Everything is extraordinary: Prosperity and the qualities of attention
The way we pay attention affects our wellbeing and our relationships. But it also connects to our freedoms, our political decisions and our deeper sense of purpose. This post considers: what is the link between our attention and our prosperity?
At the heart of CUSP’s research programme lies the profound question: what is prosperity? — not only in economic terms, but also in its social and philosophical dimensions. Informal findings from a recent ‘Prosperity Is…’ enquiry indicate that people only loosely associate wellbeing with having material possessions: it is ideas such as freedom, fairness and meaning that come up in people’s minds. And yet, despite this, we are lured into the consumerist theodicy in our efforts to value what matters to us.
What can the way we pay attention tell us about prosperity?
Our attentional capacities are in the news more than ever: you can read numerous stories about increasingly ‘fragmented minds’ and how we are distracted nearly 50% of the time – our various feeds, social media updates and so on are locked in a constant battle to grab our attention. Meanwhile, overstimulation leads to ‘technostress’, and digital addictions are on the rise.
But besides the mental health issues (influential as they are), this ‘crisis of attention’, I believe, has far-reaching implications in the social, political and spiritual spheres of our lives. Understanding these issues lies at the heart of the Paying Attention initiative I am leading at Perspectiva, as part of a broader enquiry into the need for discourse to engage with the fullness of reality when considering how to create new operating principles for our political economy.
What, then, can we say about the relationship between attention and prosperity? To attempt an answer to that question, this blog post is an experiment. I’ve taken five of the public’s responses to the question “What is prosperity?” and for each one considered what, if anything, it might mean through the lens of our attention. A brief disclaimer upfront: This exercise is speculative and offers only a partial take on the meaning of prosperity – it sets aside entirely the issue of our material needs, for instance.
Even so: with concerns about our attentional capacities on the rise, together with worries about declines in empathy and the nature of our relationship with digital technologies, I think it’s fair to say that the lens of ‘how we pay attention’ is increasingly relevant as a way into discussing the make-up of a prosperous society.
Response #1: “Prosperity is… about freedom”
The relationship between prosperity and freedom could lead in many different directions; the freedom of our attention is probably not the first thing you would think of. Yet this is a pressing issue.
The context here is our evolving relationship with digital technologies. It is widely accepted that your iPhone and the apps on it are designed to grab, and hold, your attention: there is a whole industry built around getting you hooked, with tech companies using insights from neuroscience (and masses of data) in order to do just that. The ‘bottomless’ newsfeed is one example of this – it is designed to make you want to keep scrolling, just in case something good turns up. Tristan Harris, ex-Google employee and founder of the Centre for Humane Technology, explains that this makes use of exactly the same psychological mechanism – ‘intermittent variable rewards’ – used to get people hooked on slot machines. Listing other features that are designed to get us hooked, Harris describes how several billion people have ‘a slot machine in their pocket’.
Addictive design is an issue in its own right. But from a ‘freedom of attention’ point of view, it becomes doubly problematic when our goals are not aligned with those of the tech companies making the products and writing the algorithms that govern our interactions with them. This is the argument that James Williams makes. It is tempting, he says, to think of your smartphone as functioning like ‘GPS for life’: it helps you when you want to order a new ink cartridge, or message a friend, and so on. But Williams says this analogy offers a misleading picture of reality, because the incentives of tech giants like Google and Facebook are geared towards various ‘engagement metrics’: time spent on site, the number of click-throughs, and so on. By contrast, spending 3½ hours on social media, say, or checking your phone every 6 minutes (on average) is not a goal you would likely set for yourself when you wake up in the morning.
Does the ‘capture’ of our attention, then, stand in the way of our prosperity? We can each decide for ourselves (if we aren’t already too addicted to our phones) – but the example of many of those actually working in the tech sector is revealing. For instance, Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook vice president, in a candid interview last year, talked about how various algorithms determine what content we see (and when) on our smartphones and other devices such that, he warned, ‘you don’t realise it, but you are being programmed’. Palihapitiya no longer lets his own kids use social media. And he is not alone: according to Jaron Lanier, the higher up the management ladder you go at big tech companies in Silicon Valley, the more restrictive employees are with letting their kids use smartphones or social media.
Of all our freedoms, then, with the integration of our lives with smart technologies advancing in one direction, to be ‘free to attend’ to whatever we need to do to fulfil our own goals could be at the centre of ethical debates over the coming decade or so.
Response #2: “Prosperity is… fair”
Unsurprisingly, if our attention becomes captured by the interests of others then this can raise issues of fairness. If it’s true that algorithms, powered by masses of data, understand us better than we understand ourselves – and can be used to exploit our psychological vulnerabilities in very targeted ways – then at which point do our decisions (eg what to click on) reflect the code as much as they do our own preferences?
This matters in terms of what we opt to buy, which articles we opt to read – and who we opt to vote in. The way that the ‘weaponization’ of social media has transformed political campaigns demands our attention. Take the Trump campaign as the obvious example: Cambridge Analytica – now defunct – was hired to gather huge swathes of online data to capture the ‘digital footprints’ that Americans leave on social media each time they post, Like, and Retweet. The firm also purchased data from third-parties on subjects’ attitudes and consumer preferences. Armed with this data, they built algorithmic models that could predict each subject’s personality profile. As Cambridge Analytica’s then CEO Alexander Nix explained in a 2016 speech, this gave them the power to nuance the messaging in order to ‘resonate more effectively’ with certain key groups.
Then, to help these messages land, the Trump campaign employed armies of ‘bots’ on social media platforms to spread the messages. According to a piece by Sean Illing, each day they would try 40-50,000 variants of these ads: the ones that got liked, shared, and retweeted the most were reproduced and redistributed based on where they were popular and who they appealed to.
At the heart of this approach, then, was the use of data analytics to capture the attention of individual social media users; algorithms to re-optimise those messages; and the employment of fake social media accounts to propagate them. Which methods we deem as ‘fair’ needs careful debate, but there is no doubt that the competition for our attention lies at the heart of digital campaigning – with huge and enduring consequences for political outcomes.
Response #3: “Prosperity is… social”
How we attend to other people – in conversation, say – fundamentally shapes the nature of our interactions with them. It also matters for the development of our social capacities, such as empathy. And with social prosperity, as with freedom and fairness, it is our use of digital technologies that is the focus of a lot of research in which patterns of attention are particularly relevant.
Communications technologies have the potential both to help and to hinder social interactions: on the one hand, we can connect with loved ones whenever, wherever; on the other, it can be pretty frustrating speaking to someone who is semi-distracted by their phone. Clearly, a more scientific approach is needed to understand the issue better.
Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who specialises in social connectivity, does just this. In Reclaiming Conversation, she looks at the effects of digital technologies in various conversational contexts – teachers and students, colleagues and clients, friends and family. And overall, she concludes that when we replace, or interrupt, conversation with electronic communication, we risk not only the quality of our interactions but also the development of empathy, friendship and intimacy.
She cites, for instance, a recent Pew Foundation study showing that around 90% of adults in the US took out a phone during their most recent social interaction. Roughly 80% reported that doing so diminished the conversation. She also argues that smartphone usage is to blame for the steep decline in measures of empathy among university students over the past 20 years. Of greatest concern, though, is parent-child relations. She writes that:
‘Parents give their children phones. Children can’t get their parents’ attention away from their phones, so children take refuge in their own devices. Then, parents use their children’s absorption with phones as permission to have their own phones out as much as they wish.’
As Jonathan Franzen observes, it is through the conversational attention of parents that children acquire a sense of ‘enduring connectedness’ and a habit of talking about their feelings, rather than simply acting on them. Parents are playing with fire, Turkle warns, if things like texting during breakfast and dinner become standard practice, with no space carved out for giving our attention free from interruptions.
In the UK, we are already seeing how this plays out for prosperity in the home: according to the charity Childline, thousands of children are receiving counselling for loneliness because, all too often, parents are too distracted ‘by smart phones and work pressures’ to pick up on clues that their children were suffering. There is a danger, the charity says, that chats over the kitchen table are ‘becoming obsolete’.
Response #4: “Prosperity is… accepting the present.”
Interestingly, Turkle’s work on social interactions equally emphasises the importance of being comfortable with solitude – and, going one step further, being receptive to whatever the present moment brings to our experience. Accepting the present, more generally, has been found to be a strong determinant of individuals’ subjective well-being. And paying attention – actively, rather than living on autopilot – is integral to the task of accepting the present moment.
Much of the research in this area looks at the impact of mindfulness: paying attention to whatever is going on for us in the present moment, on purpose, and with an attitude of openness and non-judgementality. Various studies have established the links between mindfulness and higher wellbeing, better emotional regulation and increased empathy.
When it comes to sustainable prosperity, there is an interesting branch of studies linking mindfulness to consumerism (see Alison Armstrong and Tim Jackson’s think-piece on The Mindful Consumer, or my Bank of England post on ‘less is more’ economics). Theoretically, the link is clear: by observing experience directly, rather than through the filter of our beliefs, expectations and desires, the capacity for mindfulness can promote reflection on our consumption activity, making us respond to advertisements in a less knee-jerk fashion.
To test this empirically, a 2007 study by Kirk Warren Brown and colleagues gauged individuals’ ‘financial desire discrepancy’ – the gap that individuals report between their current and desired financial states. They found that individuals who practise mindfulness reported lower discrepancies between current and desired states – and higher subjective wellbeing.
Practising the art of accepting things as they are, moment to moment, then, can perhaps help us find a path towards sustainable prosperity.
Response #5: “Prosperity is… imbued with meaning”
Last of all, a life imbued with meaning or purpose came up as a key aspect of prosperity. How does the nature of our attention matter here?
We can begin by noting the point American pragmatist William James made almost 100 years ago, that what we attend to is reality. While in a sense utterly obvious, this point is also profound: what we pay attention to, and the manner in which we do so, serves to determine, for each of us, our own reality. In the political philosopher Matthew Crawford’s words, attention is what joins us to the world.
This deep connection between how we attend and what we find in the world – ‘when you’re holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail’, and so on – is especially relevant when it comes to questions of meaning and purpose. No wonder that paying attention (or, more specifically, cultivating certain qualities of attention) lies at the heart of so many spiritual practises.
The Christian mystic Simone Weil, for instance, saw prayer as simply attention ‘in its pure form’; she wrote that the authentic and pure values ‘in the activity of a human being’ – truth, beauty and goodness – all result from one thing: ‘a certain application of full attention’. In Zen Buddhism, meanwhile, an unenlightened existence (samsara) is characterised by the scholar David Loy as simply the state in which one’s attention becomes ‘trapped’ as it keeps grasping from one thing to another. Nirvana, on this account, is simply a free and open awareness that is completely liberated from such fixations.
How we pay attention grounds more secular accounts of spirituality, too. The author Sam Harris, for instance, writes about mindfulness meditation as a spiritual practise. But how exactly does mindfulness deepen our everyday experience? According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, father of the modern mindfulness movement, the answer lies in the fact that we are so seduced by thinking and emotion that we don’t realise that the function of awareness itself is even more powerful: it can hold any emotion (no matter how destructive) and any thought (no matter how gigantic). Cultivating mindful awareness can therefore add a layer of deep introspection and perception to ordinary experience to the point where, in the end, he says, everything is extraordinary. This is, perhaps, what Weil had in mind when she wrote that the correct application of attention can lead us to ‘the infinite in an instant’
Pay attention in the right way, and we might find a life imbued with meaning… one moment at a time.
Clearly, prosperity refers to much more than issues of our attention – not least our material needs.
Even so, the overlap between prosperity and attention is considerable – and growing, given the continual proliferation of stimuli battling for our limited resources of attention.
In philosophy and in the social sciences, our human capacities of attention – in all their myriad forms – rarely get enough consideration in and of themselves. Maybe this needs to change. Looking ahead, if we are to achieve sustainable prosperity, it may prove important in the discussions we have, and the actions we take, to construe, value and protect these intimately human capacities more than we have done in the digital era to date.
This post is based on a Perspectiva think-piece, ‘The Battle For Our Attention’, linked below, which explores the issues discussed here in more detail, as well as other dimensions to the crisis of attention, such as how it fits with the digital economy.
- The Battle For Our Attention: The Defining Problem of Our Time? (Perspectiva think-piece)
- Perspectiva homepage