The Looming Attention Crisis

Umair Haque said something (or actually quoted someone) at our Sessions event that has been rattling around my brain for the past week.

Umair said:

Herbert Simon said it in 1971, which is that
"What does an abundance of information create?" A scarcity of
attention basically, right?

So I went to Wikipedia and looked up Herbert Simon and found out that he was a cognitive psychologist who made significant contributions to the fields of artificial intelligence, economics, and philosophy.

A more "blown out" version of Umair’s quote of Simon is:

"What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it." (Computers, Communications and the Public Interest, pages 40-41, Martin Greenberger, ed., The Johns Hopkins Press, 1971.)

With that concept rolling around in my mind, I had lunch yesterday with a bunch of smart people at the Shake Shack.  We got talking about RSS feeds.  Joshua Schachter asked Brad Feld how many feeds someone has before they reach the saturation point. We didn’t exactly answer that question, but I am sure someone will do that work shortly and give us the answer.

It will be some meaningless number like 52.3 or something.

But I can tell you this.  I am way past the point of saturation and I keep adding feeds.  At this point, I have over 100 feeds subscribed to in various readers.  And I have frankly stopped paying attention to most of them.

But this issue is not limited to feeds. I have been using a lot of new web services lately.  It’s part of my job to do that.  New companies submit business plans for us to evaluate. The first thing we usually do is use their service. Most of what is getting built today requires a fair amount of user participation and thus a lot of attention. I have stranded so many web services that its not even possible to count them.

I joked recently that I am giving my family "continuous partial attention".  They don’t like that and demand more.  And I give them more.  Blogs and web services can’t demand more attention very easily. So they get less.

Most of us have day jobs.  Many of us have families.  So we have a limited amount of attention left.  And I suspect we are consuming most of it with what we’ve got on our plates today.

So where does the attention come for the next wave of blogs and web services?  From the old ones, I guess.  In my case, its not going to come out of my family’s attention allocation or my firm’s.

So attention is a zero sum game and if we are creating (at an exponential rate?) more uses of attention, then we are facing a looming attention crisis.

That’s all I can offer at this point.  I don’t know when that crisis will hit and what its effects are going to be.  Maybe something will come along that allocates attention more efficiently (delicious or digg?) and the crisis will be averted for now.

I suppose anything is possible, but I feel in my gut that we are facing a "poverty of attention" and something is going to give.