How many other things are you doing right now while you’re reading this piece?
How many tabs do you honestly have open?
What five years ago was referred to as ‘Total Noise’ — ‘the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to’ — is today just part of the texture of being a content creator and appealing to an audience.
We are all amateur attention economists, hoarding and bartering our moments — or watching them slip away down the cracks of a thousand YouTube videos and blogs on the latest trending anime.
Attention, thus conceived, is an inert and finite resource, like oil or gold: a tradable asset that the wise manipulator auctions off to the highest bidder, or speculates upon to lucrative effect. There has even been talk of the world reaching ‘peak attention’, by analogy to peak oil production, meaning the moment at which there is no more spare attention left to spend.
Time, presence and physical attentiveness are our most basic proxies for something ultimately unprovable
For all the sophistication of a world in which most of our waking hours are spent consuming, producing or interacting with media, we have scarcely advanced in our understanding of what attention means.
What are we actually talking about when we base both business and mental models on a ‘resource’ that, to all intents and purposes, is fabricated from scratch every time a new way of measuring it comes along?
In Latin, the verb attendere — from which our word ‘attention’ derives — literally means to stretch towards. A compound of ad (‘towards’) and tendere (‘to stretch’), it invokes an archetypal image: one person bending towards another in order to attend to them, both physically and mentally.
Attending is closely connected to anticipation. Soldiers snap to attention to signify readiness and respect — and to embody it. Unable to read each others’ minds, we demand outward shows of mental engagement.
Teachers shout ‘Pay attention!’ at slumped students whose thoughts have meandered, calling them back to the place they’re in. Time, presence and physical attentiveness are our most basic proxies for something ultimately unprovable: that we are understood.
What kind of attention do we deserve?
We watch a 30-second ad in exchange for a video; we solicit a friend’s endorsement; we freely pour sentence after sentence, hour after hour, into status updates and stock responses.
None of this depletes our bank balances. Yet its cumulative cost, while hard to quantify, affects many of those things we hope to put at the heart of a happy life: rich relationships, rewarding leisure, meaningful work, peace of mind.
What kind of attention do we deserve from those around us, or owe to them in return? What kind of attention do we ourselves deserve, or need, if we are to be “great” in the fullest possible sense?
These aren’t questions that even the most finely tuned popularity contest can resolve. Yet, if contentment and a sense of control are partial measures of success, many of us are selling ourselves far too cheap.
Are you still paying attention? I can look for signs, but in the end I can’t control what you think or do. And this must be the beginning of any sensible discussion. No matter who or what tells you otherwise, you have the perfect right to ignore me — and to decide for yourself what waits in each waking moment. That’s powerful.