I had a birthday in October, which a few of my mates described as “half-time”. It’s a sporting reference apparently (soccer to be specific), and a fairly sobering one to boot. It’s left me quietly hoping that I get to play the full 90, but also focused on playing really well in the first part of the second half.
These milestones have a way of focusing your attention on what you’ve been doing with your time on the planet. As a husband, father, co-founder of an early stage software company - and someone who’d frankly just like to enjoy more playtime - life often feels like a continuous struggle to fit in all the shit you want to get done.
That’s just my version of a modern-day sob story - most of us have one. But another modern reality is that most of us are not very good at accounting for how we spend our time, or where we focus our attention. And technology is proving to be more of a hindrance than a help in this regard.
I’m old enough to remember working life before cell phones and computers were commonplace. The great promise of these new technologies was that they’d make us more productive and - in turn - give us more leisure time. We even used to speak seriously about the possibility of a four-day week - but I’m not expecting that to become a widespread reality before I hear the full-time whistle.
Smartphones and computers are now as much a source of distraction as they are tools to enable our productivity. They’re “Attention Distracting Devices” (ADDs), as I’d describe them, as well as Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). Too many of us are marching to the beat of these ADDs - giving our attention to the latest blip, ping or like - rather than focusing on the things that are really important to us.
I’m not alone in my thinking here.
This Guardian article from October 2017 highlights a group of Silicon Valley veterans who complain about the rise of the so-called “attention economy” - meaning an internet shaped around the demands of an advertising economy. They suggest that the dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will, and incentivise the design of technologies that literally grab our attention. There is a growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology is contributing toward so-called “continuous partial attention”, severely limiting people’s ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ.
In his book The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, author Matthew Crawford suggests that the attention economy has turned distraction into a contest between corporate power and individual will. The distractions offered up by the attention economy, Crawford argues, should be thought of as a transfer of wealth from “the commons” to certain private parties. We’re allowing this wealth transfer to occur, he believes, because we do not yet understand that our attention is a valuable resource that needs to be managed more carefully, much like the air we breathe or the water we drink.
For more empirical evidence of the technological challenges we’re up against - just take a look around next time you’re in a public space. You will see many people transferring a wealth of attention to their devices.
Lack of focus, reduced IQ, lack of willpower, addiction. These are not the things I want to have written on my final report card, nor on those of my children. But of all these concerns, it's the concept of digital distraction as a form of “wealth transfer” that has really motivated me to take action. Frittering away my own time and attention is one thing, but the idea that it’s being taken from me for someone else’s benefit is just plain unacceptable!
My business-mate Caley looks at things through a slightly different lens. He prefers to focus on the opportunity cost of this attention being transferred away from our relationships. “How many of us”, he says, “are sitting next to someone who could be our new best friend, or one true love, but never even muster a ‘hello’?”
He makes a really good point.
So I’m making a half-time resolution to put my ADDs back in their place and compete more strongly for my own attention. And since this is an issue that many of us struggle with, I thought I’d share my progress.
The first ADD that I’m doing battle with is my phone. I recently smashed its screen by accident, but have decided to leave it in that state as a reminder of my commitment to this battle. I assure you, ‘smartphone’, we’re only just getting started.
Keep you posted.
About the author: Ross McConnell is a "late blooming startup athlete”, fortunate husband, father-under-training of three young boys, and Co-Founder of Blinder.