Attention is Precious. Stop Squandering It.
Remember how much gasoline we used to waste because it was practically free? That was a bad idea.
What’s your most valuable commodity?
Compared to most of human history, these are abundant times, and once you exclude personal, emotional things like relationships and values, there isn’t much in life that’s scarce enough to be hoarded. You no longer have to stockpile food, or fuel for warmth like your ancestors did.
Time and money are obvious candidates for Most Valuable, and a decade ago I’d have picked one of those. But in the modern world, one commodity has suddenly become more precious than either: your attention.
There would be no Google, Facebook, or traditional media were your attention not worth mountains of money.
The idea of an “Attention Economy” is not new — economist Herbert Simon pointed out back in 1971 that attention is one thing we always have to exchange for information — but today it’s taken on an even more literal, economic, and often nefarious meaning. There would be no Google, Facebook, or traditional media were your attention not worth mountains of money, nor would so many political and social movements be battling for it. Never has attention been more valuable, or more sought after.
The current resurgence of Minimalism is, I think, partly a response to this. “Do more with less”, “fewer, but better” and similar mantras seem to be everywhere right now, from advertising and trend forecasting to product design and the Instagram feeds of the hip and influential. It’s a response to our overcomplicated lives, and has a sustainability component too: when the world seems to be approaching chaotic rupture, there’s comfort in reducing the number of things in your life, and their degree of complication.
The design network for which I wrote this essay, GROUP OF HUMANS, has made this concept central to its purpose. “Waste Not” is GOH’s primary directive, and it’s a good one — at least as pithy as “Think Different” or “Move Fast and Break Things”, and far more appropriate to our current world and society. The Waste Not ethos is a big part of why I signed on.
What does “Waste Not” look like when it comes to conserving our most valuable commodity? As a writer and UX strategist, I’m frequently struck by how many things seek our attention in a given day, and how much each of them demands. Ads and marketing messages, of course, but also our incessantly needy devices and digital tools, which we willingly bring into our lives, then grow to resent or ignore. There’s an entire field of thought dedicated to reducing this intrusion in fact, called Calm Technology, which I learned of mostly by editing a book a few years back.
But of all the things that demand attention, narrative may be the neediest. Compared to an alert or text message, stories are attention hogs. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this — three hours watching Ghandi is time well spent — but stories, more now than ever, need to give us something valuable for all the attention they’re burning. The problem with so many is that they’re engorged with things that don’t add meaning for you, the audience.
In the era of content marketing and branded apps, many of us are telling stories not for the listener’s benefit, but the teller’s.
Writers are full of platitudes about the importance of word economy, starting with Pascal’s famous apology about his letter being too long because he ran out of time. But I have a hunch that few of the rambling, irrelevant narratives you encounter these days, especially online, come from a lack of time.
A more likely explanation is something economists call “The Curse of Knowledge”: the difficulty of imagining what it’s like to not know something. A growing fraction of the stories you encounter come not from writers but from specialists: entrepreneurs, designers, marketers, and so on. This is great for expertise and insight, but terrible for clarity — when authors can’t imagine what it’s like to not be an expert, we tend to overload our readers with irrelevant minutiae.
The solution isn’t to place a hard limit on word counts, but to make sure each word counts.
But in many cases, this attention-squandering is sadly intentional. In the era of content marketing and branded apps, many of us are telling stories not for the listener’s benefit, but the teller’s. The brand wants you to know this, the designer wants you to appreciate that, whether it’s relevant or not. The rise of “snackable” content is a response to this, but it doesn’t have to be the only one.
My main takeaway from Waste Not isn’t to place a hard limit on word counts, but to make sure each word counts. To craft the story that needs to be heard, and not the one I want to tell. To understand that we’re burning someone else’s attention to fuel our own narrative, and that fuel is in dwindling supply. This goes for the content we write, the digital experiences we create, and the services we design.
In part, it’s a simple matter of respect. As storytellers, we’ve treated attention as something that’s free, and asked for more and more of it, like a child who doesn’t yet understand the cost of the gifts he’s demanding. But we’ve matured, and this brings a certain responsibility to respect our readers, listeners and users by being judicious with their attention.
In the longer term, it’s an issue of ongoing relevance, and eventually, of survival. When a resource becomes scarce and valuable, people gravitate towards tools that use it efficiently. So it’s been with fuel, power and bandwidth, and so it shall be with attention. Waste not.
Originally published by the Group of Humans, an international network of creative experts dedicated to harnessing technology for the benefit of people, society and the environment.