Issue 15: The Future

Attention in a time of plenty

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by Robert C. Wolcott on February 14, 2017

“But where there is danger, there grows also what saves.Friedrich Hölderlin

Attention is our most limited resource. William James proposed that one freedom of a sentient being is “always to choose out of the manifold experiences present to it at a given time some one for particular accentuation, and to ignore the rest.” James was refuting the notion that human beings are simply automata: no matter how enchanting the blinking lights, we can always look away. Our emerging world has removed constraints to the supply of possible experiences – how can, and should, we choose?

How we direct attention is one of our most ethically-important decisions. Attention leads to awareness and often to action. Across all spheres of society – especially in my own, that of business – fierce competition exists to leverage a range of technologies to capture attention and influence action. Yes, corporate and political actors should be held to standards, but we cannot simply blame institutions for misleading individuals. In a society that aspires to be free, ultimate responsibility must lie with the individual. This challenge is eternal, but how it manifests is changing rapidly.

Human systems – and life generally – have evolved within at least two essential contexts: scarcity and opacity. In a context of scarcity and opacity, failure to focus on basic survival needs was likely to lead to genome failure. Survival urgency provided guardrails for attention.

But humanity is in the process of transitioning from scarcity and opacity to a new context: plenty and transparency. Our transition will not be linear, but this is our trajectory. Witness, for instance, the inexorable decline in the cost of harnessing solar energy. With sensors, connectivity, and artificial intelligence we will attain the ability to ‘see’ further and more deeply. Fruits will be unevenly distributed and many actors will endeavour to obfuscate and deceive, but nonetheless we’ll be able to access, sense, and process far more than ever before.

The ability to sense and respond has been expanding since the origin of life, though this process is happening faster and with greater ambition. Ever larger segments of humanity will experience the blessing, and curse, of attention freed from survival concerns, available for an unlimited range of possible experiences. In such an environment, to what will we direct our mental energies?

Across history, small groups of humans have been so incomparably wealthy that basic survival needs have been accommodated. These aristocrats of varied sorts lived off society and created little to nothing of consequence. These cosseted few provide a rough proxy for how we might all eventually exist in a context of plenty. However, there have also been individuals of this cadre who have demonstrated the drive to create, to matter, to strive: Count Leo Tolstoy or Prince Siddhartha, to name two, though there have been many others. They give credence to the hope that dystopian visions of wallowing in the Matrix might be overblown.

Of what we should be aware, though, is a personal decision. I live in Chicago, home of the Chicago Cubs. Who is to say that engaging with 2016’s journey to the team’s first championship in 108 years is of more or of less value than any other pursuit?

I work with hundreds of individuals each year in my role as a professor at Northwestern University. I’m often inspired by how honestly many students strive to understand why – and for what – they are working. Most of my students are successful, mid-career professionals in positions of authority. Some have even been fortunate enough to accumulate enough wealth to support their families for the likely remainder of their lives. Many ask: How will I spend my limited remaining energy on this planet?

Seeking answers to this question presents a challenge particular to each individual, but a starting point and constant partner will be our attention. From attention we discover what we believe; William James went so far as to assert that “attention equals belief”. Sense of purpose is impossible without beliefs (not purpose per se, but the sense thereof). We discover beliefs through what we attend, and, recursively, purpose frames attention. In a world of plenty, a world of unlimited choice, we can wander towards sensory oblivion or, with effort, towards purpose.

History highlights the power of purpose in both extraordinary achievements and unconscionable atrocities. In this time of plenty and transparency each individual faces a choice: to what we pay our precious attention, and to what we don’t, will be a defining factor of our future.

Robert C. Wolcott is a Professor of Innovation at Northwestern University. The article appeared in New Philosopher’s edition on ‘The Future‘.

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