From 1970 to 2000 Americans gradually stopped spending time together. They joined fewer clubs, attended fewer dinner parties, and declined invites to join the local PTA.
In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnum explained this decline in social capital was due in large part to increases in TV viewership. Television was such a compelling product that we consequently spent less time cultivating relationships with our neighbors and family.
TV had privatized leisure time.
From 1970 to 2000, the average person’s attention graph went from looking like this:
Americans gave entertainment (television) more attention at the expense of time spent with friends and family.
But as bad as this decline in social capital was for the soul of the country, each of the four categories above stayed neatly in its own silo. Back then, choosing television over playing bridge with friends was very much an either/or decision.
In 2011 our attention is more sought after than ever and technology (namely cell phones), enable friends, family, and websites to reach us anytime. Physical and digital requests for attention now blend together and elbow one another for space.
- When Fred Wilson’s wife checks twitter during family time. (Her kids say she’s ‘there, but not really there’).
- Reading a text while on a romantic date with your girlfriend
- Checking personal email at the office
Nowadays our attention graph looks something like swiss cheese, with different categories intruding upon one another at small bursts throughout the day:
From Venkat’s brilliant post on the subject:
“But as you find and capture most of the wild attention, new pockets of attention become harder to find. Worse, you now have to cannibalize your own previous uses of captive attention. Time for TV must be stolen from magazines and newspapers. Time for specialized entertainment must be stolen from time devoted to generalized entertainment.”
I don’t mind if Facebook steals time from magazines. But it’s troubling when it steals it from a family’s dinner time. Think of all the hours teenagers spend texting friends while out with their parents. Moments that 10 years ago would have been spent (however reluctantly) chatting and bonding.
It’s hard for mom and dad to compete with Facebook and it’s cohorts. They are battling against companies who are aggressively mapping out the human psyche in order to trigger user’s pleasure center buttons. How can dad’s cheesy jokes compete for Jr’s attention when he’s up against a small army of game psychologists who know exactly what little Timmy craves ?
I think “Attention Parasite” is an accurate term for these occasions. An Attention Parasite can be defined as anytime an electronic device is used while social obligations would demand otherwise.
As seen in the previous swiss cheese diagram, these parasites cause our relationships with friends and family to become fragmented, with our days interrupted by short texts, tweets, and notifications.
What’s the end result?
I think in the same way that TV extracted value from society in the past 30 years, these Attention Parasites will continue to extract value anywhere you bring your phone. Church, Thanksgiving dinner, school.
It may seem like a strange thing for a physical place like a church to have to compete for attention with a digital product. But imagine if half of the congregation was on Facebook during sunday morning service. It would decrease the value of going to church for the good half, because the rest of the congregation would be mentally checked out. That would severely impact the feeling of community that many people get at church.
Bit by bit the value of these arguably boring institutions will be chipped away at. Death by 1000 tweets.
Can control what we pay attention to?
It’s difficult. In the timespan from 1970 to 2000 America decided television was a more compelling product than socializing, much to the detriment of society.
If Facebook is more engaging than grandma’s stories about the Great Depression then it wins. If personal email is more interesting than doing work it wins.
Plus it’s not always clear what deserves your attention. How do you measure the consequences of watching TV against a sunday evening chat with a neighbor? People don’t think about the long term consequences of either of those things in the moment.
I’m not sure what consequences of all this will be. I think as digital products become more compelling there will be an increase in generalized feelings of discontent since these digital products are lousy at fulfilling our hierarchy of needs.
Can Facebook ever rival hanging out with friends in real life? Is online porn better than actual sex? Can feelings of confidence, respect, and self esteem be experienced in digital methods that rival the real world?
Maybe once we realize these digital products aren’t very emotionally fulfilling we can start to channel our attention back toward areas that are.