• Caroline Ridgway

Time to Pay Attention

There is a splash of satire in this post, relative to its inspiring subject matter. I was recently pointed to a fascinating think piece in the New York Times, Charlie Warzel’s “I Talked to the Cassandra of the Internet Age,” about the so-attributed “internet prophet” Michael Goldhaber. Among Goldhaber’s predictions: “the complete dominance of the internet” as well as “personal websites, oversharing, personal essay, fandoms and online influencer culture—along with the near destruction of our ability to focus.”

And, so, here we are! A blog, which is just a different word, in many contexts, for a personal essay, shared on the internet, with some dose of fandom and oversharing, and a grain of hope, for purposes of my professional ego, that someone reads it and likes it. Also, not a half-hour ago, I lamented aloud to myself and the cat how much trouble I feel I’m having right now with focus.

I am no futurist, but I suspect the internet is here to stay. Maybe not forever-ever, but I don’t know how to visualize a world in which we revert entirely to an analog world. Absent, perhaps, a calamity the likes of which we haven’t yet confronted that upends status now. But, on the other hand, we’ve sort of been living those calamities for the last year (and arguably more), and if anything we’ve only doubled down on tech.

Personally, I can’t imagine giving up technology completely. I rely on it professionally and personally. I’ve gotten awfully used to typing instead of handwriting. Email and text are so convenient. Being able to look up any word or event or piece of information in a flash is handy. GPS maps are a dream.

I have to say, though, I have noticed a degradation in my own capacity to attend, in an addiction to devices and instant external feedback. I try to maintain boundaries. I may well observe the phone ring, or hear the telltale ding of an email or other incoming message, and choose not to respond immediately. Sometimes, I’m just doing something else. There are data around how long it takes to refocus following an interruption: 23 minutes is the generally agreed-upon duration. That’s a darn long time over the course of a work day in which umpteen notifications may cross my eyes or tempt my ears. Also, I’ve never embraced the notion that, just because I carry a smart phone with me most of the time, you should have the right to always, always have access to me. I certainly don’t feel that way of you.

To combat these interferences, I keep my phone on silent unless I am in wait of a critically urgent call. I turn off as many notifications on my computer as I can, and keep the volume between low and off. If I desperately need to better concentrate on a computer-centric task, I close the mail program and various social media tabs.

I, and I suspect anyone who has anything to do with social media in a professional capacity, am bothered by the intellectual and actual laziness daily betrayed by how people interact with these platforms. On the regular, my family’s restaurants get social media messages asking to see a menu. It’s really straightforward: go to the website. People, with alarming and frustrating consistency, ask for information they could, in less than the time it takes to extract such data from the crowd, and more precisely, find themselves, like where a business is located, or its hours of operation.

In Mr. Goldhaber’s viewpoint, and accurate to my own experiences and musings, attention is the commodity of the day. If people are paying attention to you, or even aware of you, you are on top of the world. As soon as that fades, so do you. And this is agnostic to the quality of the information. A failing of the internet is that it has made information so ubiquitous that it has lost some of its power. Businesses that wish to have a meaningful presence on social media are de facto mandated to pay for some sort of digital advertising. It is, otherwise, nearly impossible to reach an audience of any scale.

There are positives as it relates to the confluence of the internet and information. For one client, Future Ready Collier, I recently helped shepherd a major reorganization of their website so community-focused resources were much more easily found, an essential purpose of this collective impact network seeking to enhance a regional education ecosystem. Another client, Health in Motion Network, a healthcare start-up based in Ohio, is working hard to build a digital platform that will functionally centralize a patient’s entire healthcare experience, from records to treatment to wellbeing. To the extent information is both accessible and useful, it has real value.

Where does this all lead us? Warzel’s piece in the Times explores Goldhaber’s larger scale concerns around how the perversion of attention is particularly problematic in the context of politics and how we are simultaneously being distracted from the facts of the matter and pulled to more polarizing, sensational viewpoints. It is maybe less dangerous but no less applicable in the day-to-day context of our roles as consumers of business and services and goods. How to find what will really serve our needs, and diminish the noise?

As I pick up my phone for the 150th time in a day to see if anything illuminating has happened, which it generally has not, or some compelling message has come through, which it generally has not, I am aware of, saddened by, and yet feel somewhat powerless to remediate my inattention. Part of why I and my family love to escape to rural corners of New England is because of the opportunity to disconnect a bit. I think I trust my ability to sort through the miasma of informational BS that constantly circulates. But I’m also sure I unknowingly fall prey to some of it. I know I like some of the ads I am obliged to be served on social media, and I don’t like some of the others. I know I am frustrated by the volume of spam emails I receive. I know I am tired at the end of the day after having spent 8 to 12 hours looking at screens of varying smallness.

Warzel concludes, a point with which I concur, that the best tactic is to get better at paying attention to what we’re paying attention to. That is a practice. But a worthy one. In my calendar, I consider whether I need to block time to pay attention. I think they call that meditation? Stop, listen, breathe. Moments of quietude make the clamor less intrusive.

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