When you were at school, how many times were you told to pay attention? Every time I ask students that question, eyes roll, calculators come out – the answer’s in the thousands. And when I then ask how many lessons they’ve had in how to pay attention, I always get the same answer. None.
Out in the world beyond education, anyone familiar with the business model of social media understands how important those questions are.
While we ourselves pay very little attention to attention, Silicon Valley has a very different approach. To the social media giants, our attention – what we think about from moment to moment – is gold dust to be mined, sifted and sold on to advertisers and influencers.
If you’re not yet familiar with how this works, the excellent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma will quickly remove the scales from your eyes.
As Tech Radar reports, 'The Social Dilemma offers a shocking insight into how social media apps compete for your attention, as well as revealing the tricks they pull to keep you boomeranging back for more… These features weren't created as a kindness to its audience – they're merely a means of keeping you addicted and keeping you swiping, forever force-fed a hardy diet of status updates and retweets and the fake news your Uncle Mike insists on sharing.'
Do I have your attention?
This revelation is hiding in plain sight. But it makes you wonder – if our attention is so precious to Silicon Valley, how come it isn’t so precious to us? It’s our attention, after all. So why don’t we value it as much as they do, or think a bit more carefully about how we invest it?
Consider for a second how much importance you typically place (really really) on paying attention to the person in front of you in normal, everyday conversations. Do you make sure to engage with whoever’s speaking to you – or does your mind tend to wander, leaving whoever’s talking to you stranded until you mentally re-engage?
Are you feeling a blush of guilt just thinking about it?
The fact is, most of us drift in and out of presence in conversations to some degree, and some are better at hiding it than others.