Szuhaj: The Busyness Effect

Ever increasing demands on our attention are profoundly reshaping society.

by Ben Szuhaj | 1/31/19 2:10am

 

Recently I spoke with a friend about the best way to address something that was bothering her. We’d discussed the subject before — it was clearly on her mind often — and over the course of our conversation, we homed in on one topic: attention. In her case, attention served a paradoxical function. She wanted to focus on the thing that was bothering her — in doing so, she believed, she could control it — but if she focused too intently on the thing, she would wind up fixating on it, and said thing she was trying to control wound up controlling her. Attention, in this case, was a tricky process. The right amount of attention helps solve the problem, gives her back control, whereas the wrong amount — too much attention — is tantamount to relinquishing control.

Since that conversation, I’ve thought a lot about attention, which, apart from being a strange and self-referential exercise, caused me to wonder if society undervalues attention. On a micro level, it’s easy to examine the ways attention is discussed. People “pay attention.” People have “attention spans.” Intuitively, language describes attention as a limited resource. But do we collectively understand its value?

While difficult to quantify economically, the market value of our attention has been better calculated in recent years. The airtime for a 30 second Super Bowl ad sold for on average roughly $5.24 million in 2018, while an estimated 103.4 million people tuned in to watch the Philadelphia Eagles’ dramatic win over the New England Patriots. A quick calculation shows that advertisers paid roughly 5 cents per person per 30 second ad. Put another way, to advertisers, a viewer’s attention was worth roughly $6.08 per hour. It’s worth noting as well that Super Bowl LII in 2018 had the highest pay-per-ad rate of any Super Bowl, while simultaneously being the least-watched Super Bowl in the past decade.

Evidently, attention is getting more and more valuable, at least in the eyes of America’s biggest corporations. It’s basic economics: As demand for our attention grows, so does the price paid for it. Conversely, as consumers have less attention left to “spend” on various sources, so too does the price paid for it rises. Why is attention in ever-increasing demand and shorter and shorter supply? That’s a complicated question. Though various disciplines answer this with different perspectives, I believe that the reasons may be broadly grouped in three categories: economic, technological and cultural. 

To reiterate: Companies, which must display sustained growth to appease shareholders, will spend ever more money on the same television time, or sink resources into other avenues of advertising. They must do this to best competitors and maintain growth: they must capture consumers’ attention. This phenomenon is aided by innovations in both software and hardware. With hardware, there always seems to be another way to put a smart screen on a body or device. There are also auditory innovations like wireless headphones that make it easier (and fashionable) to stay plugged into “your world” and tuned out from the wider one. With software, search engine giants like Yahoo and Google, as well as social media behemoths like Instagram and Facebook, profit from retaining attention for as long as possible. Those same companies then sell data to advertisers, who target their ads to users, which, while it may not sound like the worst thing in the world, means that the e-advertising cycle is a vicious one — with companies incentivized to suck up as much of people’s attention as they can. 

All this said, I use social media like the other 88 percent of my generation. I recognize that technological innovation and business savvy yield great benefits for society at large. I simply wonder if that binge-worthy Netflix series you, dear reader, watched on your iPhone is worth the associated costs: the well-documented dwindling of the American attention span, society’s increased time spent on laptops and phones, and, perhaps the most surreptitious of all the deleterious effects, the ever-increasing expectation to be, or at least appear, busy.

The American work ethic is an ethos with a long and complicated history, yet Americans don’t work a great deal harder than workers from other developed nations. According to an study commissioned by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 11.7 percent of American workers reported working more than 50 hours per week, slightly less than the 13 percent average of the other 37 countries surveyed. What does seem apparent, however, is that Americans like to seem as if they are working a lot. And while there may be some complicated vestiges of the Protestant work ethic and self-made-man mentality still at play in this country, this collective performance seems largely the result of a culture shift. At some point, it seems to have become more acceptable to silently scroll through Twitter during a meal than to sit across from someone in silence. In the workplace, it looks better to browse the web rather than appear totally idol. To get into college, students across the country are becoming involved in more and more activities. To pay for college, students are taking on more and more debt to pay for more and more amenities to utilize with less and less time.

Underlying these phenomena are complicated social and economic drivers — some of which I’ve discussed, others which seem unavoidable — that collectively might be termed “the busyness effect.” It’s worth noting that “busyness,” as in the state of being engaged in a task, and “business” as in the practice of engaging in commerce, were once one and the same word, etymologically tied as if to suggest it is unprofessional to be idle.

The busyness effect has a powerful psychological consequence: According to a recent Cigna survey, 46 percent of Americans “sometimes or always feel alone,” and two in five “sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful,” while just over half report having meaningful in-person interactions daily. All of this is to say that our attention is a limited resource, and that this brings with it a host of associated consequences. And there’s still the question of where people choose to focus — because in a world defined increasingly by white noise, what, and who, people choose to focus on matters a great deal. If any conclusions can be draw, then it’s one, as it often is, about balance. Learn to hone focus; learn when and how to disengage; learn to temper work with life, learn to be comfortable in silence.