Amusing Ourselves to Death in the Attention Economy

sad clown doll in basket


Recently at the gas station, I was filling up my tank as a beautiful woman appeared on the high-definition screen placed on the pump. She told me when I’m feeling stressed out and overwhelmed, I need to repeat to myself a few times the phrase everything is figureoutable and then I’d be okay. My brain, she explained, would learn not to become stressed out.

First off, this advice falls flat. Not everything is figureoutable. Part of being a mature adult is coming to terms with the uncertainty of life. Every single third-wave clinical psychology therapy—from CBT to ACT to DBT to MBSR—holds in common the importance of learning to release from needing to figure out and control everything.

Second off, in addition to the bizarre and toxic positivity, why on earth do I need someone giving me so-called wellness advice while I’m pumping gas? This question answered itself with the next video on the screen: an advertisement highlighting two for six dollar whoppers at the Burger King.

It seems that no public space is safe from attention economics, a term that is shorthand for marketers and advertisers trying to monetize every bit of open space in our lives. I found the entire episode at the gas station absurd. That I can’t even pump gas without being hocked something. That the first thing I was hocked was utter bullshit dressed up in pseudoscience. That it was followed by a total non sequitur: double whoppers. Perhaps if it would have been even more outrageous had the health and wellness advice been serious. Who can say. The whole thing is a disaster.

That same weekend, we had family in town. They are lovely. Truly, the best. One person enjoys watching the morning news shows, which is something my nuclear family hasn’t done for the last decade or so. Instead of being frustrated by this, I thought maybe I’d learn something. After all, this was serious programming, Face the Nation and This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

However, what ensued felt nothing like serious discourse and everything like cheap entertainment. Each segment of the show was introduced with music made for an action movie. The latest political polling was always unveiled right after a commercial break. Worst of all, the distinguished guests, former governors and staffers and other political “experts,” were laughingly placing bets on who would win upcoming elections. They were creating odds on the fly, as if it were a fantasy football show. Is Chris Christie buying the democratic strategist a $100 dinner, or vice-versa?

For these professional talking heads, the stakes may feel like fantasy football. But for the rest of us, it’s the future of our country. It’s a woman’s right to reproductive health care. It’s the price of gas. It’s policing and safety policy. It’s whether or not we have free and fair elections. It’s nuclear safety versus nuclear war. It’s the direction we go on climate change. And on and on and on.

To be fair, these serious morning shows, with their serious hosts and serious guests, did make some crucial points; but on the whole, the discourse overwhelmingly served to lessen the stakes and cheapen the seriousness of what ought to be the highest stakes and most serious discussions we, as a country, have. Politics are not sports, or at least they ought not to be. (Though election night in America has come to feel increasingly more like the super-bowl, with an entire media complex profiting off of our collective thrill and subsequent attention.)

I couldn’t help but link the morning shows to my gas station experience. Humans, myself included, love to be entertained. And if entertainment captures our attention, then “to be entertaining” will be the guiding principle for anything which ultimately profits from selling our attention to advertisers—which, in a hyper-digitalized world, is just about everything.

The media theorist Neil Postman said it best in his 1985 (!!) book Amusing Ourselves to Death. The more our attention gets monetized, the more our attention will be filled with quick hot takes that focus on excitement and entertainment over depth and thoughtfulness. He used the example of a nightly news show going from spending two minutes covering a tragic and somber double-murder to a laughing weatherman telling jokes while dressed up in a funny hat. It’s impossible to be serious with this sort of absurd context shifting.

Meanwhile, the only thing that’s changed since Postman first wrote his book is the segments are shorter and no longer confined to our televisions; they are everywhere, following us around in our pockets (smartphones) and even with us when we leave our smartphones in the car to pump gas.

The most important thing you can do in this environment is be very intentional about creating protected time and space for the activities that mean most to you, including thinking itself. But even that requires a certain socioeconomic station in life. It’s one I’m lucky enough to have, and my hunch is many of my regular readers are too. But for people who work multiple jobs, whose only break and peace and quiet in the day may be to pump gas; well, how can we blame anyone for anything if society is constantly bombarding its masses with nonsensical crap.

A few years back in his book The World Beyond Your Head, the philosopher Matthew Crawford speculated that it wouldn’t be long before quiet spaces—in which you can think your own thoughts—would be something for wealthy people only. It’s terrifying how right he may be.

To be honest, I’m not sure where to go from here. While material life has improved for many people over the last few decades, psychological life has stagnated. I think the above has a lot to do with it. Hopefully this piece helps to sound the alarm, and gives you language and concepts for what you may be experiencing. With this language and these concepts, all of us can be more aware of the forces preying upon (if not destroying) our attention and our ability to think serious thoughts. When we are able, we ought to do what we can to create personal lives, organizations, communities, families, and so on that resist the worst parts of the attention economy. This problem isn’t going away any time soon, and the first step to solving any problem is naming it and accepting that it’s real.


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