Rewiring the Attention Economy – from attention to intention

What if how you direct your attention is one of the most important decisions you will make again and again multiple times every single day for your entire life? What if you seldom knowingly make that decision? And what if instead multiple actions occurring around you are actively circumventing any ability you might have to stay focused?

At first glance that might read like the book jacket for a dystopian sci fi novel about a civilisation that loses its way, but these are the very real challenges at the heart of living with the online attention economy – where sites jostle to attract and retain our eyeballs so that they can continue to generate advertising revenue.

How we maintain control of our intentions in the attention economy was the topic of a talk by James Williams back in October at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. Williams is a former Googler, now based at the University of Oxford and the most recent recipient of the nine dots prize. He argued that our attention is becoming so distracted that when we pick up our devices with a vague intention to do one thing (e.g. message a friend to let them know we’re on our way), it’s easy for us to be pulled off track and end up spending far more time than we intended doing something barely related (e.g. scrolling through Twitter reading news stories).

Here, I expand on a couple of ideas raised in the discussions and my subsequent reflections.

Can we design our way out?

If advertising persists as a source of revenue for online tools, what are our options for regaining control of our attention? Could we design tools that are useful but allow us to exert more self-control so that we can leave them once we’ve done what we intended to do by visiting?

In considering the design perspective, I’m reminded of the importance (and unpredictability) of affordances. For example, a chair can have multiple affordances or things that it is possible to do with it. Normally, you might look at it and see an object that you could use to sit on. But in another situation you might see it as something you could stand on to help you reach something high up. Or in a third scenario, perhaps it becomes a way to break a window to escape a room. The object doesn’t dictate its uses – it is the user’s interaction with it in a variety of contexts that determine how it’s applied. Given we cannot predict all uses of a technology, who’s to say we can design non-addictive technology that’s just the right amount of useful without being too distracting?

Email is one example of this – it can be used simply to send text back and forth. But we can also use it to send attachments – and if those attachments are only shared via email then our inboxes become not just a mechanism for text-based conversations but also for document management – something it’s definitely not been optimized for up front. And that’s before we discuss how different people structure their emails or the expectations about what’s appropriate for an email versus a meeting. So we might optimise emails for sending and displaying text, but the affordances of the tools now allow us to do much more – whether that’s ideal or not.


“It’s very clear that some sites have been optimised to catch us in a reinforcing cycle of micro-rewards that keep us coming back for more”

Of course, this isn’t to say that designers have no influence. It’s very clear that some sites have been optimised to catch us in a reinforcing cycle of micro-rewards that keep us coming back for more (“Look! Little red notification icon. Someone loves me!” rapidly followed by “I wonder if anyone else has liked my thing? Let me just check again…”). But in a competitive online world where your eyeballs can only be in one place at once, how might we encourage each site to make itself a little less addictive perhaps with the benefit of greater overall satisfaction? As Williams put it: “No one decides at the start of their evening “My goal tonight is to sit on the sofa and see how many times I can pointlessly check Facebook for updates I don’t really care about.”

Rethinking our priorities

In The Boy Who Cried Wolf – the moral of the cautionary tale is not to repeatedly demand the attention of others by alerting them about a danger that isn’t there. As a result of lying about the approach of a wolf, the boy is eventually eaten by a real one when it turns up and everyone chooses to ignore his screams, thinking it’s just another false alarm.

Not so with the constant pinging of phone notifications, pop ups about incoming emails, little red dots on the pages we visit telling us of new activities we’re missing out on…and more. We keep going back again and again. Why?

Firstly, we’re not good at telling what’s important from the multiple streams of info we get at any one time. It’s not simply a lone boy crying wolf that we can learn to ignore – sometimes the metaphorical boy is a Facebook update we don’t care about, but other times it’s an incoming work email we can’t ignore until tomorrow. So there’s no simple rule about how to treat all the alerts.

“…our current deluge of push notifications and alerts grab our attention, but then asks us to do the prioritizing – over and over again.”

Secondly, the constant crossing of streams that now happens through notifications essentially separate us from their context. A message from a friend about where to meet for dinner tonight is mixed with a notification about a comment on something I posted on Facebook and with three work emails. These items of incoming activity don’t each have the same priority at any given time. And so our current deluge of push notifications and alerts grab our attention, but then asks us to do the prioritizing – over and over again. This creates both a sense of urgency and hyper-vigilance, but also creates an ongoing cognitive load in assessing the appropriate response to each notification (Ignore, reply, remember for later?).

What if a sender was asked how high priority something was and/or you could choose a setting of where you were to determine what got through or at what speed/volume? E.g. work mode would turn off or aggregate the FB updates into a less distracting, automatically deprioritized subset of notifications but if a work email was marked as important it would still get through. Can our devices use periodic prompts when we unlock them to help us more purposefully reconnect with our original intentions for a given time period (e.g. “get this piece of work done in the next thirty minutes” or “socialize with friends online for an hour”). Maybe then it would be easier to use our tools in such a way that we stay true to those intentions?

What’s your experiences of the attention economy? Have you turned off alerts or set aside digital free moments in your day or week? 

One thought on “Rewiring the Attention Economy – from attention to intention

  1. Pingback: Reading for Leading #25: Reactive versus responsive – Social in silico

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