A Poverty of Attention

I am a huge Bill Moyers fan. I watch his show religiously, with a sense of awe and conviction as he deals with big issues of the day: money and politics, government control versus corporate power, media influence, plutocrats and oligarchs against the rest of us, and the role of art in our society.

In a recent episode, Moyers interviewed Marty Kaplan, media scholar and the founding director of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. He also wrote the Eddie Murphy film, The Distinguished Gentleman, about a con man who goes to Congress.

A compelling section of the interview is when Kaplan talks about the era we live in: Big Data and Big Democracy. Big data is all about the trail we leave on the Internet and how large corporations are collecting this data in order to develop profiles for advertising purposes. Big democracy is the need for rights to our attention and to control identity, privacy, and property (including knowledge and information). Kaplan says that these two descriptors of our age have led to a decline in push journalism–where established groups told people what they needed to know and nothing else–and a rise in pull journalism, where the consumer determines what is important.

Another intriguing section is about political advertisements and how storytelling devices are used to circumvent our ability to think critically about issues.  Moyers flat out asks Kaplan, “Do you think these ads make us stupid?” Kaplan replies with a smile: “We start stupid. The brain is wired to be entertained. We don’t pay attention to the words. We pay attention to the pictures and the drama and the story. If it’s pretty, if it’s exciting, if it’s violent, if it’s fast, that’s where we are.”

There is a reference to a speech Kaplan makes at Barcelona Media in 2012 called From Attention to Engagement: The Transformation of the Content Industry. It is available on YouTube to watch and it is well worth your time, but Kaplan quotes Herbert Simon near the beginning of his presentation and it has stuck in my mind:

“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

Herbert Simon did not live in our age of Information Commoditization, but he understood three important points that are necessary for each of us to apply in the world of Social Media and Real-Time News:

  1. Our attention is being consumed by information.
  2. We live in a constant state of attention-based poverty.
  3. Balance our attention across the networks we find the most value in.

I am not advocating for an end to technological advancement or a decrease in the number of information sources. I am simply not wanting to be at the mercy of our cultural addiction to immediacy. Without the visual and audible cues reminding me of what just happened, I can take care of what I need to do, without losing focus.