From Information Overload to Attention Economics?

Attention Economics

We live in interesting times. The surfeit of information around is astronomical and internet has just exploded with choices for every subject, every area of science and every area of art. To add to this, we also have gazillion media channels, websites and social media communities. It is much like the situation of a little kid looking around the stacks of books in a large metropolitan museum, checking where to begin from and what to read. Being spoilt for choice is fantastic but too much of it clouds our mind and makes us lose focus.

Enter Attention Economics! Attention economics is an approach to the management of information that treats human attention as a scarce commodity, and applies economic theory to solve various information management problems. Avant-garde economist Matthew Crawford quotes, “Attention is a resource – a person has only so much of it.’’
This generation is often blamed for lacking attention and for being a breed of dilettantes, great dabblers who shift their thoughts between subjects in a nanosecond. We do not have the patience for hard work and hence, tend to skim the surface in most cases. Rigour of concentration prompts us to peruse through things, rather than think through them.

In this perspective Thomas H Davenport and J C Beck define the concept of attention as: Attention is focussed mental engagement on a particular item of information. Items come into our awareness, we attend to a particular item, and then we decide whether to act!

Enter the Search Engines! Today Google decides (of course, an algorithm) what are the results of your searches, which also means a search engine can present a filter bubble to you and feed you what it wants. This is not to hint the prosaic and fuel the eternal debate that software programmes are taking over, but to aver that the information you get is what a software programme logic decides.

Another school of thought on the ‘filters’ is that the more you search and increase your online footprint, the kind of information you are fed is also akin to your search and browse histories. For example, the more you read economics, the more suggestions from that area. The online commerce sites are already doing it. Your shopping history prompts suggestions on what else you should buy. The propensity for you to buy something which was not on your radar is much more during an online jaunt than a walk in the supermarket.

So, does this sound conspiratorial and are the machines winning it? Will we lack diversity with more than ‘aligned’ information thrown our way? Well, not really. We are still holding that power of the click! A conscious click and a thoughtful prompt can always get you what you want and burst the bubble around you! In every person around us, like much of us, we see the urge to casually glance at the cell phones, peruse the laptop screens endlessly, and at times, even meaninglessly dancing our fingertips on the keyboard. It has been a decade since we have been celebrating these prodigious time-saving devices. We need to mull over the fact that these are perhaps ‘weapons of mass distraction’, which have to be handled with care and responsibility. A little pause can also help; time to reflect, long walks in wilderness, hearing the harmonious chimes of nature, and celebrating a ‘internet and network’ Sabbath! Cheers to that!

(The author is Director-Markets, Kerala & Tamil Nadu, EY and President, TiE Kerala)