Attention Is the Scarcity

There’s a lot of things that set our approach at the Digital Polarization Initiative apart from most previous initiatives. But the biggest thing is this: we start from the environment in which students are most likely to practice online literacy skills, and in that environment attention is the scarcity.

The idea that scarce attention forms the basis of modern information environments is not new. Herbert Simon, years ago, noted that abundances consume — an abundance of goats makes a scarcity of grass. And information? It consumes attention. So while we name this the information age, information is actually less and less valuable. The paradox of the information age is that control of information means less and less, because information becomes commodified. Instead, the powerful in the information age control the scarcity: they control attention.

Slide from my presentation at StratCom last year

Again, this is not an observation that is unique to me. Zeynep Tufecki, Penny Andrews, An Xaio Mina, Claire Wardle, Whitney Phillips, and so many more have drilled down on various aspects of this phenomenon. And years ago, Howard Rheingold put attention as a crucial literacy of the networked age, next to others like critical consumption. It’s not, at this point, a very contentious assertion.

And yet the implications of this, media literacy at least, have yet to be fully explored. When information is scarce, we must deeply interrogate the limited information that is provided us, trying to find the internal inconsistencies, the flaws, the contradictions. But in a world where information is abundant, these skills are not primary. The primary skill of a person in an attention-scarce environment is making relatively quick decisions about what to turn their attention toward, and making longer term decisions about how to construct their media environment to provide trustworthy information.

People know my four moves approach that tries to provide a quick guide for sorting through information, the 30 second fact-checks, and the work from Sam Wineburg and others that it builds on. These are media literacy, but they are focused not on deeply analyzing a piece of information but on making a decision of whether an article, author, website, organization, or Facebook page is worthy of your attention (and if so, with what caveats).

But there are other things to consider as well. When you know how attention is captured by hacking algorithms and human behavior, extra care in deciding who to follow, what to click on, and what to share is warranted. I’ve talked before about PewDiepie’s recommendation of an anti-Semitic YouTube account based on some anime analysis he had enjoyed. Many subscribed based on the recommendation. But of course, the subscription doesn’t just result in that account’s anime analysis videos being shared with you — it pushes the political stuff to you as well. And since algorithms weight subscriptions highly in what to recommend to you, it begins a process of pushing more and more dubious and potentially hateful content in front of you.

How do you focus your attention? How do you protect it? How do you apply it productively and strategically, and avoid giving it to bad actors or dubious sources? And how do you do that in a world where decisions about what to engage with are made in seconds, not minutes or hours?

These are the question our age of attention requires we answer, and the associated skills and understandings are where we need to focus our pedagogical efforts.

One thought on “Attention Is the Scarcity

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