The Attention Economy

One of the best infrequently recurring Saturday Night Live sketches stars Bill Hader as the sardonic host of a game show called “What’s That Name?” As he explains, “The rules are simple, we show you a person, and you tell us their name.” Here’s the latest iteration from earlier this year:

The script follows the original almost exactly: Both contestants, successful businesspeople, are asked to name a slightly obscure celebrity or pop culture icon from a photo, which they manage to do for a meager reward. Then, with comical amounts of money on the line, they’re asked to name people they have met and interacted with in real life many times, who walk on set to greet them. Inevitably, they fail miserably, inducing a mix of grimacing, schadenfreude, and relief that we aren’t playing that game.

“But Lil Xan you know,” the wife of a colleague of one of the contestants quips as she walks off-stage, a line so biting it’s precisely replicated from the original. After all, our conscience tells us that we know both far more than we should about celebrities and far less than we should about people we interact with all the time.

Attention is a finite resource, even more so than money, and we should be treating it that way. In the era of entire social media empires built to attract attention and convert it into advertising income, it’s even explicitly monetized.

We would do well, then, to apply the same principles we encourage in fiduciary matters to our attention. Think of everything that you choose to pay attention to as a good that you’re paying for. Every TV show, YouTube video, or listicle that your mind dwells on must pay its rent. Yes, even this blog post — I certainly hope it’s worth your attention.

Of course, this means that we should budget our attention, or at least keep track of where it’s going. I’ve previously advocated and illustrated the process of performing time audits for a similar purpose; while attention is harder to quantify than time or money, it’s just as important to keep tabs on where your mind has been spending most of its cycles.

Conspicuous consumption, or “keeping up with the Joneses,” is the wasteful practice of spending money on luxurious items for the sole purpose of appearing rich. Conspicuous attention, or, if you will, “keeping up with the Karadashians,” is then the wasteful practice of lavishing attention on hot button issues or celebrities for the sole purpose of appearing culturally engaged. We should avoid both.

In addition to avoiding wasting money, there can also be a moral dimension to our economic decisions, as we see with various calls to boycott companies or industries with problematic business practices. As an example of applying the same approach to attention, I’ve personally committed not to read or seek out any information related to manifestos written by terrorists. Our attention is what they seek, and I’m not giving it to them.

In the interest of respecting the attention you’ve given this post, I’ll keep it short and offer some additional blog posts on similar subjects. I’d also like to simply encourage you to reflect on your own life. What topics are continually rattling around your head? Where do you wish you would spend more of your attention? Do you notice any unhealthy patterns in the ways that you spend your attention?

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