Thursday, March 1, 2012

Surplus in the Attention Economy

A little while back, I decided on a lark to count the various things I was doing simultaneously.
1) paying attention to a man reciting verse aloud
2) folding an item I was using to put it away
3) reciting a prayer by heart
4) scanning the room for an individual I was going to get a ride with
5) composing this list/blogpost
6) calculating the approximate time I would arrive at work and thereby the total number of hours I would be likely spending there
7) mentally engineering and designing a problem specific solution
8) contemplating the code that I was potentially going to work on that day

And probably a number of others, but these are the ones I remember as being directly conscious and deliberate of.
There have been a number of studies about the concept of multitasking and it's overall effects when it comes to attention span, and most of the news isn't really good - attention, being a scarce resource, doesn't enable us to function effectively when divided between multiple tasks. In fact, what scientists are beginning to discover is that people are much more effective when rapidly task switching than with actual multitasking.

So what of the list I started with?
Well, the question we face is as follows: what does surplus looks like in an attention based economy?

To whit, this is the most basic level of economic activity - describing how we manipulate and spend our most precious perisheable good (attention and time) among stimuli vying for our response is critical to the complex interactions that occur in every economic layer above this foundation. Game Theory to Microeconomics to Macroeconomics to Socioeconomics and even Political Science all depend on personal choices based on the processing of stimuli.
There's a very good place for us to start looking at what happens with surplus attention or mental processing capacity: sensory deprivation. Here we have an artificially induced scarcity of stimuli for us to spend our processing power on.
What does economics predict in such a situation?
Since you have more attention resources than you have stimuli, logic would dictate that an individual would "purchase" the stimuli at base cost and just sit on their surplus attention.

But what ACTUALLY happens?
Researchers and flowerchildren alike are delighted to find that sensory deprivation has similar effects to LSD, and extended periods of deprivation can have such severe consequences that it may be considered a violation of human rights to hold someone in an extended state of deprivation. Essentially, a lack of stimulation causes the brain to create it's own artificial stimuli in some respects and eventual atrophy in others. The brain doesn't function like a computer which can allow it's processors to wind down and draw less power. Instead, it uses the latent processing power to overprocess what little incoming information there is, interfering with it's own cogent operations.
This is, on it's surface, absurd. Why would any entity compete with itself for resources?
Reread that last sentence, and see if you can spot the fallacy.

The brain isn't a single entity.
Recent theory suggests that the brain behaves much more like a hive mind, where competing neurons fight to interpret stimuli. A similar model would by a modern corporation which, while ostensibly unified by a common goal, typically suffers from large amounts of signal-noise issues as its component teams deal with separate issues and resolve their own messages.
So the brain isn't an individual dealing with a surplus resource and a scarce good. Rather, it's a community of sensory interpretation centers fighting over the limited set of stimuli. In such a situation, we would expect INCREASED activity as the different parts of the brain expand their surplus resources on generating the LOUDEST signal possible. This is, in fact, what happens as the the visual and auditory centers of the brain turn towards a "self stimulating state."

The second effect of prolonged deprivation (after several hours) is memory loss, which can reasonably be anticipated as the result of shutting down long-term, non-essential functions to preserve processing efficiency in anticipation of stimulation. You can only review your memories of events so many times until you're wasting resources through iteration. [Side note: It would be interesting to see a sensory deprivation/memory study performed on those individuals who claim "super memories."] Logically, the brain, and particularly the limbic system, would keep itself in a state of base awareness while shutting down glycogen/energy intensive sectors of abstract reasoning and communication that have little use in solitude.

So what does this mean for us?
It's said that we live in an environment and time that actively encourages us to "disburse" our attention, and that we are suffering for it. But this may not be an accurate assessment. Video-games, which are often targeted as Public Enemy #1 when it comes to encouraging "ADD/Hyperactivity," are often masterful at keeping said "problem children" occupied for hours.

Let's examine the parts of a typical FPS:

  1. Spatial awareness - Where are you located in the environment
  2. Situational awareness - Where are potential threats
  3. Objective awareness - Being cognizant of the end goal in the simulation
  4. Auditory integration - Environmental clues providing more information
  5. Secondary data source - Awareness of things such as radar, health, ammo, and the like 
  6. Problem assessment - analyze possible courses of action and resolve probable outcomes
  7. Tactile implementation - Hand-eye integration to manipulate the character via a abstract input method - the controller

If this is the case, then focus isn't the issue - children that can handle all these tasks simultaneously have no problems with focus. What they have is a surplus of attention and difficulty isolating external stimuli. The problem with the school environment is that it isn't a LEARNING environment, it's a TEACHING environment. The teacher puts all their focus into presenting their lesson plan and anticipating the needs of their students. Their attention is fully taken up with this task. Children, on the other hand, only need to spend a fraction of their processing capacity to deal with the specific set of inputs the teacher is handing them, but they are left with surplus attention that is used to pull extraneous data from their environment.

We live in a new world and are a new breed of Mankind with instantaneous news via Twitter drip feeds; immediate access to the collective knowledge of Wikipedia through our perpetually connected smartphones; and constant music and video through YouTube, Pandora, et. al. Our derives not from an inability to focus, but in dealing with a surplus of attention capacity causing bizarre neuro-economic behavior that divides and impairs our ability to focus on low-stimulus tasks. The solution shouldn't be to medicate our children and ourselves into oblivion or tamping down our neural activity, but to search for new ways of layering relevant stimulation on top of our ever-broadening reality.

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