Elon Musk has taken over a huge share of Twitter. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/elon-musk-twitter-tesla-3-billion/Wouldn’t. Based on his posts and public statements, it appears he would like to fix things. The biggest fix that would be equal to his skill and ambition would be to solve our global attention crisis to which Twitter has contributed so much.
Jonathan Haidt has a powerful piece in The Atlantic that names the actual problem with our digital square. Among the things he says: “When our public square is governed by mob dynamics unrestrained by due process, we don’t get justice and inclusion; we get a society that ignores context, proportionality, mercy, and truth.”
Johann Hari’s new book Stolen Focus is just the latest strong offering on how our loss of attention and lack of focus are killing us. This has been an obsession of mine (even on attention-stealing Twitter) for the last fifteen years (maybe even longer). In my last book, I wrote a lot about what the attention deficit does to our presidential campaigns and how candidates stay in the shallows to keep us all shallow, fevered and hooked on umbrage and outrage. Also, don’t forget this piece in The Atlantic.
The typical American worker focuses on a given task for just three minutes, according to a study by Gloria Mark of the Department of Informatics at the University of California. Often, we interrupt ourselves because we don’t like having to pay attention. We’re looking for that next pellet of novelty. (More on how we got this way in The Impulse Society)
Musk asked on Twitter if people would like a Twitter edit function. Yes. I would like an edit function. I like clarity. (Twitter can find technological solutions around the downsides of creating an edit function.) But this is small-ball.
The innovation where Musk could really help mankind is with our attention. You may have already let your attention wander while reading this. You may not even be here to read this sentence at all. Or, you might have stopped listening and started thinking only about the edit function. Fuzzy listening is a sign of our attention deficit too: we don’t follow an argument; we veer off at the first thought that excites a reaction and we follow that.
In conversation this happens when a person responds to your careful point by saying something that is not connected to the main point you were making. Instead they respond with an idea that is only loosely attached to a side issue. That’s because when they were listening to you they drew a conclusion at the very first opportunity and then stopped listening. This is a form of laziness encouraged by attention weakening. We don’t want to pay attention all the way to the end so we get off at the first stop and satisfy ourselves with forming an opinion. We do that because it’s more pleasing than holding our attention which in this age of immediate attention gratification has become painful. (Attention instability also causes writers to repeat themselves which I fear I may have done in the paragraph you just read).
This is not a new problem. Economist and psychologist Herbert Simon figured it out in the 1970s when he coined the term “attention economy.” From Designing Organizations for an information-rich world: “in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else . . . 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.”
So why haven’t we fixed it? As Tim Wu pointed out years ago in The Attention Merchants, the business model of social media and the consumer marketplace keeps us in a wraith-like state. We become addicted to outrage, distraction, more simple little pellets.
Only someone who revels in thinking outside the predictable lanes will solve this. There is nothing more predictable than taking advantage of our flickering attentions. True Twitter innovation would help us use technology to recapture the key ingredient in thought, logic and focus. Only when we can recapture attention are we going to have a healthier public square. Musk wants fewer curbs on free speech. Fine, but he misunderstands why the designers of the American system thought free speech contributed to good outcomes. (He can read Jill Lepore’s These Truths— particularly the section on the rise of opinion polling and how people misunderstand the town square.) If more speech just means more pelting with no improvement of our application of attention then public discourse is not going to improve. It will just add more fuel to the fire. When attention is improved, the marketplace of ideas will improve. The quality of speech will improve as will the quality of our focus on new arguments.
Elon Musk likes to distract and meme in the public square, but he wouldn’t be Elon Musk if he didn’t have an instinct for innovation and taking on big problems. The big Twitter problem is obvious. It’s more than a Twitter problem. It’s our problem. To ignore it is to pick the side of chaos, disorder and ego, which will also tell us something about Elon Musk.