Your attention is hot property right now. Like, seriously hot. And like most piping hot commodities, everyone wants a piece.
At this very moment, there are squillions of other attention bidders vying for the prize of your eyes. Heck, the fact that you’ve chosen to park them here for at least 3 lines of this blog feels little short of miraculous.
But even as we flippantly cast it about, the direction in and duration with which we choose to invest our attention can have some pretty significant implications. Implications that shape the world around us. And implications that shape us.
What we attend to shapes the world
In recent years, a sh*t tonne of media enterprises have sprung up with one purpose and one purpose alone: to monopolise as much of our attention as possible.
I’m talking Instagram. Facebook. Snapchat. Blogs. YouTube videos. Trashy mags filled with attractive, half-dressed women.
Much as we like to believe that YouTube content is created to keep us entertained and Instagram exists because its founders just wanted the world to know how beautiful their brunch was, unfortunately that’s not quite how our capitalist community rolls.
These are businesses, not charities. And businesses tend to operate with the sole goal of making maximal moolah.
Most of us routinely and willingly surrender ourselves to these mind-monopolising machines, believing that our attention is a small price to pay for the opportunities they afford us. Like getting to rant at strangers on the web about the disgraceful inclusion of pickles in our Big Mac. Or find out how high cats jump when cucumbers are surreptitiously placed behind them.
Given the value we place on having access to these things, we don’t tend to overly agonise over the implications of our attention-gifting. But as Isaac Newton taught us, every action in this world has an equal and opposite reaction.
The more time we spend locking eyes with a company’s content, the more money they make. And the more money they make, the more of that type of content they are motivated to churn out in the future.
As a result, our media has largely transformed into a sea of short-form, low-grade, sensationalised articles and sound bites. Anything that evokes an emotional response is engaged with and thus proliferates, while boring, in-depth, well-researched material becomes increasingly hard to find.
Click bait headlines are now the primary information source for many. And because juicy/shocking content garners clicks irrespective of accuracy or authenticity, fake news has now burgeoned to such a degree that I genuinely no longer feel confident believing anything I read, watch or hear.
This is not to say that fake news is a new phenomenon. On the contrary, it’s been around for centuries. But in the past, fabricated claims were rooted out by investigative journalists who were paid to delve deeply and separate the bona fide from the B.S.
The problem is that high quality journalism takes time and money. And in a new age where anyone with a laptop and set of functional fingers can be a ‘journalist’, those with the will and skill to do it properly are seen as expensive and expendable.
The result is frequently fake and low-quality content. This is the unfortunate by-product of the choices we have made around where to click and where to stick our eyes.
But it’s not just the stuff around us that’s affected.
What you attend to shapes you
I once heard it said that the person you will become in the future is the sum of what you read, hear and watch (and the people you spend most of your time with) in the present.
The notion resonates. I notice the evolution of my opinions in line with opinions I encounter elsewhere. I recognise the waxing and waning of my existential angst in accordance with how much news I consume. And I definitely feel like a smarter, more well-rounded person when I spend my time engaging with certain types of content over others.
Given how significantly these things can affect our future selves, one might imagine that we would select such influencing items with careful consideration. But paradoxically, most of us tend to do kind of the opposite.
Rather than actively seeking out our content, most of us are now passively fed it.
We’re fed by newspapers that barely bother trying to conceal their political affiliations and agendas. We’re fed by radio stations that, for the most part, simply regurgitate whatever other mainstream media outlets are already spouting. And we’re fed by ‘suggestions’ from internet and social media algorithms that have hoarded enough of our data to know exactly what kind of content will keep us coming back for more.
In this way, much of our consumption has become opportunistic and reactive rather than intentional. We’re satisfied with content that is custom-chosen for and delivered directly to us. After all, such modes of distribution are convenient, easy, and typically confirm our existing biases, which feels good.
But what’s the cost?
Allowing for-profit enterprises to engineer and select the information we encounter is like handing the Coca-Cola CEO a blank page and asking him/her to write us up a diet plan. Sure, he/she will probably prescribe something we’ll delight in guzzling down. But it may not be so crash hot for our health.
In much the same way, if the content we consume is going to govern the person we will become, we probably want to be the ones calling the shots on what that content is.
Personally, I don’t want some multinational conglomerate dictating what’s important to me. And I definitely don’t want them telling me how to feel about issues that are.
So what can we do to consume content more intentionally, and blaze our own ways forward?
Tip 1: Seek it yourself
We’ve established that much of the material we now consume is custom-chosen for us by corporations and their all-knowing algorithms. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Why should we submissively accept these narrow-scope and often low-quality scraps?
Most of us have at least a half-decent idea of how to seek and find ‘proper’ information when we really want it. And most of us do when we deem it important enough.
We don’t generally hire new employees without interviews and reference checks, even if they seem sensational on paper. And we’re unlikely to shell out $1,000,000 for a house that’s actually valued at $500,000 simply because the smarmy estate agent swears it’s worth a mill.
In the same way, seeking our daily content through more intentional avenues provides us with a more accurate and holistic picture of what’s going on when it comes to the important issues.
Wanting to know more about a certain topic? Try listening to some long-form interviews. Digest a few peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject. Watch some documentaries. Chat to someone about their unique experience with it.
Popular media is not the only way to access information.
Tip 2: Acknowledge the bias
Just because a media source seems legit, doesn’t mean that it is. Chances are, there are probably a bunch of behind-the-scenes agendas being woven into whatever content is being plugged or produced.
There are the more insidious examples of articles that are quietly funded by individuals or groups with a vested interest in making us feel a certain way. But even when objectivity is indeed the objective, writers and editors are only people at the end of the day. Most people have views. And irrespective of intention, those views have a tendency to seep through.
Given this inherent bias present in so much of our content, the onus falls on us as consumers to read and listen critically to root bias out.
Much as it makes for extra brain strain, we should theoretically refuse to accept any view at face value, even if it seems to be supported by consensus (a problematic heuristic for ‘truth’ to start with). And we shouldn’t let ourselves get sucked into the false narrative that whatever we read or hear is necessarily an accurate representation of reality.
After all, there are multiple sides to every story. Which leads me to Tip 3.
Tip 3: Hear out both sides
We all love to hear our own views reaffirmed back to us by others. This confirmation bias confers a comforting sense of vindication. And when we think and feel that what we think and feel is justified and right, we give ourselves permission to continue thinking and feeling the same ways into the future.
“Oh, you also love stabbing puppies? Cool! I knew there was nothing wrong with me.”
Engaging with ideas that oppose our fundamental beliefs, on the other hand, can be downright uncomfortable. Particularly where the contrary views relate to topics that are central to our identities.
Having already invested years supporting ‘our side’, many of us are reticent to consider the ‘other side’. However, just as the challenge of physically exerting ourselves makes our bodies stronger, so too do we mentally grow by challenging our own cognitive beliefs and biases.
Genuinely listening to alternative perspectives with no agenda to counter-argue is a powerful way to put our own beliefs to the test. And most of the time when we do, we see that the people on the ‘other side’ aren’t just all a bunch of crazies. We realise — sometimes with great surprise — that they often have fairly rational reasons for thinking what they think, and feeling as they feel.
So if you’re a right-winger, flip through a progressive newspaper. If you’re a vegan, hear out the merits of the carnivore diet. If you hate your government, actively try to find out what positive changes they’ve made in your country since coming to power.
It won’t be comfortable. But it will help to reveal the grey tones that characterise a world so often portrayed in stark black and white.
Tip 4: Opt for long-form
Those of you familiar with my previous articles may have noticed that this one has lasted a tad longer than its predecessors. And by a tad longer, I mean approximately 4x my historical average.
(Incidentally, congrats on making it this far. Your attention span is clearly superior to that of the average reader who would have given up within the first 37 seconds)
The length of this blog was no accident. Because I’ve come to realise that long-form content is actually kind of key to quality.
A blogging course I took early in my blogging life advised to keep posts under 400 words in order to accommodate the shrinking attention spans of the 21st century reader. But as we’ve already established, what people want and what people need are not always the same thing.
Long-form content like chunky articles, well-researched books, deep-diving documentaries and multi-hour podcast interviews are the broccoli to our fast food diets. The meditation to our mindlessness. The antidote to oversimplification.
Most issues worthy of our attention are, by nature, complex and multidimensional. And complexity simply can’t be captured in a six second sound bite or a 140 character tweet.
Or even a 400 word blog.
If we want to be briefly informed that something has happened, short-form might do. But if we’re going to get all high and mighty about an issue based on something we saw on the news, or an article that we spent all of 3 minutes reading… maybe it’s worth going a little deeper first to make sure our the indignation is justified.
Your attention is hot property right now.
What will you do with it?