Stop, Attention Thief!

The Language of Digital Distraction

Unwanted interruption-based advertising [pilfers] time and focus I could have reserved for dearer claims on my bandwidth, such as my family and friends. Simply put: Attention theft is a crime.

Tom Hayes

Writing more than a hundred years ago, the German sociologist Georg Simmel observed, “The psychological basis of the metropolitan type of individuality consists in the intensification of nervous stimulation which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli.” Which is a long way of saying that living in a city requires a great deal of our attention.

And just a year ago, the screenwriter Bill Oakley quipped, “Describing today to someone from 1953: Every 6 seconds all your friends send you a telegram and a brand-new Life magazine is thrown at you.” That is to say, living in a networked world requires a great deal of our attention.

What happens when we combine these two ideas? When the city and the network come together, we have the topics of my previous two columns: urban computing and the smart city. The upsides of these new paradigms are significant, and they include improved efficiency, increased civic engagement, and enhanced awareness of one’s surroundings. But there are substantial downsides as well, including constant connectivity, the potential for surveillance, and a tendency to see the interface instead of the city.

Perhaps the biggest problem with living a networked, urban life is the seemingly endless supply of distractions. Our default mode of perceiving the world is what psychologists call bottom-up attention, where we notice whatever is most salient in our surroundings. “Most salient” used to mean “most dangerous” or “most edible,” but now it usually means “most distracting.” Hucksters, marketers, and social media gurus know that we’re suckers for arresting images, that we can’t resist a smartphone’s ping, and that we suffer from what Aldous Huxley called “man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

So now, it’s not enough to rely on nature or social ties to get our attention. Now we must deal with engineered distraction, stimuli designed so that we can’t help but notice them. It’s one thing to have FOMO (fear of missing out) engender a compulsive connectivity that has us constantly staring into our glowing rectangles and infinity machines. But when the distraction engineers build attention-grabbing interfaces into a city, and when those interfaces are the only way to interact with a resource and so are a kind of coercive connectivity, then we’re dealing with nothing less than attention theft.

The metaphor of theft is apt. As many have pointed out, we’re living in an attention economy, and when we focus on something we say we are paying attention. If land is said to be increasingly valuable because nobody’s making any more of it, then attention is increasingly precious because there’s only a finite amount of it to go around. In his landmark work, Principles of Psychology (1890), William James wrote, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” So what kind of experience can we expect when our walks and rides through the city are inundated with data smog?

And that smog will soon know our names. Marketers are already using directed sound to aim audio advertisements at individuals, and it won’t be long before facial recognition is added (thanks, Facebook!), so the once-distant future of Minority Report–style personalized advertisements will soon be coming to a sidewalk near you.

So, yes, we can turn off our phones, but that won’t stop the information pollution. Wearable-computing pioneer Steve Mann once invented glasses that could hide noxious urban landscape images with more pleasing scenes projected onto the lens, but are the extra visuals of augmented reality really the answer to visual overload? Yes, we can hide or secure our valuables to guard against theft, but how do we protect our attention from being hijacked against our will? The answer, I’m afraid, will have to wait until my next column.

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