Attention is to time as velocity is to speed. If I tell you that I’m driving at a speed of 55 miles per hour, that does not tell you anything about where I’m going, because you don’t know what direction I’m heading in. Velocity is speed plus direction. Similarly, if I tell you that I spent two hours with my family yesterday (time), that does not tell you anything about what our minds were directed at—we could have been having an engaging conversation, or we could have been immersed in our phones. Attention is time plus intentionality.
The amount of human attention in the world is finite. We have 24 hours in the day, some of which we need to spend paying attention to eating, sleeping and meeting our other needs. The attention during the remaining hours of most people in the world is taken up by having to earn an income and by consuming goods and services, leaving relatively little time for attention to be freely allocated. A hard limit on available attention also exists for humanity as a whole—as I argued earlier, we are headed for peak population, at which point we will no longer be increasing the total amount of potentially available attention by adding more people.
Crucially, we cannot go back in time and change our past attention, either as individuals or collectively. A student who walks into an exam unprepared cannot revisit the preceding weeks and study more. A world that enters a pandemic unprepared is not able to go back in time and do more research on coronaviruses.
First, let’s consider attention at the individual level. The need for meaning is no longer being met because most people are failing to give enough attention to the crucial questions of purpose at a time of great transition.
In recent times, all over the world, people had become used to constructing meaning around their jobs and beliefs, but both are undermined by digital technologies. Many jobs have come under pressure from automation or outsourcing. Meanwhile, ideas, images, and information are no longer contained by geographic boundaries, and people are increasingly exposed to opinions and behaviors that diverge from their core beliefs. In combination, these challenges are leading to a crisis of identity and meaning. This crisis can take many different forms, including teenage depression, adult suicide—in the US, particularly among middle-aged white men , —and fatal drug overdoses. Between 2006 and 2015, these problems increased by 60 percent, 20 percent and 40 percent respectively.
The situation is not dissimilar to the one that first occurred when people left the countryside and moved to big cities during the transition to the Industrial Age, having to give up identities that had been constructed around land and crafts (a process that has continued to play itself out throughout the world as industrialization spread). They were uprooted from their extended families and confronted with people from other regions who held different beliefs. Then too there was a marked increase in mental illness, drug abuse and suicide.
The Industrial Age had little use for an individual sense of meaning—it is difficult to combine the pursuit of a strong sense of personal purpose with the repetitive operation of an industrial machine day in, day out. Early in the Industrial Age, religion continued to provide a source of meaning for most people, as a collective purpose. As the Industrial Age progressed, however, church attendance decreased, while jobs and consumption increasingly came to be seen as sources of meaning. Some of this change can be traced back to the rise of the “Protestant” work ethic, which provided justification for wealth accumulation from rising professions (such as lawyers and doctors) and the managerial class. Some of it is the result of the massive growth in commercial advertising, which cleverly tied consumption to such aspirations as freedom (e.g., the infamous Camel cowboy cigarette ads) and happiness. We have come so far on that path that people now speak of “retail therapy,” the idea that you can make yourself feel better by shopping.
As with such earlier transitions, it is not surprising that with the current digital dislocation we are yet again seeing a rise in populist leaders with simplistic messages, such as Donald Trump in the United States and Viktor Orbán in Hungary. A recent study found that the average share of the vote for populist parties throughout Europe is more than double what it was in the 1960s . People who lose their sense of meaning when their purpose and beliefs are challenged want to be told that things will be okay and that the answers are simple. “Make America Great Again” is one such message. These backward-looking movements promise an easy return to a glorious past. Similarly, we are once again seeing a growth in church attendance as well as in various spiritual movements, all of which promise to quickly restore individuals’ access to meaning. The alternative of creating new meaning through an individual search for purpose and the independent examination and formation of beliefs requires considerable attention. Attention which people cannot muster for reasons that we will examine in detail later in the book.
This individual scarcity of attention to purpose is not confined to any one demographic. People who work multiple jobs to pay rent and feed their families are definitely impacted, but so are many people in high-paying jobs, who are often working more hours than ever and have increased their personal expenses to the point where they cannot afford to quit. One might posit that this is the result of a lack of education, but I often meet young people who have graduated from elite schools and want to work for a technology startup or get into venture capital. Most of them are looking for advice about how to apply to a specific position. After discussing that for some time, I usually ask them a more open question: “What do you want from this position?” That often elicits more interesting answers—they might talk about learning a new skill, or applying one that they have recently learned. Sometimes people answer with a desire to contribute to some cause. When I ask them “What is your purpose?”, shockingly few have paid enough attention to this question to have an answer. It is often as if they had been presented with this question for the first time and suddenly realize that “make a lot of money” is not actually a purpose that can provide meaning in life.
Humanity is also not devoting nearly enough attention to our collective need for more knowledge to address the threats we are facing and seize the opportunities ahead of us.
In terms of the threats we face, we are not working nearly hard enough on stabilizing or reducing the levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Or on monitoring asteroids that could strike the Earth, and coming up with ways of deflecting them. Or on containing the current coronavirus outbreak and future pandemics (an early draft of The World After Capital, written before 2020, said “containing the next avian flu” here).
Climate change, “death from above” and pandemics are three examples of species-level threats that are facing humans. As I wrote earlier, we are only able to sustain the current global human population due to technological progress. Each of these risk categories has the potential to fundamentally disrupt our ability to meet individual needs. For example, the climate crisis could result in large-scale global crop failures, which could mean we would no longer be able meet everyone’s needs for calories and nutrients. This is not a hypothetical concern: it has led to the downfall of prior human civilizations, such as the Rapa Nui on Easter Island and the Mayans, whose societies collapsed due to relatively small changes in their local climate, possibly induced in some measure by their own actions.– Now we are facing a climate crisis on a truly global scale, and we should be using a significant proportion of all human attention to fight this threat.
On the opportunity side, far too little human attention is spent on things such as environmental cleanup, educational resources and basic research. The list here is nearly endless, and includes unlocking quantum computing and advancing machine intelligence. The latter is particularly intriguing because it could help produce more knowledge faster, thus potentially helping to reduce the scarcity of attention.
None of this means that everyone has to become a scientist or engineer—there are many other ways to allocate attention to address these threats and opportunities. For instance, learning about the climate crisis, sharing that knowledge with others and becoming politically active are all ways of allocating attention that can directly or indirectly create more knowledge. So is creating art that inspires others, whether it is to directly take an action, or by connecting us to our shared humanity as a source of meaning. This is why when I talk about not creating enough knowledge, I am not limiting it to scientific knowledge but including all knowledge, as defined earlier.
Attention scarcity is difficult to alleviate, and I therefore propose it as a possible explanation for the Fermi paradox. The physicist Enrico Fermi famously asked why we have not yet detected any signs of intelligent life elsewhere in our universe, despite knowing that there are plenty of planets that could harbor such life. Many different explanations have been advanced, including that we are the first and hence only intelligent species, or that more advanced intelligent species stay “dark” for fear of being attacked by even more advanced species (the premise of Cixin Liu’s sci-fi trilogy The Three-Body Problem). Alternatively, perhaps all civilizations develop until they have sufficient capital but then suffer from attention scarcity, so they are quickly wiped out by a pandemic or a meteor strike. If civilizations that can build radios don’t persist for very long, the timing of signs of their existence may be very unlikely to coincide with ours.
Why is our scarce attention so poorly allocated that we have created a potential extinction-level event in the form of a climate crisis? One reason is that we currently use the market mechanism to allocate attention. The next sections explain how this mechanism is sucking huge amounts of attention into a few systems such as Facebook, while also keeping much of it trapped in Industrial Age activities. Finally, we will consider why markets fundamentally cannot allocate attention, which points to crucial limits on capitalism.