This is one of countless examples in Matthew Crawford’s new book, The World Beyond Your Head, of the ways in which every last available scrap of our attention is gobbled up these days with ever-increasing efficiency, usually in an attempt to sell us things. He recounts trips through airports involving the relentless chatter of CNN in the departure lounge, ads on escalator handrails and even in the trays at the security checkpoint – culminating in one instance at a hotel where, sure enough, some bright spark had found space on the plastic key cards to squeeze in another ad.
There’s nothing new in the claim that we’re living through a crisis of attention, characterized by distraction, shrinking attention spans and an inability to resist checking your iPhone while eating dinner, crossing the road or having sex. (It sometimes feels as if all the articles and books bemoaning the situation do more to contribute to information overload than to alleviate it.) But Crawford makes the crucial point that this is a political problem.
It’s not merely that technology enables a myriad new stimuli, which we need self-discipline to master; rather, it’s that the creators of smartphones, social networks designed to hook us, the firms buying ads on escalator handrails and media organizations desperate for your clicks and shares are all helping themselves to something that’s ours – the limited resource of our attention – to try to turn a profit.
Crawford’s single most important idea may be that of an “attentional commons”:
There are some resources that we hold in common, such as the air we breathe and the water we drink. We take them for granted, but their widespread availability makes everything else we do possible… That is why we have regulations in place to protect these common resources. We recognize their importance and their fragility.
What if we thought of attention as something similar: a collective resource, on which everything else depends? And that, when commercial interests exploit our attention on an industrial scale, what’s happening is essentially a transfer of wealth from public to private, no less than if they dumped toxic chemicals in a reservoir?
You can, of course, defend against incursions on your attention by wearing earphones, reading a gripping book, moving to the mountains, staying home, or in some other way avoiding the public spaces where threats to your attention are greatest. But escaping from the attention-colonizers in these ways comes at a cost: the loss of a social existence in which we’re not bombarded by efforts to grab attention. “An airport lounge,” Crawford writes, “once felt rich with possibilities for spontaneous encounters. Even if we did not converse, our attention was free to alight upon one another and linger, or not. We encountered one another in person, even if in silence.”
These days, the easiest way to get this kind of silence is to be wealthy: in the airport business lounge, there’s no piped CNN, just the clink of glasses as your free drinks are mixed. In a world in which attention has been monetized, you must pay up if you want to be able to hear yourself think. And what are those people in the business lounge thinking about? Why, in some cases, anyway, it’s how to monetize other people’s attention. “Consider that it is those in the business lounge who make the decisions that determine the character of the peon lounge,” Crawford notes, “and we may start to see these things in a political light.”
Perhaps the most troubling implication of all this is what it suggests about human freedom. A central assumption of liberalism is that we’re free to ignore messages we don’t like; that’s why freedom of speech involves a right to offend but no right not to be offended. Yet what if, as a matter of empirical psychology, attention doesn’t work like that?
Our brains are built to attend to fast-changing aspects of our visual field, more than those that change slowly – so there’s a real sense in which the TV screens at the airport command our attention, instead of simply suggesting something we might like to do with it. As Natasha Dow Schull shows in her terrifying study of Las Vegas slot machines, Addiction By Design, the gambling industry likes to defend itself by appealing to the idea that people are free to play its machines or not – all the while designing devices explicitly calibrated to try to rob them of that choice.
This need not necessarily be an argument for draconian regulations on how companies advertise or otherwise seek our attention, and Crawford doesn’t propose any. (Much of his book is devoted to exploring other ways in which we might regain attentional sovereignty.) But he does direct a heartfelt plea to architects, interior designers, building managers, politicians and anyone else with influence over the design of public space:
Please don’t install speakers in every single corner of a shopping mall, even its outdoor spaces. Please don’t fill up every moment between innings in a lazy college baseball game with thundering excitement. Please give me a way to turn off the monitor in the back seat of a taxi. Please let there be one corner of the bar where the flickering delivery system for Bud Light commercials is deemed unnecessary, because I am already at the bar.
It’s all most depressing. And yet, in the days after finishing Crawford’s book, I found myself ironically cheered by noticing all the public spaces not yet claimed in an effort to consume my attention. The paving-stones and asphalt of my street are still a calming expanse of black and gray; the grass in the park doesn’t yet have corporate logos dyed into it; give or take the occasional skywriting plane, the skies are free of ads. We may have to fight hard to keep things that way, though.