Pay Attention

Brad Kelly opens up a conversation about attention, the war going on for it, why the children of big tech executives, “aren’t allowed to use that shit”, and why multi-tasking is the big lie of our generation.

Tristan Harris shot to fame in the 2020 Netflix special The Social Dilemma, when he sounded the alarm bell on the ‘attention economy’.

The ‘attention economy’ is the business model of social media platforms and streaming services to keep consumers on their platforms to sell advertising. One estimate puts the revenue generated by the average consumers attention at $US816 per day.

Attention is a precious resource

But it’s not so much the eye-popping profits of eyeballs that concerns Harris. It is the insight that attention is finite, the arms race for it among tech companies and the absence of a conversation about its damaging effects.

“The first thing about the race for attention is to notice, it’s never going away. There is only so much attention out there and the world is not going to stop competing for attention,” Harris says. “But up until now, no one ever treated it like a finite resource.”

 The Social Dilemma tracked the deliberate, manipulative tactics and algorithms that keep people scrolling for longer.

The relationship between big tech and the most intimate details of our lives is well-established. It is pervasive, intrusive and, the latest research says, highly damaging. Even big tech executives insist that their own children, “aren’t allowed to use that shit.”  

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings told an audience in 2017 that his biggest competitor is sleep.

Harris, who invented the ping sound to alert users of an email on Gmail, was interviewed by Johann Hari in his 2021 book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, and his growing unease with encroaching tech into our lives, euphemistically called ‘engagement’ at Google, that leads to a “treadmill of continuous checking”, led him to speak out.  

Instead of making the world a better place, Harris found himself trying to interrupt the lives of billions of people to bring them back to the Gmail platform with a ping.

More eyeballs. More revenue.

Hari writes, “Tristan was starting to realise: it’s not your fault you can’t focus. It’s by design. Your distraction is their fuel.”

“It’s not your fault you can’t focus. It’s by design. Your distraction is their fuel.” – Johann Hari, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention

It is through the work of people like Tristian Harris, Johann Hari and numerous others that the urgent crisis of attention has come to the centre of … attention.

Multi-tasking: the big lie of the attention economy

While there is little agreement among scholars about the exact nature of attention, we broadly understand attention as the ability to focus on one task at a time. It is limited, it can be directed, it can be managed, and as The Social Dilemma points out, it can be manipulated.

The literature on cognitive load theory expresses the quantity of attention needed according to the difficulty of a task. The Big Tech narrative relies on the myth – or delusion – of multi-tasking. The idea that we can keep Facebook open while watching a Netflix series, and checking our texts and emails while we complete our work.

We used to joke that people with short attention spans had the memory of a goldfish. And then I discovered my son’s growing fascination with YouTube shorts.

The delusion of multitasking is now coming under serious attack in the science.

In Understanding How We Learn, Weinstein, Sumeracki and Caviglioli (2018), write,

“We are now going to tell you something you will have trouble believing. The data point strongly to the conclusion that it is almost impossible to pay attention to more than one thing at the exact same time.”

People who ‘multi-task’ are not really doing two or three things at once. They are simply engaged in switching which degrades the quality of attention for each task.  

Weinstein et al. suggest trying this activity to demonstrate the very high cost of switching.

  • Task 1: Count from 1-26.
  • Task 2: Recite the alphabet from A-Z
  • Task 3: Interleave counting and the alphabet (eg. 1-A, 2-B, 3-C and so on).

It will not be news that you that Task 3 took longer than the combined time to complete Task 1 and 2! Try it for yourself.

Hari spoke with Professor Earl Miller who outlined how damaging the process of switching is to our attention. When people ‘think’ they are doing more than one task, they are actually,

“…juggling. They’re switching back and forth. They don’t notice the switching because their brain sort of papers it over, to give a seamless experience of consciousness, but what they’re actually doing is switching and configuring their brain moment to moment, task to task… that comes with a cost.”

There are three costs; the switch cost effect which is the time lost to reconfigure the brain and reconcentrate on the original task (“your performance drops. You’re slower,” says Miller); the screw-up effect, which is the need to back track and correct errors as a result of lapses in concentration (“Instead of spending critical time really doing deep thinking, your thinking is more superficial,” says Miller); and finally, the creativity drain, which is when switching does not allow your brain to shape the new connections required to produce a new idea.

Pay attention

When it comes to student attention, it can feel like we are taking a knife to a bazooka fight.

In Understanding How We Learn, Weinstein et. al (2018) provide a few insights into the role of attention in the classroom.

  1. We need to teach students about attention: about its scarcity, the need to budget it, where to direct it, and what is worth directing it towards;
  2. Design lessons with cognitive load in mind: acknowledge that only a small amount of information can be processed at any one time, and avoid unnecessary material which may overload attention;
  3. Focus on one task at a time: acknowledge that multi-tasking is a myth by doing the activity I suggest earlier for your class and introduce the concept of switching which slows down thinking and lowers performance;
  4. Salience of the material: create lessons that ‘pop’ through an interesting insight that generates curiosity, pitching ideas at the right class level, mixing up teaching and learning strategies;
  5. Short term memory: acknowledge that our short term memory is .. short and help students ‘chunk’ information by manipulating it into a meaning that they make for it themselves.