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What Lessons Can We Learn From Our Tendency to Seek Distraction?

Distraction in the Attention Economy.

One of the most fascinating aspects of human nature is the paradoxical pairing of opposite characteristics. For example, the vast majority of us can only appreciate the heights of love when we are open to feeling the depths of despair, and even hate. Or, when our moral sensibilities are challenged by horrific events such as violent and tragic genocide, most of us look to find balance through benevolent charitable actions to offset the pain.

In business, especially the tech-enabled e-commerce world, the Attention Economy is a hot topic. This has resulted because mega-platforms such as Facebook and Google, and many others, offer a vast amount of content, for free, to motivate us to stay and keep coming back to their sites. By measuring our attention, observing what we are looking for, how much time we spend on certain topics, they are gathering an enormous treasure trove of personal information regarding our preferences.

This data is then translated into fodder for advertising (and misinformation) directed specifically at each of us. Talk about mass personalization. A commonly accepted truism is: “If we are not the consumers, then we are the product.” Someone has to pay for the entertainment value of the content. If we are getting entertainment for free, then someone else is paying for it. Why are they doing that? What will they gain? Apparently, when the data from hundreds of millions of individuals are aggregated, that can be monetized to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

Now, consider distraction as the flip side of attention. Think about the situation from the advertisers’ point of view. The platform may or may not be operating from a neutral moral or ethical position. In any case, technology is always just a tool. Tools can and will be abused or used by people with evil intent just as easily and sometimes even more effectively than they can be used for benevolent purposes. At the same time that advertisers are intensely interested in where our attention goes, they are also equally focused on distracting us, by offering more and more different and tantalizing teasers to expand the range of their capacity to analyze what makes us tick, or more specifically, what makes us spend money.

Are advertisers trying to get us to focus our attention so that we get a deeper understanding of their products, or the problems they propose to solve for us? To a limited extent, yes, but they are very conscious of how very brief our attention span really is. The length of time many people can concentrate on something before their minds wander is measured in seconds. The advertisers’ response to this challenge is to create more emotional provocation so that, as our interest in one topic wanes, fresh triggers are presented to get our attention. Hearing the same story from a different spokesperson, maybe from a different point of view, or simply adding dramatic music or images, are examples of very simple and effective tools to keep us entertained.

That simplistic approach was enough in the traditional economy when the identical advertising message would be simultaneously broadcast to mass audiences of millions of TV viewers. However, with mass personalization of communications, as in user-driven e-commerce (or search), much more targeted tools have evolved. The platforms have created data machines that have voracious, insatiable appetites for data. And more data begets more data. And more data begets more associations, connections between data that can yield valuable insights. The massive network effects in this process validate the observation that data is the new petroleum that will drive growth in the new economy. In fact, the platforms that can gather the most data most quickly (and the process is using artificial intelligence and machine learning) can dominate entire industries. The most successful current examples are Facebook, Google, and Amazon.

Is our desire to be distracted the key to making the Attention Economy work? Why do we find it difficult to resist the temptation of being distracted—from our own values, from what is important for ourselves? Isn’t irresistible curiosity at the core of the story of Pandora’s Box, or the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden?

So, is curiosity bad for us? Hold on, the benefits are many and proven. Obviously, we need to be curious so we can grow, exercise our creativity, and most of all, learn. Unfortunately, being curious has also led many people astray, from casual drug addicts seeking bliss to vicious dictators exploring the limits of power.

The lesson we must learn has been addressed by philosophers since time immemorial and is the same challenge faced by Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars movies. We must be careful what we learn and how we learn. The Dark Side is ever-present, constantly tempting us with the promise of unimaginable power to achieve all of our worldly desires.

Clearly, our predilection toward distraction is a weakness of the human condition. The Attention Economy exploits each of us by probing the specific flavors that tempt us. Because of this, we make bad choices and fall into undesirable habits. Distraction is not the same as curiosity, but it comes from the same source of energy when we are not mindful. What good comes from being distracted? Why do we persist in chasing distraction? In spite of the fact that we prove to ourselves over and over, every day, that the pleasure we gain is short-lived and leaves us empty afterward, we continue to be entranced by the illusion.

Why can’t we learn how to maintain our attention on what truly benefits us, both in the long-term as well as the short-term? If we can do this, the data machines may still be gathering our data, but maybe the insights could benefit society, instead of exploiting every one of us.