The Economics of Attention

I'm not one who gets a daily dose of social media. (No Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchats for me!) I prize my time (and my privacy) and venture online with purposeful intentionality. That’s not to say I reject all forms of digital media. I’m a big fan of podcasts, and as an avid listener, I enjoy a wide range of topics, programs, and contemplations.

Depending on your subscription preferences, there’s something for everyone—truly. Want a weekly digest of facts you should have learned in junior high? There’s a podcast for that. Need a little economics wisdom free of charge? You can find it. How about podcasts that help you discover some unknown tidbit of information that alters how you view the world? Yep, they make those too. If you haven’t explored the podcast library on your cell phone or tablet, you’re missing out.

I’m always on the lookout for interesting points of view—even if I often disagree with the sources or the argument. As a classical learner, I’m far less concerned with surrounding myself with like-minded voices, and more interested in hearing what’s being discussed and how the discussion is being argued and communicated. For me, listening to contrasting points of view becomes an academic opportunity. And as a Christian who teaches logic and rhetoric in this post-modern world, my goal is to prepare our students to engage that world. To do that well, I have to know what’s going on. I want my students to be like the people of Issachar, “men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do . . . ” (1 Chronicles 12:32).

Podcasts are one way I satisfy some of those needs. They are created by folks outside my immediate sphere of influence, which is important when you want to hear new ideas from a variety of sources and fresh ways of expressing the old ones. When I find a particularly good argument, or a particularly messy one, I weave those examples into upcoming lesson plans.

Road trips are the perfect opportunities to get caught up on my podcast subscriptions, and my 2016 holiday travels afforded me the chance to plug in and listen-up. On one of those recent road trips, I selected a To the Best of Our Knowledge episode titled “Your Attention Please,” produced by Wisconsin Public Radio and distributed by PRI. Host Steve Paulson interviewed author and Columbia professor Tim Wu whose recent book, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads introduced me to the idea of an attention economy.

Attention economics explores the way humans manage their intake of information, with the understanding that human attention is a scarce commodity. It views attention as a “resource.” Like all other types of natural resources, a human’s ability to attend is finite.

This concept of an attention merchant has enjoyed quite an etymological journey since it was first introduced in 1971. When I returned home from my travels, I did a little research. As it turns out, the origins of attention merchant are rooted in an essay by economist Herbert A. Simon, entitled “Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World.” Jacob Weisberg, writing for The New York Review of Books, explains it best when he says:

. . . Simon first developed the concept of an attention economy in a 1971 essay. Taking note of the new phenomenon of “information overload,” Simon pointed out something that now seems obvious—that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention” [emphasis mine]. In recent years, thinking about attention as a scarce resource has come into vogue as a way to appraise the human and psychological impact of digital and social media.

This is a profound notion, I believe, and not one that should be limited to the psychological impact of digital and social media alone. Information overload can occur anywhere, and the world of classical education is no exception. If there’s one concern I hear most from classical educators and parents across the country, it’s the idea that there’s just too much information to master. Should you and your students read all the Great Books? Mortimer Adler lists five hundred of those. Have you read The Liberal Arts Tradition, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Beauty for Truth’s Sake, Teaching from Rest, Desiring the Kingdom, Begin Here, How to Read a Book, The Great Tradition, Wisdom and Eloquence? Are you ready to master Latin? Logic? Rhetoric? The Trivium? The Quadrivium? Theology? History? Music, art, mathematics, the sciences?

A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.

Despite how it may seem, we aren’t the first generation of educators and parents to face such questions. C.S. Lewis reminds us of exactly this conundrum in “Our English Syllabus,” a short essay pointing us to the complexities of such things. “. . . as Hegel saw, a perfect study of anything requires a knowledge of everything,” Lewis writes. “But ‘the [life] so short, the craft so long to [learn].’”

There just isn’t enough time to learn everything that could possibly be known. But to proceed with confidence despite the gaps in our knowledge base is where wisdom must be applied. There is freedom to be found in the choices and time before us. We have to honestly address whether we have become obsessed with and dependent on the same stimuli as the overwhelmed digital consumer. We have grown accustomed to satiating our desires with immediate effect. Unfortunately, immediacy is not a characteristic of developing knowledge and understanding.

Nicholas Carr (also highlighted in “Your Attention Please”), a writer for The Atlantic and the Wall Street Journal, argued that a digital drive for online attention leads to shallow thinking. And that makes me wonder: If slavish online attention-hopping produces shallow thinking, could it also be true that slavish attention-hopping scholarship might also produce shallow students?

Are we creating a poverty of attention by trying to skim-cover too much? Are we teaching our dialectic and rhetoric students that voracious consumption of a high number of worthy novels each year is better than learning how to truly read a few select novels: to savor them, pick them apart, and consider their many facets, symbols, themes, and connections with other literature and the world? Do we do this by pushing through our academic agendas knowing that a deep-dive of study would be far better in almost every discipline?

Beyond cheapening the real beauty of discovery for our kids by racing through so much content, are we also fostering their short attention spans when it comes to real scholarship, curiosity, wonder, and discovery? Are we creating an academic culture of poverty in our over-spent attention economy?

I’d like to encourage you to listen to the voices that are steering you toward deep, robust, contemplative thinking. Lists of materials, books, and facts all have their place. But what is your goal?

If memorization is the end goal for your kids, have you sacrificed curiosity and understanding?

If facts are the end goal, have you sacrificed reasoning and writing?

If consumption is the end goal, have you sacrificed contemplation and discovery?

As educators, our goal ought to be to train our students in the skills they will need to be independent, lifelong learners. That means training them how to approach and master information, not necessarily every consumable academic piece of information there is to know.

When too many voices are demanding too much of our attention economy, joy, delight, and balance are long gone. We need to reconsider which attention merchants have our ear—and take steps to discern what to pursue immediately, and what can be saved for later.

Find some rest, some scholé, as you press on through the end of this academic year. And let’s stay mindful of our finite attention resources as we consider our academic loads and choices for the 2017–18 school year.

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