If you can read this article all the way through, there’s hope for you yet.

Attention is a precious commodity. Your attention. The one reading these words right now. Advertisers spend millions catching your attention for up to 30 seconds (and most of that just for the first 3 seconds). This attention-gathering has grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry that is changing your brain chemistry and redefining the way you perceive reality.

Attention is the new currency and advertisers spare no expense in crafting captivating, emotionally resonant, and often visually stunning content that commands your focus. The average person is bombarded with thousands of ads daily, because the ad men know, if you don’t stop scrolling for this one, you’ll stop for the next one. Or the next. Or the next.

Social media marked a paradigm shift in the way your attention is harvested. Social platforms are designed to capture and hold your attention for as long as possible, so that you can be shown as many ads as possible. The thing is, you willingly participate in these ecosystems by engaging in their continuous cycles of consuming and interacting with content.

You scroll through timelines, engage with posts, and share personal updates, all while the underlying marketing machinery works tirelessly to collect data on your behaviour and preferences to deliver ads that are tailored to your specific needs and desires.

The minutes of your life are being stolen by ten-second videos.

This is a mutually agreed-upon arrangement: you trade your attention for the perceived benefits of connection, entertainment, and information-sharing. But this symbiotic (parasitic) relationship between attention and technology has profound consequences for your brain’s chemistry. The digital world is changing your physical reality, and not just through all the money you’re spending (what else could you do with the money?) on crap you don’t need (which then takes up physical and mental space in your life).

The pursuit of instant gratification on social media triggers the same reward systems in your brain that are activated by gambling. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, floods your neural pathways, creating a cycle of repeated engagement that mirrors the addictive patterns seen in casinos. This physiological response underscores the gravity of your emotional attachment to these platforms and the insidious manner in which they shape your behaviour.

The constant barrage of notifications, messages, and updates in the digital realm have been linked to attention deficits and reduced cognitive abilities. The phenomenon of “continuous partial attention” — the habit of constantly dividing your focus across multiple tasks — leads to decreased productivity, impaired decision-making, and reduced creativity. This spills over into the physical world, affecting your ability to engage effectively in tasks, conversations, and activities that require sustained concentration.

And just consider the quantity of information you’re exposed to on a daily basis; in 2021 you were taking in five times more information than in 1986. You’re also a part of a growing statistic of record-high levels of depression and anxiety. The CDC, has stated that the suicide rate among youth was stable from 2000 to 2007, but then it shot up by 57% between 2007 and 2017 — the very same period when social media growth exploded.

The blue light emitted by screens interferes with the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates your sleep. As a result, excessive digital consumption before bed can lead to insomnia, irregular sleep schedules, and fatigue, ultimately impacting your physical health and cognitive function during waking hours. And that’s saying nothing about the short-cycle dopamine hits you get while on social media, which you are reluctant to step away from.

Social media has a reinforcing nature and digital platforms are intentionally designed to be addictive. There’s an entire economy and ecosystem praying on your attention. Those little numbers, tallying unread messages, become like little to do lists, pushing you to get the number down to zero or face dire anxiety for “falling behind”. At the slightest sign of boredom, you reach for your phone, opting to be entertained by the easy distraction, rather than sit with the uncomfortable emotion or observing your immediate environment.

Simply using social media releases dopamine — rewarding you for just logging on — which explains the levels of addiction we have. According to Nir Eyal, the companies that succeed in forming strong user habits enjoy benefits to their bottom line. For a company to create associations with “internal triggers” in user’s minds, makes users come to their website or platform without any external prompting. Talk about saving on ads. These companies achieve this by attaching their offerings to the daily routines and emotions of users.

A cemented habit is when users subconsciously think, ‘I’m bored,’ and instantly Facebook comes to mind. They think, ‘I wonder what’s going on in the world?’ and before rationale thought occurs, Twitter is the answer. The first-to-mind solution wins.

— Nir Eyal, The Hooked Model: How to Manufacture Desire in 4 Steps

Humans also have a biological predisposition to form attachments to social partners, and can even form attachments towards inanimate objects or non-human targets. One study titled Humans’ attachment to their mobile phones and its relationship with interpersonal attachment style hypothesised that, “young people form attachment toward their mobile phone, and that people with higher attachment anxiety use the mobile phone more likely as a compensatory attachment target”.

They found that young people who readily form an attachment toward their phone, seek its proximity and experience distress when separated from it. The conclusion was that people who have an anxious attachment style may deepen their codependence because of the constant contact and validation computer-mediated communication offers.

Again and again, surveys and studies report that smartphone interruptions can cause greater inattention and hyperactivity (even in people who don’t have ADHD), that you’re using your phone on the toilet, before sleep, and even during sex. And after a poorly slept night, you wake up, and the first thing you do is pull up your social media drug of choice. All this happens before you’re even out of bed, setting in motion a cycle that allows external triggers to determine your mood as you move into your day.

Social media has transformed the way you interact and communicate.

On one hand, it allows you to connect with individuals from diverse backgrounds and locations, fostering a sense of a global community. It can help you find people who have the same niche hobby you do, allow you to discover knowledge you wouldn’t have come across just Googling Stuff on your own, and from the Arab Spring to more recent protests in Iran, social media has been a conduit for protesters to organise and spread their message with bigger reach and faster speed than any other way.

But the digital medium can also lead to a deterioration of in-person interactions and a decline in the quality of your relationships. Spending excessive time in digital spaces detracts from face-to-face conversations, weakening your ability to read non-verbal cues, express empathy, and form deep emotional connections.

The physical world, once a hub of social exchange, ends up becoming fragmented and diminished as digital interactions take precedence. Paying too much attention to your phone is just plain bad for your relationships. Phubbing — snubbing someone in your company in order to engage with your phone — has been the cause of decreased satisfaction in marriages.

The immersive nature of digital environments will quickly lead to a disconnection from the world around you, including the natural world. Y’know, that thing that your brain and body have evolved to exist in over millions of years? That place where you can stop and smell an actual rose, not just post a picture of one for likes?

As you become engrossed in digital content, you may find you spend less time outdoors, experiencing nature, and engaging in activities that foster an appreciation for the environment. Our connection to nature is deeply ingrained in both our biology and psychology.

This detachment from the physical world, more and more common in our urbanised lives, limits opportunities for relaxation, rejuvenation, and a sense of ecological consciousness, instead pushing us into a sedentary lifestyle, full of cardiovascular problems, obesity and musculoskeletal disorders.

To navigate this landscape successfully, it becomes crucial to strike a balance between digital engagement and the preservation of your physical well-being and connection to the physical world. The pervasive influence of attention economics on your behaviour compels you to consider the most audacious act of resistance in the attention-driven landscape — the reclamation of your cognitive resources.

What you see depends on how you look and for how long.

In her amazing book “How to Do Nothing”, Jenny Odell advocates for a radical departure from the constant barrage of information and a reconnection with the physical world. She posits that withdrawing your attention from the demands of an attention economy will foster a deeper sense of engagement with your surroundings, your communities, and even yourself. The act of consciously redirecting your focus becomes an act of defiance, a way to reclaim autonomy over your mental spaces, and to reshape your relationship with technology and information.

According to Odell, this rebellion manifests itself in mastering how you direct your attention and for how long since, “if we allow that what we see forms the basis of how we can act, then the importance of directing our attention becomes all too clear”.

The attention economy is stealing your life it byte-sized clips. If you let it.

As Odell writes, “It’s not just that living in a constant state of distraction is unpleasant, or that a life without wilful thought and action is an impoverished one. If it’s true that collective agency both mirrors and relies on the individual capacity to pay attention, then in a time that demands action, distraction appears to be, at the level of the collective, a life and death matter. A social body that can’t concentrate or communicate with itself, is like a person who can’t think and act.”

When I was younger, I used to often feel like I was sitting in the backseat while someone else was driving my life. I felt helpless, like a spectator with no agency. A large part of that was rooted in having a narcissistic parent, and it took me decades to figure out how to take back that control. CPTSD from that, and years of being bullied, didn’t make it any easier.

Another part of it was that society was telling me to be skinnier, prettier and more performative in my femininity than I ever felt comfortable being. Is it any wonder then, that I used to spend a lot of time thinking about the meaning of life? I often found little purpose to a life that felt hollow, lived only to meet the expectations of others, rather than to follow my own curiosity.

I spent years, unquestioningly doing the kin keeping and the invisible labour, exhausting myself by trying to be everything to everyone (telling myself I was a feminist, albeit an exhausted one). And all the while, my true desires simmered under the surface, silently screaming at being suppressed. But when I was being torn in so many directions at once, a state which only got worse with the rise of social media, I was unable to take meaningful action.

As a millennial, I’m all too familiar with that expectation that you must be a highly productive wannabe-entrepreneur who’s always hacking productivity, always readily available, and always innovating new ways to forego life’s necessities, like sleep and free time.

We experience the externalities of the attention economy in little drips, so we tend to describe them with words of mild bemusement like ‘annoying’ or ‘distracting.’ But this is a grave misreading of their nature. In the short term, distractions can keep us from doing the things we want to do. In the longer term, however, they can accumulate and keep us from living the lives we want to live, or, even worse, undermine our capacities for reflection and self-regulation, making it harder, in the words of Harry Frankfurt, to ‘want what we want to want.’ Thus there are deep ethical implications lurking here for freedom, wellbeing, and even the integrity of the self.

— James Williams, Why It’s OK to Block Ads

Understanding that all content has an agenda is a fundamental truth of media literacy.

Media literacy involves the ability to critically analyse and evaluate media messages from sources like news outlets, advertisements, and content creators. Recognising that content creators often have specific intentions or agendas when producing and disseminating content is a key skill in navigating the complex and biased media landscape we all live with today.

Not all content is intentionally misleading and not every agenda is nefarious, though.

Some content creators have positive, constructive and educational agendas, and some people just want to put a smile on your face by using their own creativity. The most important thing is to approach all media with a discerning mindset, asking questions about the source, intention, potential bias, and overall credibility of the information presented.

Whenever you go on a platform, you essentially become like a rat in a maze, because you’ve got hundreds of designers and engineers planning and influencing your every move. Considering that we’ve all got the same 24 hours in a day, I think it’s safe to say that none of us want to spend more time doing things, rather we want to spend our time well.

But the attention economy targets your attention as if it’s a constant and interchangeable currency. The fundamental assumption being that your attention always remains the same, and so they feed you more of the same, creating an echo chamber around you where you only ever see things that confirm your already existing biases.

One way in which this becomes evident, is that followers on social media rarely want a creator to branch out. Once you go viral for doing one thing, that’s the only thing people want to see from you, and they will unfollow in droves, inundating you in messages as to why they have unfollowed you and how you have disappointed them.

Humans have always emulated others — parents, family, community members, teachers, mentors and those we admire — and throughout most of history, this has been an organic process. You’ve been the protagonist, analysing your knowledge gaps and seeking out information, evaluating it, trying it on, analysing if it’s a good fit. Now, with fast moving feeds full of videos that need to grab your attention in 3 seconds (or risk losing your attention), you’ve turned into a mere consumer.

Most things circling in the attention economy assume a shallow form of attention, filling the landscape with regurgitated and disposable content that isn’t even meant to last longer than the few seconds it takes to scroll past it in the feed. This is why a lot of controversial and incendiary content has a higher chance of hooking your attention, resulting in increased views, shares, comments and overall visibility.

Controversial content triggers strong emotional reactions, such as anger, outrage, shock, and disbelief. Just ask any content creator which of their videos get the most views (hint: it’s their critical, snarky content that reacts negatively to something someone else did or made). These negative emotions are powerful drivers of attention and engagement, as people are more likely to react to and interact with content that elicits a strong emotional response. It also piques people’s curiosity, leading them to consumer more content, following the trail deeper into the platform.

Content that stirs up controversy or debate also gets shared more, because it sparks discussions among user’s social circles and can serve as a means for individuals to signal their beliefs, values, or identity to others. Controversial content also tends to align with people’s pre-existing beliefs, tapping into their confirmation bias, and people are eager to jump in and “defend” their own views, even when they’re not really under attack. Engaging in this way also helps validate their viewpoints and allows them to seek affirmation from like-minded people. In a sea of more mundane content, incendiary material stands out due to its shock value.

Algorithms pick up on this.

And they prioritise controversial content due to its ability to generate more clicks, views, and interactions — i.e. more time spent on the platform. That’s why you can’t go onto BookTok without running head-first into some kind of drama. (And there is always drama.) Controversial content, and the following shitstorm of arguments from users, contributes to polarisation, misinformation and the spread of harmful ideas.

Inundated by the sheer volume of content, you rarely question the veracity of it or the agenda behind it (just look at the vitriolic media circus that sprang up around Depp v. Heard) and can easily fall into a self-perpetuating loop of bots posting content which other bots to comment on which ever more bots respond to and share forward, further exasperating the problem, not to mention your mood and attitude, since the bots only care for what’s effective, not for what’s healthy.

And when it’s the shallowest form of yourself that’s reflected back every time you open a social app, the business opportunity becomes about who can cater to your aspirational self the best. But what does it look like when someone else tries to bring out your aspirational self with the goal of making a profit?

Unthinking people are dead before they die.

Your experience is what you agree to attend to. In her book, Odell explores how your unconscious mind must notice everything in your surroundings in order to then disregard what it deems unimportant. Your attention is the key that selectively filters which of the things in your environment are allowed to enter the conscious mind. Without this selective focus, your experience would be utter chaos.

Your attention, Odell argues, can and should be trained or you lose touch with your own existence. It’s your interest alone that gives what you see form and colour, light and dark, accent and emphasis, shaping your experience, your mind, and your world.

I’m personally unsatisfied with untrained attention, which flickers from one new thing to the next, not only because it is a shallow experience or because it is an expression of habit rather than will, but because it gives me less access to my own human experience. To me the only habit worth designing for is the habit of questioning one’s own habitual ways of seeing and that is what artists, writers and musicians help us to do.

— Jenny Odell, “How to Do Nothing”

Because the purpose of any art, is to give you an experience that allows your perspective to skew, just enough, so that you see the world around you with new eyes. And in remapping your attention to notice more of what the advertisers don’t want you to see, you become the master of your own reality, curating and caring for your life like a collection of beloved art.

You begin to move and act in a different kind of world, the anxieties and the loneliness, that feeling of being untethered and disconnected from something essential dissolving away. Rather than be a reactive consumer, you become a proactive maker, sculpting for yourself the kind of life you’ve always dreamed of.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

— David Foster Wallace, “This Is Water” Commencement Speech

The attention economy, will not discourage you from getting lost in the allure of its endless cavalcade of short-cycle dopamine hits, because the world of men and money and power hums along on a perfectly balanced cocktail of anger and fear and frustration and anxiety and craving and worship of the self.

It’s only the deeper, hardier, more nuanced forms of attention that are less susceptible to being hijacked for profit, because discipline and vigilance are inherent to them. It’s hard to steal bits of your life if you’re habitually vigilant and leave nothing for anyone to steal.

Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation.

— David Foster Wallace, “This Is Water” Commencement Speech

There is a part of your brain called the prefrontal cortex.

It’s a place of logic, decision-making, goal-setting, happiness, delayed gratification, patience and creativity. It’s the thing that makes you human. And this is where you can create a magnificent life for yourself. Because when you’re primarily operating from your prefrontal cortex, you can do so many things well.

But the prefrontal cortex is in a constant tug-of-war with another part of your brain: the amygdala. This is the primitive part of your brain and the job of the amygdala is to keep you safe.

So, when your brain perceives stress, and the stress is big enough, you stop operating from the prefrontal cortex, instead switching to let the amygdala run the show. And when the amygdala kicks into gear, it has one job and one job only: to make you live another day. So what does it do? It pulls you into fight-or-flight — that’s when your whole system goes on high alert.

Now, the amygdala doesn’t work alone. It has a partner in crime called the hippocampus, where your memories are stored. And what ends up happening is that stress comes at you over and over and over again, pushing you into a fight-or-flight state.

The hippocampus stores all these memories, and what ends up happening is that your body enters a constant state of fight-or-flight as it tries to protect you from your stressors. When this system-wide general alarm is active, you’re not operating from the prefrontal cortex. That means creativity, patience, goal-setting, decision-making, logic, and all that other good stuff gets pushed to the back of the line.

Because your brain knows that if you run into a severe situation, like being attacked by a sabre-toothed tiger, you’re not gonna talk your way out of it, meaning that you don’t need to be a great orator to survive. You also aren’t going to have very good odds if you decide to stick around and see what the tiger may or may not do. So, patience isn’t important in a high-stress situation either.

Action is what’s important. Action and split-second reaction times. Because that means that you’ll glimpse the tiger, heck you might even just see the rustling bushes without any proof of a tiger, but you’ll make that call instantly and book it. Survived another day, check!

The fight-or-flight state is crucial to your human physiology. But equally important is restoring yourself to the rest-and-digest state after the stressor has passed. If you’re constantly feeding your own stress, triggering that fight-or-flight state day in and day out, by consuming a lot of content — a lot of it controversial and antagonising by design — chronic problems are gonna start cropping up. Not to mention that life is going to start feeling really hollow when all you have to go on are little clips and snippets from other people’s content.

In order to bring your brain back into a place where it’s operating from the prefrontal cortex, you need to actively turn off the red alert raging inside you. And that means stepping away from the distractions, the short-cycle dopamine hits and the raging arguments that exist online.

The physical world, especially nature, is a great reminder that you do not live in a simulation, a streamlined experience of likes and products and results and reviews. The natural world was here long before you and it will remain long after you’ve gone. Nature is that one reference point outside of you and outside of me.

It exists in a shared reality where we can leave room for serendipitous encounters that will change us in ways we cannot even fathom. And you should be making room for the pleasantly unexpected in your life, because the worst kind of life is one where you’re already dead long before you die.

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