You’re probably familiar with the notion of attention hacking by now. Seems like every few months some former BigTech engineer comes out and says “huh, maybe this thing I helped build to steal people’s attention isn’t so good for society.” The most recent example, albeit a novel one, is the Google engineer who believes that their conversational AI has become sentient.
(Like many, I initially scoffed, and I still don’t find his particular argument convincing. But the reality is that we are definitely going to have to wrestle with the ramifications of some version(s) of “sentient” AI in my lifetime… however that’s not the topic of this post.)
I recently learned about a broader concept, one that includes attention hacking, dubbed “Attention Pollution.” In his new book Stolen Focus (Amazon Link | Powells Link | Book Website), Jonathan Hari introduces the concept as a way to shift the discussion about our dwindling attention spans.
Hari claims that we shouldn’t think of our attention challenges as individual failings so much as a society-wide environmental problem. Not so long ago it was considered a societal norm to dump unwanted sludge into a river, or gobs of black smoke into the air, largely because it was the most convenient thing to do. By no stretch have we completely solved those problems, but we’ve come a long way since the practices of my 1970s childhood.
Hari says we should think of attention pollution the same way. We’re in a time where we’ve blithely allowed a whole host of attention-draining things to surround us, largely in the name of convenience. It’s time, he argues, to consider the broader societal and individual costs of that approach.
As with many new ideas, I first heard about this one in a podcast. This time it was an episode of the Ezra Klein show. I like how Klein frames the issue in his introduction:
“Life is the sum total of what we pay attention to. What forces are in control of our attention — and how we get it back — is a defining question of our age.”
The idea raises some great questions. What steps can you take to deal with attention pollution in your life? What’s your version of buying organic, or installing HEPA filters, to improve your local environment in a way that limits your (and your family’s) exposure to attention pollutants? How else can you protect your limited personal capacity so that you can focus your attention on your true priorities, not the ones your environment is feeding you?
If you have ideas, I’d love to hear ’em. Shoot me a message and let me know what you think.