This suggestion from Tim Wu on pg 352 of The Attention Merchants asks a question which has been on my mind a lot in the last year. If we accept the idea that distraction increases in a digital environment, in the sense of a difficulty in sustaining focus driven by the multiplication of disruptions, what does this mean macro-economically?
Whatever our personal goals, the things we’d like to achieve, the goals of the attention merchants are generally at odds with ours. How often have you sat down with a plan, say, to write an email or buy one thing online, only to find yourself, hours later, wondering what happened? And what are the costs to a society of an entire population conditioned to spend so much of their waking lives not in concentration and focus but rather in fragmentary awareness and subject to constant interruption? In this respect our lives have become the very opposite of those cultivated by the monastics, whether in the East or the West, whose aim was precisely to reap the fruits of deep and concentrated attention. What an irony it is that the lamentably scattered state of mind arises not from our own lack of drive but rather from the imperatives of one peculiar kind of commercial enterprise that is not even particularly profitable much of the time. The rest of the private sector may well have as much cause for complaint as the individual and society. It would no doubt be shocking to reckon the macroeconomic price of all our time spent with the attention merchants, if only to alert us to the drag on our own productivity quotient, the economist’s measure of all our efforts.