Category Archives: Diversions

Building a Better Fence in the Attention Economy

gold thumbs up

Living as we do in the much-heralded Attention Economy, where wealth is created (or captured) by harnessing the attention of electronic network users,  every connected person’s conscious (and even unconscious) life represents a little hill of gold that can be exploited by freewheeling prospectors, miners, and mining-supply merchants.

I, for one, have decided to put some better fences around my attention.  

You could say that I’m defending my attentional rights with greater intention.

Every major economic revolution begins with players who figure out how to derive exponential value from some previously undervalued resource.  Whether it is copper, silver, gold, bronze, iron, coal, uranium, petroleum, labor, land, water, energy, or information, the early winners of any new economic era are the ones who figure out how to cost-effectively locate, procure, transform, distribute, and resell a given hot new commodity at a high margin.

To get the best margin, the strongest players will often figure out a way to muscle out their competition early on and grab the resources without waiting for permission. They generally don’t spend too much time worrying about the wider impact of their resource-grabbing.

In the Attention Economy Gold Rush metaphor, we are both the gold itself and the prospectors looking for the gold — since one of the things we love paying attention to is each other (and each-other-paying-attention-to-each-other-and-so-on-and-so-on). Therefore, the best way for a company to exploit our attentional resources is to create a platform — a web site, an app, or a device — that we feel compelled to use.

The competition for our attentional resources has become so fierce that some of the best minds in the business are devoted to tracking and optimizing user “engagement,” harnessing human psychology and behavioral science to create ever-more addictive user interfaces. Even mainstream news headlines are written like clickbait vying for our precious eyeballs and sweet, sweet, delicious outrage. Given this rapid escalation and increasing fierceness of the competition, what price are we paying for letting others exploit our attention?

What is the point at which someone says, “Get off my land?”  

Or perhaps, “No thanks, I’d like to design, build and manage things for myself?”

Macraes Gold Mine - Fraser's Pit

Over the years, I’ve had an on-again off-again relationship with my use of electronic media generally, and social media in particular.  I’ve experimented with various use (and non-use) patterns, temporarily constraining or even suspending my use of particular platforms and noticing how each pattern affects the rest of my life, my relationships, my happiness, my focus, my productivity, my creativity, and my wider contributions. These have not been controlled experiments because these electronic media are in constant flux, and my life has its own independent variables.

Nevertheless, toward the end of last year I reached a firm conclusion that merely limiting my use of email, social media, news, etc. to specific hours was not enough. Things had gone too far. I needed to kick some of these guys off my land completely.

At the end of last year — at one minute before midnight on New Year’s Eve to be precise — I deactivated Facebook.

Since then:  Relief.

 

This has also had the effect akin to a carb-reduction diet, where if a person stops eating bread, they eventually start to lose their craving for other kinds of sugar. Not being in the chattering environment of likes, shares and comments, when I now try to read the news, it’s so much less compelling.  News content is increasingly packaged to serve as a chemical solvent which extracts attention from the social media mines… and since I’ve kicked the attention mining company out, the news has less appeal. I don’t want to breathe in too much of those fumes. So, I’m dialing back on my news consumption as well.

Yes, I know the news lately has been recommending that I keep consuming more news. And no, this has nothing to do with politics, ideologies, or issues around “fake news.”   This is just about clearing more space in my head to do the things that matter.

This land is my land… and I intend to build on it.

 

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Dear Internet — Six Things I Admire (and Dislike) About You

(#25 and #26 of 27 — a synthesis of two posts: one was overly ironic, one was overly vague, but both had excellent visuals)

Sandstone-PhotoEssayPepTalk-2

Dear Internet,

We’ve been together in this relationship for quite a while and let’s face it, it’s complicated.

I’m writing this letter to let you know how much appreciate everything you do for me — both the good and the bad — and what I intend to do about it.

1. You provide endless resources and support to my quest of constant learning. Sometimes this is a distraction but mostly it is a good thing. By putting undiscovered worlds of knowledge at my fingertips, you help me think and work like a polymath. As I integrate and extend my central nervous system into you, the extent of my repertoire becomes limited only by my imagination. I want to further improve the quality of my integration with you.

Instant-Learning-Gratification

2. You provide endless streams of inane and meaningless novelty and tempt me constantly with click-bait designed to rob me of my precious time and attention. This is a useless distraction. That said, nobody is immune from stodgy comfortable thinking habits and you offer a source of fresh ideas and perspectives. I will choose to see this aspect of you as just another way to keep myself young in spirit, and to keep my repertoire dynamic and relevant. But I will sip sparingly from your ocean of distracted drivel.

shark jump

3. You enable me to move and sift more quickly through vast amounts of information. In a span of mere minutes, I can go from having understanding to achieving insight, and from achieving insight to unlocking foresight. As I do this however, my mammalian pack rat habits cause me accumulate a cluttered landscape of open browser tabs on my screens and in my subconscious. I become bloated with unresolved notes and suspended ideas. This is not your problem — it’s mine. Every day I’m getting better at managing the vital balance of creative clutter and zen-like simplicity.

fat cat on couch

4. You hamper me with vast amount of misinformation and dubious content. I  can waste hours trying to sort the signal from the noise, and more of than not I just don’t bother trying. I will choose to see this as a reminder and test  to maintain my critical thinking skills, and to guard against the temptation of lazy thinking. As much as I’ve outsourced parts of my brain to the cloud, I can’t ever delegate my faculty for judgement and discernment.

liar

5. You are on all the time — 24x7x365.25 — and tempt me to be on with you. This pulls me away from being present with the people are important to me, the people who I love. Since that is unacceptable, I’ve already limited how much of my life you get to be a part of. I also ignore you for days at a stretch. In fairness, you do ask me about my friends and loved ones and even provide opportunities for me to interactive with them, but it’s on your terms and in your space. I would trust you more if you encouraged me to spend time with them in the real world. There are parts of you, Internet, that are more aligned with my interests and I will seek to connect with those parts.

maya and kristen dancingI know that we’re both still growing and evolving. Even as I’ve barely scratched the surface of your being, I see how rapidly you are changing. This is a source of inspiration and provides some of the fuel for my own continued development.

Thank you, Internet… and ttyl,

D

Coffee, Chocolate and Love Songs: Mindfulness for the Cynic

What’s the significance of our thoughts or feelings, if music or food can alter them so easily? (#2 of 27 revisited blog posts, replaced one image with a new and more text-related photo)

Dan Spira

When we were teenagers (assuming you the reader are not currently a teenager or a preteen), we often experienced music in a peculiarly personal way. Listening to a given song, it might seem like it was composed JUST FOR US and that whoever wrote the song UNDERSTOOD US PERFECTLY, UNLIKE EVERYBODY ELSE.

This perception magnified whatever feelings we already had, especially when we were smitten by a girl/boy… or angry at our parents/friends… or feeling excited about an upcoming competition/performance… or experiencing any other part of that angsty roller coaster ride known as adolescence.

iPhone HeadphonesFor those of us who aren’t teenagers anymore, we’ve moved on from having that experience…. okay, well, most of us have moved on… most of the time. For my part, I can still get pumped up by a song here and yanked down by a song there, however I recognize that these songs are entirely manufactured…

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Coffee, Chocolate and Love Songs: Mindfulness for the Cynic

When we were teenagers (assuming you the reader are not currently a teenager or a preteen), we often experienced music in a peculiarly personal way. Listening to a given song, it might seem like it was composed JUST FOR US and that whoever wrote the song UNDERSTOOD US PERFECTLY, UNLIKE EVERYBODY ELSE.

This perception magnified whatever feelings we already had, especially when we were smitten by a girl/boy… or angry at our parents/friends… or feeling excited about an upcoming competition/performance… or experiencing any other part of that angsty roller coaster ride known as adolescence.

iPhone HeadphonesFor those of us who aren’t teenagers anymore, we’ve moved on from having that experience… okay, well, most of us have moved on… most of the time. For my part, I can still get pumped up by a song here and yanked down by a song there, however I recognize that these songs are entirely manufactured, carefully crafted to create predictable emotional effects. Take a tiny spark of genuine artistic pathos, inject it into words alluding to some form of unrequited love (which is really just a fancier term for plain ‘ol love), throw it all onto a 4-chord progression [ I-V-vi-IV ], give a little twist of something different and new, and presto!  Our reticular activating system (RAS) will take care of the rest.

And yet, even while knowing all this, I refuse to be cynical.

The song may be manufactured, but I am not manufactured.

My RAS may be looking for familiar patterns within a vaguely-worded poem written by a stranger, but my RAS is pattern matching against me, or rather, some aspect of myself that I (may) want to bring to the forefront of my consciousness.

Better living through chemistry

cupajoeIt’s the same thing with coffee and chocolate. Those are manufactured goods with the chemical triggers of caffeine and anandamide (one of the main active ingredients of chocolate, named after the Sanskrit word for bliss) which can change our mood and mental focus.

However, to write off their effects as mere chemistry is to miss the point:  As triggers, coffee and chocolate magnify something that is already there within us, a latent potential.

Better chemistry through living

empty gym on New Year's Eve - a space between resolutionsIt’s not just music, coffee and chocolate. We can experience a change of emotional state just by focusing our thoughts or actions. Certain activities have predictable effects not unlike coffee or chocolate: cardiovascular exercise, socializing, sex, learning, playing and gift-giving are just a few examples of voluntary activities that can generate feelings of well-being, exhilaration and connection.
In contrast to chocolate and coffee, many of us assign greater value to emotional triggers that require high levels of effort and personal investment.

However a deeply cynical person can dismiss any emotional experience as the contrived effects of a prior stimulus, whether it’s a love song, a shot of bourbon or a 5k run. The unrepentant cynic is a former idealist who got hurt, someone who will happily focus on proximal causes and superficial effects. It’s just easier that way.

Yet all of us are susceptible to a kind of cynicism engendered by logical explanations and scientific knowledge. The understanding of, “I feel like y because I just experienced x,” presents us with a decision, a follow-up question of, “So what?”

So what?

“So what” is a question about significance and consequence.

How we answer the question of “so what” determines a lot.

A weak answer to “so what” can put us onto a path towards alienated cynicism, or send us floating down a river of meaningless gluttony, or drive us up a precipice of terrified asceticism, or have us rotating between all three of those places.

A strong answer to “so what” brings heightened awareness and mindfulness. The more mindful we are of the emotional triggers and our (initial) reactions, the more we can fine tune our experiences and responses, maximizing meaning, purpose and satisfaction. It also helps to develop good taste.

Yes, coffee helps me wake up… but a hot shower does the trick too… and exceptional coffee trumps mediocre coffee… and white chocolate is an abomination (just sayin’). When I give a gift, I give it with both hands and make eye contact. I look, listen, touch, smell and savor the details of these things. I dial down the frightened rationalist living in my brain, and I tune in to the wisdom of my heart.

Generic Brand Video: In less than 3 minutes, every global corporate t.v. ad

Here is a wonderful video that captures every trope of early 21st century company brand messaging:

(ht DC/DZ)

Really, there’s nothing much to add to it, the video says it perfectly.  Much more perfectly, in fact, than my previous post about stock photography, which covered many of the same themes, albeit in a rambling, needs-to-edited-down-to-one-third-the-length-draft-blog-post sort of way.

Yeah, my friends, you know I love the meta-humor.

Also: The “Generic Brand Video” makes me realize that portraying diversity through a sequence of stock images is only slightly better than trying to do it with a single stock image.  In the end, if it looks like stock photography and if the ratios of skin tones are just a little too calibrated, than, yeah, it’s inauthentic.

Perfectly Balanced Ratio of Skin Tones

A client recently pointed me at a banner in their office that advertises their learning academy for employees.  She noted that all the people in the photograph were employees of the company, including her boss.  In other words, it was an authentic picture.

In the never-ending arms race of novelty and fashion in corporate aesthetics, expect to see more and more images of real life employees being featured in company ads and marketing materials.

..and expect to see more and more employees who are stock photo quality.

 

 

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