest questions in cognitive science.
John Vervaeke, in his excellent lecture series, discusses the problem as “relevance realisation”. The world we see is infinitely complex. So how do we decide which parts of it are relevant to us?
Attention is single pointed. We talk about “multi-tasking” but in reality humans can only pay attention to one thing at a time. We believe we can choose what we pay attention to, but in fact our attention is easily distracted, directed and hijacked.
The magician misdirects our attention and we don’t see the hand rigging the cards. It’s a harmless trick. But in real life our attention is being constantly hijacked for much more serious purposes — to sell us products, to win our vote, or to control our behaviour.
Welcome to the Attention Economy.
An estimated $590 BILLION dollars will be spent on advertising in 2019. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg in a vast contest to win and hold the most valuable asset in the 21st century economy…
The new “winners” in our attention economy are the technology giants Google and Facebook. Both companies do one thing…hold our attention and then sell it, for huge profits, to third parties.
Like the stage magician, card sharp and the con artist, tech companies and social media networks hijack our attention by knowing our secrets and understanding the weaknesses in how human attention works.
That’s why Facebook sharpens its algorithm to show content that outrages us. Anger is one of the easiest “exploits” to hijack our attention. And every time we type an outraged comment or share an outrageous story, we’re being played.
What could YOU do with your full attention?
Here’s a short list of people competing for your attention :
- Donald Trump hijacks the attention of millions of liberals by deliberately saying things they find outrageous.
- Nike uses the power of branding to make billions of consumers pay over the odds for cheaply (and exploitatively) made shoes.
- A generation of Instagram “influencers” curate their feeds to make their lives look amazing, then endorse lifestyle products for big fees.
- At least one person in your life (maybe many more) is THAT person who always has a psychodrama going on…that just happens to suck in the attention of everyone around them.
- And worst of all…YOU. And me. WE. All of us are constantly distracting our own attention from the things that really matter. The difficult emotions we don’t want to deal with. The creative tasks that would help us flourish. The close relationships that are so hard but so vital. It’s so much easier to give our attention to the television…or to Twitter.
Every moment of every day a vast industry of corporations, advertisers, political causes, brands, influencers and more are competing to hijack our attention, for their own power and profits.
What could we achieve if we could give 100% of our attention…or 50%…or even a solid and consistent 10%…to the things that matter most to us? What magic could we make in our own lives?
Let’s find out together.
I’ve been saving Northern Lights.
After a decade writing about sci-fi and fantasy books for The Guardian end elsewhere, it was one of those strange anomalies that I’d never read Philip Pullman’s masterpiece.
I had one of those feelings. That there would be a time to read this trilogy. A time when it would help me.
That time has come.
The internet is made of words. True enough. But it’s made of words in the same way volcanic lava is made of rock. The internet is superheated language, in constant white hot flow. Reading it burns.
“This is the atmosphere of the mainstream web today: a relentless competition for power. As this competition has grown in size and ferocity, an increasing number of the population has scurried into their dark forests to avoid the fray.”
From The Dark Forest Theory Of The Internet by Yancy Strickler.
Reading the internet is being exposed to thousands upon thousands of messages crafted as part of this relentless competition for power. And they’re broken messages: news headlines, screamed opinion pieces, shouted commentary, tweeted sales pitches.
That dark sinking feeling when you look at twitter in the morning? That’s burnout. You’ve shown your mind Too Much Information — much of it terrible — and your psyche is going into shut down.
“A book is one human voice at its best, not a thousand human voices at their worst.”
Books are also made of words. Words solid like granite. Words telling you one story, or exploring one theme, and taking you deeper and deeper into one intelligent subject, instead of skipping you like a stone over a thousand shallow ideas.
A book is one human voice at its best, not a thousand human voices at their worst. A book is years of the author’s most intelligent thinking condensed into a few hundred pages. A tweeted status update is a few seconds of somebody’s knee jerk reactionary thinking barely worth a few hundred words.
A good book is all the above. Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights (The Golden Compass for US readers) is a good book. A subtle intelligence telling a deeply human story…that just happens to cross through multiple dimensions of time and space.
But I still have to MAKE myself read it. It’s so much easier to paddle around in the internet shallows than go deep diving in a good book. But any day I put aside an hour or two for Northern Lights is a day I feel better nourished.
The best way to diet is not to starve yourself. It’s to feed yourself fully with nutritious food — greens, fruits, vegetables, slow carbs. The same principle goes for our mind diet. Don’t just starve yourself of intellectual stimulation. Fill yourself up with high quality nutritious books instead.
A monkey rides an elephant through the jungle. The monkey shrieks and hits the elephant with a stick. But the elephant walks where it wants. Eventually the monkey gives up, and just tells itself a story, that where the elephant goes is where it wanted to go anyway.
The point of this story is
you think you’re the monkey
but really you’re the elephant.
“Very much of modern life alienates us from our bodies.”
About 99.8% of spiritual practice is changing your relationship to your own mind. The mind is an excellent servant but a terrible master. It’s the human condition that most of us, most of the time, are mastered by our mind.
Social media sends the mind into unhealthy self-absorbed loops. This is why Facebook, Twitter etc exploit outrage, social status etc. Our minds get very easily hooked by these things, and then our attention is absorbed into our mind.
The best way out of your mind is into your body.
And the best way into the body is to dance.
I’m blessed to live on a tropical island peppered with dancing hippies. Ecstatic Dance events are a real challenge for me. I’m an intellectual. I’m overly self-conscious. I have issues with not wanting to be seen. But I go and dance, to get out of my mind.
The mind can only hold five to seven things at a time. Start dancing. Where is your right hand? Where is your left foot? Where are your hips? How are your shoulders moving? Progressively keep more of your dancing body in mind…and your mind disappears into your body.
Very much of modern life alienates us from our bodies. We feel like we are our mind. We feel like we’re a monkey trying to steer an elephant. But we are the elephant. We are our body.
So we’re building a list.
Read books. Go dancing.
Crowd social media out, by filling your life with good things instead.
I thought a lot about this part before writing it.
This is the post I almost wrote but didn’t.
Express yourself! Get your art out there! Just do it!
You get the idea. A cheer leading piece for our innate human creativity.
But I don’t believe that’s going to help.
So here’s the reality.
Diego Maradona was the greatest footballer who ever lived.
Every commentator on the beautiful game agreed. Maradona was an artist on the pitch. He raised the game of football into an art form.
I don’t know much about football. But I have some ideas about art. You can be an artist at football. You can be an artist at plumbing. You can raise anything up to an art.
“Social media is 110% aware of our natural human desire for recognition, status, celebrity and fame.”
The “practice” part is all important. It’s not the making or displaying or art that recovers our attention. In fact, quite the opposite, those parts can risk shattering our attention to shards.
“Everyone will be famous for 15 minutes” is maybe the most prescient thing ever said about the future that is now our present. When Andy Warhol said it, only a very few could pursue fame. Now Instagram makes every one of us a potential 15 minute influencer.
Social media is 110% aware of our natural human desire for recognition, status, celebrity and fame. It relies on it as one of the core ways of hooking our attention. Making art comes at a cost. Every professional artist is trying to balance the need to promote their art, with preserving the attention they need to make art.
But practicing art. Practicing art has no attention cost. All it demands is focus and discipline, to step away from daily life and do the hard of getting good at our chosen art, whether that’s doing musical scales, developing sentence structure, or working on your football free kick.
At their most basic all arts are very simple. Music is just making noises with bits of wood and wire. Drawing is just making marks on a plain surface. Dance is just moving! The art is all in the practice, the thousands of hours of practice, it takes to develop a simple activity to the level of an art.
Social media eats up the time we could be putting into our practice. But it also works the other way around. The more time we carve out and put into practicing our art, the less time there is to be sucked into social media dramas.
I call them Outrage Farmers.
They’ve found the secret of “success” on social media…identify an issue that sparks outrage, and farm it for attention.
The issue is often entirely legitimate. But the Outrage Farmer doesn’t care either way. They just want the attention that outrage brings them.
It’s just a few days until a General Election in the UK. Twitter is flooded with millions of tweets an hour, all demanding the attention of voters.
UK politics is an issue I get easily outraged by. The UK is a country with stark inequalities, almost 1 in 4 children live in poverty, and it’s easy for me to get sucked into the outrage vortex.
If being outraged on social media solved problems, my tweets alone would have cured child poverty. But it doesn’t, and they haven’t.
In fact child poverty and UK politics are issues I am entirely powerless over. It’s powerlessness that the Outrage Farmers play on. No number of tweets will unseat Donald Trump or mitigate climate change. Twitter is simply the only outlet for our outrage that most of us have.
What if we took the attention we give to being outraged on Twitter…
…and instead picked a fight we can win?
The 2010s, as the decade draws to a close, were the decade of the f*cking self help books.
Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck started the trend. Now you can’t shake a stick in the self help section without hitting a book with F*ck in the title.
Manson’s argument is an important one. That in the super-connected world of the 21st century, we have to be very careful who and what we give our f*cks too.
Because there’s far too much that we can possibly care about. The suffering in the world is infinite, and its causes multitude. You can’t change that any more than you can hold back the sea.
But most of us — I truly believe those who do not are a tiny minority — most of us want a better a world. It’s deeply rooted in human existence that our value is best expressed by how much better we leave the world than we found it.
So the question is…which fights can we win?
The difficult answer is…the ones that are hardest to fight.
The real fights we need to show up for are at home. They’re the little acts of corruption taking place on our doorstep. They’re the crises and tragedies hitting our friends and families. They’re our own personal demons, addictions, bad behaviour, weaknesses and fears.
The real fights are terrifying. We get hurt fighting them. Win or lose, there are consequences.
Much easier to fight Twitter fights instead. Much easier to take that anger from life and waste it on causes you can’t possibly influence, but also won’t get hurt fighting.
Much easier to follow the Outrage Farmers, who give us a sense that we’re creating change, when really we’re just shouting our outrage into the void of cyberspace.
We need to pick fights. The world doesn’t get better without the warrior spirit fighting for it. But we need to pick the fights that matter, not waste our anger as impotent online outrage.
Week one, done.
Week two of Damo’s Attention Recovery program will start on Monday (Sunday I go dancing and read books.)