Updated: Jan 19, 2021
What is happening to us as humans when we are constantly bombarded by marketing messages? Is there a way to flourish in an age of digital distraction?
This is the question that philosopher and mechanic Matthew Crawford tried to address presenting his new book called The World Beyond Your Head: how to flourish in an age of distraction yesterday at London School of Economics. Matthew's offering a whole new inspirational thinking around the economy of attention, which I've summarized below (please, note this is my interpretation and not his direct quotes).
1. People aren't in charge anymore of their lives and agendas as attention is becoming the most precious resource
We are living through the crisis of attention. Attention has become the most important resource. Thousands of companies are fighting to get your attention, but as most resources, human attention is limited. We're constantly busy doing things, but we aren't actually achieving anything, as our attention is spanned. Attention isn't yet counted in the economy in any way, however it is becoming its key engine.
Paying attention has a cost, and because of this cost we as humans experience the crisis of self-ownership. Our mental freedom seems to be at stake.
2. Silence is the new luxury
To become creative, one needs empty space in their heads, and silence around. It's silence where new ideas born. Silence isn't measured by any economist, but one consumes a large amount of it.
Silence has now become the privilege of very few people. In an airport business class lounge, the only sound you'd hear is a tinkling spoon, and walls don't have a single ad poster. Noise proof doors shut after you, and in 20 minutes you no longer feel stressed. There's complete silence.
On the contrary, passengers sitting in a regular waiting area are bombarded by all sorts of advertising, news etc. It seems that only the most privileged of us have now this resource that enables them to be creative and have space and time to think.
3. Our experiences are all engineered and leave no space to create our owns
Our life is saturated with manufactured experiences, similar to engineered food containing sweeteners and artificial taste enhancers. When we consume junk food, it's so stimulating for our brain that the natural world starts to feel tasteless. Same with experiences - our brain is constantly stimulated with new flashy pictures, whether it's an outdoor ad poster or Instagram picture, so that the real world doesn't seem as attractive anymore.
Our decisions aren't ours either, but are engineered by multibillion industries. We navigate through supermarkets that are built the way so that we subconsciously buy some products, and often not those we initially intended to buy. Manufacturers of mobile apps and devices engineer their products so that they capture and manipulate our brain and create an addiction (there's a very good book on that called Hooked - AD).
We don't face the world directly anymore, but rather through a series of objects that have been engineered to represent it.
4. There is clearly space for state regulation
Different cultures treat this issue differently. In Anglo-Saxon world the problem seems to be ignored altogether, whereas French are very careful about structuring their spaces, allowing or not allowing certain amount of advertising etc. There might be some room for state intervention.
5. What can be done about it?
Having painted this rather black picture, Crawford acknowledged that he doesn't have clear recipes of how to flourish in an age of distraction, but the overall solution is to re-establish meaningful connections with the real world.
Can you do that by controlling your own experience? To a degree. Self-regulation is like a muscle and it can be easily exhausted. You can't regulate yourself every minute, and some of the things will still capture your attention. However, if one is aware that most of their experiences are engineered, (s)he'll find it easier to focus on what truly matters.
Crawford puts a specific focus on skilled practices and doing something with your own hands. It's no chance that he is not only a philosopher, but also a mechanic. Producing something tangible that has a clear outcome is what takes us back to the reality.
PS You can find the podcast of the event on the LSE website.