Mind Your Attention, Guard Your Mind
My natural default mental state when I open my eyes in the morning is generally convivial, grateful and optimistic, with a hint of full-blown neurosis lurking in the shade. This lasts right up until the moment I open the Pandora’s Box that is the internet. The miraculous internet! Where you’re always one click away from a mind-numbing smoothie of sensationalism, horror, nonsense and message board culture. And, to be fair, some good recipes.
I fall into this trap daily, just like (almost) everyone.
It’s possible our entire economy – entire civilization! – is based upon the need of various entities to break into our minds and steal every last functioning brain cell. Untold livelihoods depend on the capture of our attention and the holding of it for as long as possible. Time and attention – our most precious possessions. We freely give them away without judgement to those who profit from them, yet give us precious little of value in return.
But we don’t just give ourselves freely. Sometimes, we are taken.
For example, have you gotten through many of my long-winded treatises?
You probably have not – it’s ok! Brooklyn Bread is not scientifically designed to hold the attention of as many people as possible for as long as humanly possible, to be addictive, or to entangle the average person inside my “ecosystem.” It is written so that I can work through ideas, and engage others somewhat while I express concepts that seem important in the context of my life. The only ecosystems I care about have birds in them.
My particular perspective may resonate with someone who is like minded or has similar challenges and finds some sort of connection, validation or helpful insight here. But it is not going to be relevant to all. Many visitors will be momentarily interested, then quickly pass through, their brain on the lookout for some new diversion to break up the boredom of the moment.
This experience is vastly different from a meander through, say, Buzzfeed, a destination that is meticulously engineered to tap into that craving for diversion. It captures and retains your attention with a never-ending flow of easily digestible diversions. I ask you, who among us could not, if all the conditions were just so, watch Tasty videos all day long.
Coal companies mine coal. Media and tech companies mine us.
We are no different from any resource that is extracted from the ground or the ocean or the mountains and then sold for profit. The mountain doesn’t get paid for its coal, and you are not going to get paid for your eyeballs. Or your privacy. Though Congress has made sure that someone else will.
Raptitude had a great essay this week, How Billionaires Stole My Mind. It begins with something I am so guilty of: the awful habit of looking at my phone first thing in the morning. It starts off innocently enough – I just want to see the temperature. Notifications blaring, I check them without thinking. I end up on Twitter and before I know it, I’m drowning in a sea of angst about nuclear war. This, before brushing my teeth.
The Raptitude piece linked to an equally brilliant essay by Tristan Harris called How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds — from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist. If you’ve read this far, both are a must-read. Harris gets into the addiction aspect of it. He says that the most addictive device ever created wasn’t the smart phone – it was the slot machine. But clicking on “notifications” gives us the same hit that people get from a slot machine… this possibility that some amazing, incredible reward is waiting for us.
It is not.
This meal that is made of our time and attention – it makes our world go round.
Facebook needs you to like as many things as possible so that it can accurately profile you for perfectly targeted ads. Verizon needs you to binge-watch The Walking Dead so you never dream of canceling cable. Pepsi needs you to be charmed by Kendall Jenner (oops). CNN needs you to find the news equal parts enraging and entertaining. Google needs you to keep searching. Adidas needs you to like its Instagram profile. YouTubers need you to watch their sponsored posts. “Heeeeeeeyyyyy guys!” (YouTube needs this as well.) Congress needs you to pay attention to Donald Trump so you don’t notice what’s in their shitty health care plan and vote against them. Twitter needs you to keep scrolling until forever. So do the firms investing Twitter. And the insurance companies insuring the companies that invest in Twitter. And on and on and on.
Everyone wastes time.
It’s human nature and its fine. But wasting time used to mean something different than it does now. The marketplace has perfected the technology that can exploit this tendency, ensnare us and monetize our attention to an almost unimaginable degree.
It is a frustration for many, even if we don’t think of it in this way. It is not easy to fight against your own brain. There’s plenty of advice out there on how to “disconnect.” Here’s some stuff to do other than reading the internet when you’re bored. And you might consider disabling your notifications. Really, there is no easy solution.
But I think one really important thing is awareness.
Meditations on giving away the one thing you can’t buy back.
Bring awareness to the transaction that is taking place without your explicit consent or notice and the science and that has created the infrastructure behind this addictive symbiosis. Notice the profit machine that influences you ten layers deep, convincing you that you’re making fun or useful choices when you click and click and click. While mindlessly scrolling, ask yourself “what am I looking for, what am I hoping to see?”
Time is our most precious gift. The ultimate non-renewable resource. Think about giving it away, for nothing.
It’s a sobering reflection. My mind went through this train of thought on the way home from work yesterday and I found it disturbed me greatly. So much so that I stopped reading, plugged in my earbuds, shut my eyes and let Bjork take me the rest of the way home.
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