We become what we fix our attention upon. Just the same, civilisation becomes what we collectively concern ourselves with — that is, how we allocate our attentional resources. Attention, it’s no overstatement, is truly our most sacred commodity, the means by which we direct — to the degree that we do — the course of cosmic events, the great unfurling of the future. In our personal lives, we tend to think in terms of what we’re focused on — at least the more reflective of us do, anyhow. We might ask ourselves, for instance, Are we spending our time wisely? Here, notice time is really synonymous with attention, for attention is simply where and on what our awareness is situated in time.
Once we have set for ourselves some target for our efforts, something to aim our lives towards, our striving in the world is then really just a battle of attention. We find our minds, at all times, being pulled in myriad directions, and as the captains of the ships of our lives, it’s our self-appointed duty to navigate the often turbulent waters of our minds, towards our desired destination. Gaining some level of mastery over one’s own attention — one’s own mind — is thus the ‘meta-goal’ for us all. For without the ability to volitionally direct one’s attention, we place our lives at the mercy of caprice — our fait then becomes the most indeterminate roll of the dice. Although there’s something romantic about the idea of living in such a fashion, placing such complete faith in the plans of Reality, it’s revealing that very few of us elect to do so. For the most part, we all seek to exert the fullest control over the course of our lives — and I suggest that’s wise, even if it’s only the slightest modicum. Tempting as it is, we need not be especially sentimental about the role of chance in our lives, for it’s always there in the background doing its thing, irrespective of whether we’re actively and “intentionally” directing our minds, or instead letting them unspool freely. Chance, after all, is fundamental — a brute fact of things.
Despite the primacy of attention, and what hand-waving gestures we make about it, we pay very little to it. Even amidst this world where the ‘productivity pathology’ reigns supreme, where we slice and dice our days into neat intervals of time, we nevertheless fail to systematically train our attention. Implicit in this fact is some kind of absurdly idealistic model of human behaviour that suggests that, so long as we have goals, we will somehow magically render ourselves capable of realising them. But the reality is, goals are for naught unless we can harness our attention towards them. That’s why for most goals remain forever just that: merely goals. We fail to realise the things we wish for our lives, not because we failed to wish for them sufficiently hard, but rather because we failed to apply our attention in the appropriate directions. The “Secret” is there really is no secret, only attention and its objects.
Just as our flourishing in the world is predicated on how we use our individual attention, so too is the quality of civilisation contingent upon how we divvy up and apply our collective attention. Accordingly, one might think that this is something, as a culture, we must keep a particularly close eye on — that is, that we must have some fairly reliable sense of where our attention is going at any given moment. However, one would be mistaken. Not only do we pay scarcely any intellectual resources towards understanding where our minds are directed, there’s in fact hardly any dialogue at all concerning how we should be directing them — what we should be doing with all this Mind. While a sector-by-sector breakdown of economic activity serves as some kind of proxy for what we’re doing with our minds, it’s nevertheless an all-too opaque window onto where our attention is going. As custodians of the future, it would be a highly prudent move, I suggest, to do all we can to aggregate whatever insight can be gleaned into our attentional situation, so that we may have an informed discussion about what we’re doing and whether it’s sensible, given the various facts of the matter. As the old adage goes, ‘What gets measured gets managed’. At present, we’re doing neither — and that’s an issue.
The ‘attention issue’, as we can think of it, has always been a thing. As in, knowing what to do with our minds and how to do it has forever been a concern, at least as long as we’ve had conscious concerns. Today, however, the issue is particularly salient, as the forces that vie for our attention have become increasingly many and powerful. Where once upon a time the claims on our attention were relatively few, resources of entire industries are now directed towards subverting our attention and directing it towards certain commercial ends. Enabling this “attentional economy” are of course the devices that now pervade our lives, technological portals into worlds so compelling that, for many, it renders their “real-worlds” comparatively lacklustre. None of this would be a concern, of course, if what was capturing our attention was ultimately Good, in any reasonably broad sense. But alas, what’s capturing our attention is, for the most part, not-so-Good; really, it’s the cognitive equivalent of junk food: tastes good, in the moment, yet leaves one — in the end — ultimately the worse for it. Junk food is in fact a particularly apt analogy here. For in the same way that junk food exploits the pleasure centres of our ancient biology, so too does the “content” that permeates our digital dimension exploit similarly prehistoric psychological structures. They both, at bottom, represent “evolutionary mismatches” — that is, clashes between ‘what is’ and ‘what’s good for us’. We’ve not evolved to eat the foods we’ve designed to sell, nor have we evolved to manage the allure of all the world’s information and entertainment in our pockets at all times. And yet…
That social media and digi-tech generally is hijacking our attention, to our psychological detriment, is a point that’s generally understood by most who care to think. But yet, even amongst the conscious crowd, just how deleterious the impact of present technology is on the quality of our attention is, I believe, largely under-appreciated. Part of the reason it’s so under-appreciated, I suggest, is because we tend to only register the immediate harms of such technology, and fail to account — or even attempt to account — for the opportunity cost of our engagement with them. See, the quality of our lives — and the character of civilisation — depends not only upon our abstaining from certain things, aka the ‘Bad things’, but equally so on our positively engaging with all the ‘Good things’. The two are of course inseparable, in that one cannot do the Good things while simultaneously failing to abstain from the Bad, and vice versa. But for practical purposes, the distinction is nevertheless helpful.
Simply, the name of the game here is withholding our attention from the most intrinsically harmful objects/activities, on one hand, while allocating as much of our attention towards the most intrinsically rewarding, on the other. While we can readily grasp the downsides of the harmful activities, we seem to have a much harder time intuiting the downsides of not engaging with the positive ones — that is, we suffer from a lack of imagination, where we fail to appreciate just how better off we would be for them. In part, that’s why we succumb to the Bad stuff all too readily, because our calculus of the harms only includes the direct consequences of the Bad. In other words, there exists an asymmetry in our assessment of the harms of the Bad and the benefits of the Good.
Take social media, for instance. Whatever the current average spend on it is — some number of hours a day, by this point — there is some Good and some Bad associated with its use. The Good, if we’re being generous, would include “entertainment”, social connection, engagement with art and ideas. The Bad would include such things as heightened self-consciousness, lowered self-esteem, the fracturing of our attention etc. But it would also include the cost of not doing all the other Good things that we could be doing in its place. Our cost-benefit arithmetic of using it, however, conspicuously leaves this opportunity cost dimension out of the equation — and yet it’s the most significant. Just think: a couple of hours a day spent doing the things that are optimally aligned with our goals/dreams/best interests, instead of social media, might plausibly be the difference between our realising them, and thus living the “life of our dreams”, and not. Though it seems benign enough, on the surface, over time our use of social media results in enormous divergences in our life trajectory, almost certainly for the worse.
To be clear, social media is not especially unique in this regard, though it is perhaps particularly pernicious. This is simply the way the human experience works: seemingly modest investments of attention, compounded over significant stretches of time, have the capacity to change our lives in most profound ways. In life, a little goes a long way.
The stakes of the game we’re playing with our attention are, at the level of our individual lives, the quality of our existence and those lives with which we’re entangled. Not exactly small stakes, but nor is it all that cosmically significant, either. Somewhere in-between, I guess. However, the stakes of that very same game we’re playing, at the level civilisation, are counter-intuitively high — truly cosmic shit. For in the same way that minor variations in how we’re applying our attention can, in the end, send our lives on qualitatively and irreconcilably different trajectories, so too does it go for civilisation. How we’re spending our attention, collectively, at any given moment will — provided enough time — result in future outcomes that we can scarcely imagine in the present. Whether or not we’re allocating our attention intelligently, over any given year/decade, will eventually mean the difference between our meeting the challenges of the future, or crumbling before them. Whether or not we’re adequately prepared for the trials that invariably await us, will depend entirely upon how we’re distributing our attention as a species — whether or not we’re working on the things we really ought to be working on.
As a civilisation, it’s little appreciated, we are extraordinarily vulnerable. There are many ways this thing could end in the blink of an eye, some of which are truly outside our powers of control (a sudden dissolution of the universe, for instance). But there are many such risks — that is, existential risks — that are within our powers to prevent. However, we cannot prevent what we do not prepare for — hence the civilisational stakes of attention. Whether preparing for a legitimately threatening pandemic, mitigating the risks of nuclear, or climate change or AI, our doing so is predicated on our putting enough work in — that is, enough attention. Our losing billions of hours to Instagram or Netflix or Call of Duty, whatever their ultimate utility, thus represents a far more serious loss than a surface analysis would suggest. We’re playing, no less, with the future of our kind — and that’s a big deal, something we ought to care about.
That’s the negative arm of the human project — preventing catastrophic shit from going down. But there’s also a positive aspect to the project, as in creating really cool shit for us to enjoy. Our attention is equally required for both of these dimensions of this thing we’re all engaged, and determining exactly how much we should allocate towards each is an interesting question in itself. Should we optimise for creating Good, or primarily work to prevent/eliminate the Bad? Is it more important that we create lots of fun stuff to do, or that we don’t get blown up by a giant asteroid, à la dinosaur style? These are the sorts of questions we should be engaging with, but evidently aren’t. Our attention is on other things, as it were.
The question becomes, so what? Attention is all-important, and we’re squandering it — but what to do? In other words, what can we do to ensure that we are not helpless before the various forces competing for our attention, and instead begin to acquire at least some semblance of control over our trajectories, both individually and at the civilisation level? As always, diagnosing a problem is easier than solving — and so it’s the case here. Nevertheless, there appears to be two general directions that we must pursue if we are to get a handle on the attention issue. The first has to do with acquiring visibility into the problem; that is, ascertaining what it is we’re actually doing with our attention, as individual persons and as a society. Individually, there are low-tech solutions, like simply paying attention to what one is paying attention to. There may also exist, at some point, more technological solutions; some means by which we can more reliably monitor and record what our attention is doing moment-to-moment. At the civilisation scale, we similarly need to develop some apparatus for determining the planetary flow of attention, so that it may serve as a point of discussion — if nothing else. Based off our meta-data alone, we could aggregate a pretty handy display of what we’re spending our minds on. A more comprehensive view would also take into account where our attention is going in the “real-world”. How exactly we might do this is for someone else to figure out, but it seems hardly an intractable problem. We have lots of smart people, after all.
The second direction in which we ought to head is towards establishing norms and customs around the training of our attention, and our minds more broadly. Second to nothing, developing and embedding in our culture something akin to a contemplative tradition, a bona fide first-person science of mind, is the single most valuable thing we could do in order to ensure the quality of our collective future. The absence of any formal methodology for understanding/training the nature of our minds is the most glaring hole in contemporary intellectual life and culture writ large. While we seek to imbibe as much information and practical knowledge in the minds of our people, we never, to any serious degree, attempt to train them in the nature of the instruments by which such knowledge is acquired, and ultimately, applied. Correcting this blatant hole in our intellectual life is — it’s no exaggeration — among the most impactful things we could do to mitigate the risk of civilisational collapse. For where our attention goes, civilisation flows. Let if flow away from imminent destruction, and towards flourishing instead.