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Attention!

Watch out for the robber-barons of the attention economy.
 
 
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It's the classic story of overstimulation. I'm sitting in my favorite Seattle café drinking a really strong cappuccino, checking my email and reading several blog entries simultaneously. Behind me, two women are having a graphic "I had sex with this chick who was crazy" conversation that means I will absolutely be eavesdropping. Every few minutes my phone buzzes with another SMS from Danny, whose eccentric abbreviations turn every message into a cryptic pseudo-poem. That's when I start deleting emails that I'm absolutely positive are spam but that turn out to be things I really wanted. Later, I won't even remember deleting them, though I find them in my trash folder.

It's always a little freaky when you're utterly certain you've done the right thing, and you find out later you haven't. But apparently I'm not alone. A group of cognitive scientists at the University of Florence recently started experimenting with their own attention spans -- and those of a few unwitting students -- to find out whether overstimulation leads to bad decisions. They used a simple visual test, asking their subjects to guess the tilt of a line in two different images. The first showed a tilted line alone; the second showed it surrounded by the "noise" of several vertical lines.

The results they published in PLoS Biology ( http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0040056) revealed more than you'd expect. Yes, the subjects whose tilted lines were surrounded by clutter tended to overestimate its tilt. No, duh, you might say. We already know that distractions hinder cognition. But the researchers found something far more interesting: Subjects who made incorrect decisions under "noisy" conditions tended to have extremely high confidence that their decisions were right. They were far more confident than the subjects dealing with a noncluttered image. "These results have practical implications for perceptual decisions in everyday life," the authors wrote in their paper. "They predict an increase in high-confidence errors when decisions are made in cluttered environments."

Being Italians, the researchers immediately proceeded to elaborate on how this finding explains bad calls in soccer games. Being me, I started thinking (first) about how this accounts for why somebody might call out the wrong name during sex and (second) about what it means for the software industry.

People designing software for the web are talking about something called the attention economy. Consumers and producers of the attention economy are the inverse of those in the cash economy. Attention producers are users, and attention consumers are companies. Every user is surrounded by a million distractions (e- mail, instant messages, blogs, documents, deadlines), and each distraction inflates his or her attention. Too much of this could lead to a sort of Great Stockmarket Crash of the Imagination in which nothing gets done. Right now, most people who spend their days working online are teetering dangerously close to the crash. They don't have a way to manage incoming information, so they wind up deleting work e-mails and spending far too much time reading Merlin Mann's blog.

Attention producers need software that works like the Federal Reserve. It should keep attention inflation low by making it easier to get the right information quickly. Google Desktop is an example of this kind of program: It completely indexes every file on your computer so you can do a "smart search" across documents, e-mails, and IMs simultaneously. Apple's Dashboard is another Federal Reserve-style application: It keeps your most-wanted information on the desktop all the time, one click away. That way you don't get distracted during the three-click trip to your inbox (don't laugh -- it happens!).

As those soccer-loving scientists in Italy found out, it's actually quite easy to predict the way in which people's attention will wander and affect their decision making. That's why pop-up ads aren't going away anytime soon. If you flood attention producers with enough annoying visual cues, they may decide it's a really good idea to click on mortgage ads. Attention consumers are happy to pay cash for the results. Every capitalist economy creates its own system of exploitation, and the attention economy is no different.