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Into the Maelstrom – How competition for attention leaves us open to manipulation, tribalism & estrangement from reality.

Writing during the twilight age of literature, maverick media theorist Marshall McLuhan devoted his life to the understanding of the global mass media and its effect on human behaviour. He argued that by changing our sense ratios, different communication technologies altered the focus of our mental attention and affected us both on an individual and societal level. For example, the communications satellite acted as a ‘proscenium arch’ that made the TV generation all want to be performers, which led collectively to vast shifts in the nature of society as new industries emerged in response. In contemplating the humble photocopier in the 1960s, he saw the seeds of the audience participation and self-publishing that would come to characterise the internet:

“Xerox or xerograpy enables the reader to become a publisher, and this is an important aspect of electric circuitry. The audience is increasingly involved in the process. With print, the audience was detached, observant, but not involved. With circuitry, the reader, the audience becomes involved in itself and in the process of publishing. The future of the book is very much in the order of book as information service.”

Information would become personalised, as one would ‘phone up’ a service and say the type of subject you were interested in knowing, and you’d be sent a ‘xerox’ bundle personally compiled and curated for you as an individual. He also could see that the mass media was making the world smaller, coining the phrase the ‘global village’, prophesying electronic media (as he called it) would have a ‘retribalising’ effect on us by shifting us back to oral rather than literate cultural patterns. While the idea of the global village has practically entered the common tongue, one lesser known metaphor ran through all of his work but perhaps summed up his thinking more totally; the Maelstrom. The term was drawn from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, A Descent into the Maelstrom in which three fishermen were sucked into a gargantuan whirlpool while out at sea, and describes how they tried to escape the monstrosity:

“At first only saw hideous terror in the spectacle. In a moment of revelation, he saw that the Maelstrom is a beautiful and awesome creation. Observing how objects around him were pulled into it, he deduced that ‘the larger the bodies, the more rapid their descent’.”

For McLuhan saw the mass media as a titanic vortex pulling society towards new forms of behaviours – new ways of being –  that threatened to completely overwhelm or even destroy it. In the electric age, the fluid nature of information and the sheer amount of it thwarted our attempts at top-down classification methods so characteristic of literate culture. His hopes that like the sailor protagonist of the poem, that if we now study the perturbations and ‘configurations’ of the mass media, we can make sense of it and devise a way escape its centripetal pull.

“The huge vortices of energy created by our media present us with similar possibilities of evasion or consequences of destruction. By studying the patterns of the effects of this huge vortex of energy in which we are involved, it may be possible to program a strategy of evasion and survival.”

At the same time McLuhan was captivating television audiences with his often cryptic prophesies and ideas, the political scientist Simon Herbert was discussing the evolving landscape of communication technology from a less poetic, but perhaps more practical perspective. When he coined the phrase ‘attention economy’ in the early 70s, about 18 computers were attached to the internet. But even though the internet was still in its infancy, he could see how the growth of global mass media and cheap publishing were putting an increasing strain on our ability to collect and process information, writing that:

“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.”

He viewed this first and foremost as an organisational challenge; that “scarcity of attention in an information-rich world will be measured by the time, in minutes or hours, say, of a human executive” and as such, the information presented to them then needed to be accurate, useful and worthy of attention to begin with. If it was deficient in any part and did not correspond to reality, any decisions based on it could be botched at best and catastrophic at worst. The larger and more hierarchical the organisation the greater the challenge, as each layer acts as an information filter that selectively processed data to channel to the top of the ‘pyramid’. This being the height of the Cold War, the hierarchical system that most concerned Simon was the American Government, writing that “a frightening array of matter converges on that single, serial information processing system, the President of the United States”.

Today, Big Data problems are still primarily framed as commercial and organisational challenges; of how wisdom can be sourced from exponential oceans of data measured in exabytes, zettabytes or other numbers alien to human scale. Even as we make advances, by developing machine learning tools to mine the vast data sets as they grow in size and complexity, we are like Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, running to stay in the same place.

As more of us migrate online, and the more physical environment is colonised with information harvesting devices to catalogue every waking and sleeping moment, this is only going to get worse in the coming decades and centuries. Today the sheer speed at which we are exposed to information undermines any systematic and rational analysis almost by its very nature, either as organisations or as an individual. What was a whirlpool to McLuhan in the middle of the 20th century is today more akin to the Eye of Jupiter, a monster that, as it encroaches closer to our immediate realities, threatens to tear them apart.

The multi-tabbed, multi-screen, multi-channeled, multi-media prism through which we currently experience the world is already wreaking havoc with our ability to think clearly. The constant competition between signals clawing for attention erodes our ‘working memory’ –  the neural architecture associated with our capacity for controlled attention and complex reasoning. Increasingly we interact with information through stimulus-driven attention; the unthinking animal response that does what it says on the tin. The media theorist Kevin Kelly similarly writes of how the medium of the book neurologically changed the brain, making it ‘focused, immersed’, training our minds to follow a single topic in incredible depth. He calls it ‘literature space’:

“One can spend hours reading on the web and never encounter this literature space. One gets fragments, threads, glimpses. That is the web’s great attraction: miscellaneous pieces loosely joined. But without some kind of containment, these loosely joined pieces spin away, nudging a reader’s attention onwards, wandering from the central narrative or argument.”

In 2007, English professor N.Katherine Hayles wrote of modern media causing a shift from ‘deep attention’ that involves concentrating one’s mental focus on a single object or information stream, to what she calls ‘hyper attention’, which is:

“Characterised by switching focus rapidly among different tasks, preferring multiple information streams, seeking a high level of stimulation, and having a low tolerance for boredom.”

She did not see this so much as a new evolutionary adaptation to cope with the challenges of navigating the maelstrom, so much as a reversion to a much older way of processing sensory information, drawn from our deep past in the Paleolithic jungle. She wrote this the same year the iPhone entered the market, massively escalating the war for our attention, creating a new, user-friendly means for psychic contagion to spread at the speed of light, right into the palm of our hands.

Today the Darwinian struggle for attention between advertisers, marketers, bloggers, charlatans, narcissists, political fanatics, religious zealots and general attention seekers-results in a race-to-the-bottom tactic to trigger emotions and get a hasty share or retweet. Any mashup of dubious stats, images, half-truths and hyperbole can be arranged in a way that can make the most preposterous conclusions appear plausible. The ease of access to information through search engines has created the illusion that truth is at our fingertips, instead, it is the ability to justify any prejudice or bias in seconds, or find other communities to do it on our behalf.

From artfully crafted selfies to outrage-inducing memes, we treat information pulled from the maelstrom like so much ochre paste and seashells; simply baubles with which to decorate ourselves, there to signal social status and tribal allegiance. And because we’re often not thinking about or even consuming this media –  and max-out on cognitive biases when we do – outrageous claims don’t even need to stand up to much scrutiny. Indeed, scrutiny is increasingly hard work. And even when we can force ourselves to wield deep attention long enough to do some sleuthing, the vast amounts of information available to us means that any topic can be explored in fractal levels of detail, with certainty itself remaining frustratingly elusive.

While truth might indeed lurk out there in the murk of the deep web, journeying out there to find it and bringing it back to the ordinary world is far too onerous for many of the TL/DR generation to contemplate. Instead things are ‘true’ when they provide social validation within a like-minded peer group – the only metric of consequence –  and not any proximity to empirical reality. It will come as little surprise to the reader that these frailties are routinely exploited.