Matthew Crawford has written a new book The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. In an interview with the Guardian, he discussed the heightened competition for what I've often called the only finite resource in tech, user attention.
“I realised how pervasive this has become, these little appropriations of attention,” he says. “Figuring out ways to capture and hold people’s attention is the centre of contemporary capitalism. There is this invisible and ubiquitous grabbing at something that’s the most intimate thing you have, because it determines what’s present to your consciousness. It makes it impossible to think or rehearse a remembered conversation, and you can’t chat with a stranger because we all try to close ourselves off from this grating condition of being addressed all the time.”
He points out that the only quiet, distraction-free place in the airport is the business-class lounge, where all you hear is “the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china”. Silence has become a luxury good. “The people in there value their silence very highly. If you’re in that lounge you can use the time to think creative, playful thoughts; you could come up with some brilliant marketing scheme that you would then use to determine the character of the peon section. You can think of it as a transfer of wealth. Attention is a resource, convertible into actual money. ”
“We increasingly encounter the world through these representations that are addressed to us, often with manipulative intent: video games, pornography, gambling apps on your phone,” he says. “These experiences are so exquisitely attuned to our appetites that they can swamp your ordinary way of being in the world. Just as food engineers have figured out how to make food hyper-palatable by manipulating fat, salt and sugar, similarly the media has become expert at making irresistible mental stimuli.” Distraction is a kind of obesity of the mind, in other words, with results that could be just as hazardous for our health.
I've certainly felt, in recent times, like some sort of information addict, with my smartphone playing the part of drug dealer sitting over my shoulder, offering a free and never ending supply of, well, whatever I want. It would seem to follow that the returns to self-control have increased as well, and Crawford notes that “the rich can hire “professional naggers” – tutors for their children, personal trainers – in effect outsourcing their own self-control.”
In Renaissance times, obesity was a signal of wealth and thus seen as attractive. In an age of cheap and plentiful calories, a signal of wealth is being fit, which may indicate good genetics and self-discipline but may also mean you can afford a personal trainer and home chef.
In tech we're constantly chasing the holy grail of personalization and more precise targeting of content, advertising, services, etc. Crawford sees the glass half full in this scenario, a rise of self-obsession that transfers power and wealth to companies.
It is tempting to see the advent of this crisis as technological, but for Crawford it’s more that the technology has created the perfect vehicles for our self-obsession. Individual choice has been fetishised to the point where we have thrown away many of the structures – family, church, community – that helped us to make good decisions, and handed more and more power to corporations.
I can cite many examples of how the internet has improved the world; I'm hardly a technology alarmist. Still, I find it more necessary these days to hone my self-control and find ways to cocoon my mind in quiet from time to time.
I was in Taiwan for 6 days last week, and I bought a 300MB data package from AT&T for the week [the AT&T Passport, as they call these all-in-one international bundles, is one of the few customer-friendly things they've added travelers; no more trying to cobble together a suitable international bundle yourself across text, data, voice]. While there, I'd get in the habit of turning on cellular data for short sips at moments when I really needed it—to get directions to my next destination via Google Maps, look up restaurants, coordinate meetups with friends, post a photo to Instagram—and the rationing kept me off the phone most of the day. Most my phone's apps, besides the camera, aren't all that enticing without network access. The enforced data hibernation felt like meditation.
My last morning in Taiwan, I had a taxi driver take me out to Jiufen, a small coastal town, supposedly an inspiration for many of the settings in Miyazaki's wonderful Spirited Away. Cutting through the center of town was one of what they call an “old street,” a sort of pedestrian alley lined with shops and decorated in a deliberate retro style. Many towns in Taipei have one as they are honey traps for tourists.
Because my flight back to the U.S. was that afternoon, I arrived at the Jiufen Old Street really early, before any tourists had appeared. I strolled down the winding alley while shop owners were just beginning to open doors and prepare for the tourist hordes to come. Some proprietors were rolling out dough to make taro balls, the popular local delicacy, while others were grilling meat or heating up tofu stew. It was very quiet, and many times I turned a corner to find myself the only person in that segment of the street. I was almost out of data allotment on my phone so I kept it off as I ambled to and fro.
Near the end of the street, I stopped to purchase a bowl of taro balls in ice, and I ate from it as I walked the last segment of the street. Every tourist guidebook probably tells you to purchase the taro balls while there, and you know what? They're right. Those things are damn great.
No one was on that last segment of street except an old man carrying a large bag of rice over his shoulder up the steps to a house. In that moment, I felt a peace that comes from a clear mind and a complete absence of any want. It was a serenity I hadn't felt in so long that I can distinctly remember the moment it washed over me, the sensation of my mind exhaling and going still. Had my phone been on and connected to the internet I'm not sure I could have achieved it.
I thought back to this moment when reading this lovely piece on The Death of Awe in the Age of Awesome:
Travel writers like me spend a lot of time contemplating why people venture abroad. Not just the obvious enticements — relaxation, winter sun, cheap pilsner — but the emotional, soul-stirring stuff: the sustenance of the new. The awe. It has, I think, become one of the main incentives of our travelling lives. As spirituality wanes experience is the new faith, and we are refugees from the mundane.
But behind this quest for the big, beautiful and baffling is a disconcerting sense that wonder in the age of the bucket-list is under attack. From technology, from information overload, from the anti-spiritual cynicism of the post-hippy world. In an era where a child has only to hold a five-inch screen in front of their face to gorge themselves on the apparent miracle of a one-inch Dora the Explorer hatching from a two-tone chocolate shell, awe has started to feel increasingly elusive.
It doesn’t take a bona fide philosopher to understand that this diminution of the human experience is an inevitable price of social progress. Awe, after all, used to be much easier to come by. Imagine you’re a Stone-age hunter witnessing a solar eclipse (not like last month’s anticlimactic, cloud-snuffed eclipse. A proper one.). Suddenly, the sun is extinguished. You don’t know it’s a temporary phenomenon, an orbital idiosyncrasy. So you tremble, piss your mammoth-skin pants, invent Gods! That’s a great big uppercut of awe.
At the end of Jiufen Old Street, I stopped to look out at houses perched along the side of the mountain which sloped down to the sea.
I heard them before I saw them, the first tour groups to catch up to me. Throngs of mainland Chinese and Japanese tour groups, mostly middle-aged to senior travelers, led by young guides holding flags and trying, with moderate success, to herd their flock. They jockeyed for position with each other, filling the alley two or three people wide. I fought my way back through them as best I could. That moment of peace was gone. Even in the real world, it's hard to stay away for long.