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 am going, because you do not know my direction. 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 occupied our minds — 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 and need to spend some of it eating and sleeping. Most people in the world have their waking hours taken up by earning an income and consuming goods and services, leaving relatively little time for attention that they can freely allocate. 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 available attention by adding more people.
Crucially, we are not able to go back in time and change our past attention. 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 due to a lack of attention by most people to the crucial questions of purpose and belief systems at a time of great transition. All over the world, people had become used to constructing meaning around their jobs and beliefs, but both these things are undermined by digital technologies. Many jobs have come under pressure from automation or outsourcing. Content is 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 – 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 from when people left the countryside and moved to big cities during the transition to the Industrial Age, in the process giving up identities that had been constructed around land and professions. 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 – somebody with a strong sense of personal purpose does not readily operate an industrial machine day in, day out. Early in the Industrial Age, religion still provided a source of meaning for a lot of people. As the Industrial Age progressed, work and consumption have increasingly become sources of meaning. Church attendance decreased while commercial advertising grew massively and became a significant alternative narrative about meaning, eventually culminating in the idea of ‘retail therapy’.
Given the new transition, it is not surprising that we are currently 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 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 an example of one such message. Instead of building new meaning, which requires considerable attention, these backward 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 spirituality movements, all of which promise to restore meaning.
This individual scarcity of attention 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. I often meet young people who want to work for a technology startup or to enter 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 your next position?’ That often elicits more interesting answers – they might talk about learning a new skill or applying a skill 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 people have paid enough attention to this question to have an answer.
Humanity is also not devoting nearly enough attention towards 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 reducing the levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Or on monitoring asteroids that could strike earth, and coming up with ways of deflecting them. Or on containing the current coronavirus outbreak (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 our 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 a large-scale global crop failure, which would mean we could no longer 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 or the Mayans, whose societies collapsed due to relatively small changes in their local climate. Now, however, we are facing a climate crisis on a truly global scale, and we should be using a significant amount 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 helping to reduce the scarcity of attention.
None of this means that everyone has to become a scientist or engineer – there are lots of 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 directly or indirectly create more knowledge. So is creating art that inspires others, whether it is to directly take an action, or simply 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 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 scientist 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 the sci-fi trilogy ‘The Three-Body Problem’ by Cixin Liu). 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, they will be hard if not impossible to detect.
Why is our scarce attention so poorly allocated that we are facing a potential extinction-level event in the form of the climate crisis? One reason is that we currently use the market mechanism to allocate attention. The next sections explain how it is sucking a lot 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 the crucial limits of capitalism.