My Poverty of Attention

In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes…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. –Herbert Simon

I don’t like the way my brain feels on the internet. I don’t like the scattershot sensation of toggling between windows, and I don’t like scrolling through a feed littered with advertisements targeted at me from my own searches. I had jury duty this week and the enforced containment seemed like a good opportunity to read a book I’ve been meaning to finish called Digital Minimalism. Given the subject matter, I couldn’t help but look around the waiting room to take an informal tally of how many people were reading books vs. looking at screens. I counted about 6 people with books, and somewhere between 70-80 people looking at screens. [Disclaimer: No judgment here – I have often enough been one of the people looking at a screen]. A few years back I read parts of Matthew Crawford’s The World Around Your Head. I say “parts of,” because he goes on some pretty dense philosophical trips in the book. But I was intrigued by his argument about the “attentional environment” we all share and the capacity we have for recovering our autonomy when we take back our concentration. One of my favorite pieces by Rebecca Solnit addresses what’s lost in the age of the internet. I’ve also been following news of the way our data has been used by social media companies and the effects on our own democracy.

More than anything, I think I’m ready to be a better steward of my time. I want to finish the book I’ve been working on and play more card games with my kids and read more poetry by Jake Skeets and Maggie Smith, more books by Toni Morrison. I want to write more letters and study the crows in my neighborhood more closely. I’m going to start a 30-Day Digital Fast tomorrow (1/12/20). This means handing my Facebook password over to a trusted friend and removing my email app from my phone. I aim to slow my day down a bit, write daily by hand in the mornings and connect more in person with people. Want to join me? I’d love to compare notes with others who are curious about re-claiming their attention. Write me a letter & I’ll write you back (c/o Street Books/PO Box 13642/Portland, OR 97213). I’ll send out a report at the end of the month – sign up below to hear about it.


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