May I have your attention, please
Allow me to introduce myself
My computer starts each (west coast) day by automatically tweeting,
"The design principle that attention is scarce and must be preserved is very different from a principle of 'the more information the better.'"— (wannabe) Ƀreaker of (the Bad) Loops (@generativist) December 11, 2019
[sent daily as a rhythmic reminder]
The quote itself comes from a talk Simon gave in 1969 titled, Designing Organizations for an Information Rich World. Having completed a Ph.D. in Computational Social Science (CSS), Simon was unavoidable. And, rightly so! But — as someone whose attention and interest seems to experience an almost infinite regress absent careful environmental shaping — this quote became a mixture of mantra and mission to me. The first time I read it was the first time I seriously asked, “well…are we designing for an information rich world?”
I don’t think we are.
We certainly live in an information rich world. But I think the operationalized design principle is quiet different. While there is a(n often realized) danger in hyperbole, I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to state plainly: attention is both for sale and frequently sold.
This isn’t a new phenomenon.
The competition for attention itself is part of the Darwinian struggle. The existence of markets for attention — formal or otherwise — is old. That’s not inherently bad. And, I’m not sure how much the proportion of our attention actively allocated by markets has changed over time. But, I also think this line of reasoning misses a critical point. If “software is eating the world,” why can’t it also better manage my attention?
I don’t have an answer yet.
My knee-jerk reaction is that, it’s easier to sell freely-given attention than to demand money for a service that allocates it in a user-controlled way. In the context of social technologies, this is especially true given the logic of Metcalfe’s law. Better design principles may exist, but evolutionary pressures on corporate entities select for ones that forge exponential moats the fastest. Alternatively, maybe we do have great tools for attention allocation, it’s just that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In either case, I want to ask: Is this the best we can do?
I don’t think so.
I’d like to find out.
Knowledge discovery and curation is an inherently a social activity. Even if you could resign yourself to a (boring) life of quiet isolation, you wouldn’t want to! From “don’t eat those red berries,” to “check out this fascinating research paper,” we is greater than the sum of the I parts. But, there is room for computer-mediated improvements, and I intend on contributing to that effort.
Perhaps this means I’m building and hacking on niche products. Maybe my struggle to remain focused really does reflect some inherent deficit which demands specialized design. But, I doubt it. “Information overload” is a problem so common that it requires no elaboration for clear articulation. If you feel similarly afflicted, subscribe to this newsletter, where I’ll share what I find along the way.
This post originally published on substack.