Herbert Simon is reputed to have pointed out that the ultimate scarce good is attention. This means that we ultimately live in a an attention economy, and that what determines the value of something is the attention it can command or help you command. But is the amount of attention constant in the world? Well, it does seem obvious that with each new pair of eyes we get sum total more attention as well, but the other thing that seems interesting to explore is how well we harness our attention. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that we all have the capacity to devote X micro-simons (arbitrary unit for attention) to something. Then we need to understand a couple of different things:
First, are we operating at our limits? Are we attention-efficient in the sense that we use all of the micro-simons we are capable of using? What would it mean if we are not? One way of looking at it is to say that we waste attention when we try to do more than one thing at the same time, because the sum of such multi-tasking madness is actually much more than sequential consumption of those two tasks would have required. So we can be more attention efficient.
Second, can we grow our capacity for attention? Not as a society, where population growth adds attention, but as individuals? Meditation, reading, music and other techniques might actually be able to help us grow our capacity to pay attention to something, and if we learn that it would not seem impossible that we can pay more attention than we could before. You see this in children, their ability to pay attention grows with their age.
Third, are there attention amplifier technologies or drugs we can use? Jonah Lehrer argues in his Imagine (2012) that amphetamines help authors and artist focus attention. On the other hand they then burn out, so maybe that particular drug is just a zero sum thing. What would attention amplifiers do? They would allow us to more continuously pay attention to something, without tiring. Glucose is a simple example. As pointed out by Baumeister et al in their Willpower (2012) we consume glucose when we make decisions or use our will, and paying attention closely is very close to an exercise of will. (Which leads to a broader question: should we say that will is actually the ultimate scarce good? That would be very nietzschean, and kind of interesting. What is your vote? Attention or will? I might actually vote for will come to think of it, measured in micro-nietzsches).
Finally, one thing that really strikes me as true is that our ability to pay attention to something closely is correlated with happiness. Immersing ourselves in attention removes the distance between the world and ourselves, reminiscent of the flow that psychologists say is the best approximation of happiness we have. And nothing is more destructive, nothing more horrible than something that shatters our attention into the fragments of a million small things. Nietzsche had a word for people unable to focus on something, pay attention to it, will it — he called them, unkindly, Bruchstück-Menschen, fragmentary men.
Unable to pay attention, with their will dispersed and their lives in fragments these are the people we all risk becoming if we do not work on our attention amplifiers. And that is a real risk for most of us in the flurry of emails, calls and small things.