When we were a primitive species, the scarcest resources were food, water, and shelter. Homo Sapiens used to live nomadic lifestyles, roaming from one place to another, led by the availability of harvestable food sources or wandering animals. Roving tribes occasionally crossed paths hunting or gathering for the same food and water supply, and conflict was not uncommon.
Your status was tied to your strength and survival ability. Who could gather the needed fruits? Who could literally bring home the wild bacon? Who could wrestle the biggest rival to the ground and gouge his eyeballs out with a blunt femur bone?
Fast forward a few thousand years. We evolved. We began to domesticate plants like wheat or corn or whatever else that we started to farm. We discovered animal husbandry, and started raising livestock. Suddenly we were tied down to the land and the era of wandering came to a close. A stable food supply led to greater populations and increased prosperity for the human race. We stayed put, built homes, raised castles, and maintained farms. For people, land became the scarcest resource.
Battles were waged between neighboring civilizations over the need to claim, protect, or acquire land. Turns out, humans were (are) a possessive bunch. We came up with this strange concept of class systems even. Generally, the higher up you were, the more land you typically owned. Either you owned land, or the land owned you (in the form of indentured servitude). Aristocracies emerged. And eventually, the concept of private property and ownership rights eventually came into full swing.
Then came the industrial revolution. Boom. Suddenly land wasn’t the scarcest resource anymore. With the arrival of mechanization and semi-automation, we realized how to get more efficiency out of the same unit of land, whether it be farm or factory. Instead of trying to increase land mass to drive productivity, what if we just enhanced the productivity per square foot of existing land or property?
And thus, skilled labor became the scarcest resource. Machines required trained people to operate. Assembly lines needed to be manned. Farms didn’t just need more workers, but more skilled farmers to utilize agricultural equipment. Our social hierarchy changed. Life’s organizational principle became defined by what type of work you did, who you did it for, and where you did it. And naturally, how much money you made. And so emerged the labor economy.
By the 20th century, productivity greatly enhanced material wellbeing for the general masses. The new scarcity in society was no longer food, shelter, water, land, or even labor. Populations became abundant, so labor supply became stable. Consumers and producers filled a system and cycle of dynamic equilibrium. Suddenly, people could buy so many things and hire so many different types of skilled laborers, that the most valuable resource became knowledge.
Being a discerning consumer, a more useful employee, a better student, and a more innovative company now hinged on information. Who knew what? When did she find out? Can this information benefit our X, Y, Z agenda? Welcome to the familiar information age.
Well, it turns out that with the advent of the Internet, information availability and accessibility are no longer big problems. Today, we are swimming (drowning) in an ocean of data that’s all around us. We’re often paralyzed by the options in front of us, and even further confused by the vast amount of information about each option.
In fact, there’s so much information available, that we could never consume it all. We need, therefore, a heuristic to filter what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s useful and what’s not, what’s boring and what’s not. So, in the face of data surplus, we have arrived at our current destination — the attention economy.
The Attention Economy
The attention economy is more like an attention war zone. Attention is a high-value resource. Everyday, you’re bombarded with advertisements trying to grab your gaze. Commercials are more ridiculous than ever. Just check out the Old Spice ones. Today, the youngest billionaire is a 21 year old Kylie Jenner whose job is to get your attention through Tweets and posts. Kim Kardashian built an empire of wealth by getting the world’s attention via a sex tape. Even among your circle of friends, I bet you could name whose Instagram account has the most follows or hearts. That’s influence. Whoever can get attention, wins. And it doesn’t even have to be good attention. Donald Trump really got our attention too, for better or worse. I guess the saying is true, any press is good press. The quality of attention doesn’t matter so long as we have your attention. Why do you think there’s so much click-bait articles (hopefully this isn’t one of them — ha!).
The Unintended Consequence of the Attention Economy
The problem with the attention economy is that it leads to extremism, shorter attention spans, and less depth.
Social networks are the business model of the attention economy. They are wholly dependent on eyeballs and clicks to make all of their revenue. To do this, they design algorithms that show you the most interesting and attention-grabbing information available in your social network. If your newsfeed was full of the boring and drab day-to-day stuff, you’d stop looking at it. So instead, Facebook shows you the most extreme occurrences in your social network for the simple reason that the extreme events draw the most attention.
Think of it another way. Information accessibility alone has a tendency to equalize things. That slippery car salesman is less likely to pull wool over your eyes if you’ve already done your online research about the vehicle you’re interested in buying. Your high school teacher has less knowledge-based authority over you today than ever before. There are definitely some classes whose content can be learned entirely without guidance. Examples like this abound.
So if in general, content is more or less the same across the board, then the only solution is to push for the most extreme versions of content to grab attention. In politics, we pay attention to the most contentious issues rather than the most worthy ones. We read about the guy who smashed a pumpkin in the middle of the street and then pulled his pants down to urinate on store windows. We are less interested in cerebral debates and deeper examinations of things that matter. We are more prone to the basic instinct of reacting. Look at these flashy lights and bright colors. Do you hear the loudest and most obnoxious music that’s basically the noises emanating from a garbage compactor?
Are We Just Modern Apes?
So have we come full circle? Our primitive ancestors reacted to bright colors because oftentimes, they were signals for dangerous animals or poisonous plants. We darted our attention to the roar of a dangerous lion or the hisses of a snake that could be life threatening. We evolved to be alert to things that stand out. This is a survival mechanism.
It seems to me that going forward, our most valuable asset will be the ability to focus. Can you forge closer and deeper relationships with friends and family? Or are you counting the number of likes and thumbs-ups in your feed? Can you commit to one project or hobby? Can you stick to one job and actually get things done? Or are you jumping to the next hottest thing because it’s the most attention-grabbing thing to pad your LinkedIn profile?
I guess what I’m really asking is… can you learn to say no — not only to people. But also to all sorts of stimuli around you. Do you have the discipline to tell yourself to focus. To slow down. To ignore noise. Can we become the masters of our environment? Or are we just wandering apes, in a digital jungle?