Attention Atrophy

We have been conditioned to seek novelty. We are no longer interested in the actual subject and its nuance. What matters is solely the concept of novelty. If we elude ourselves with a feeling of discovering something new and exciting, we gratify ourselves with temporary satisfaction.

This temporary satisfaction erodes our desire to focus, let alone our ability to do so. It is why the idea of reading a novel induces pure dread, whereas scrolling aimlessly for hours is almost a daily ritual. The former focuses on one concept for a prolonged period of time. We subconsciously fear the idea of investing and committing in one singular topic, because it requires an effort to focus and we are afraid of missing out on other pieces of information. Deep focus is replaced by superficial exploration, because the latter yields the discovery of more novelty for less effort, and of course, soothes the aforementioned fear of missing out.

The necessity of effort for focus is a byproduct of our current habits. Modern websites optimise for engagement, which requires exploiting our primitive curiosity and desire for novelty. By bombarding us with nuggets of information which this part of our brain, we fall into the trap of perpetually seeking the next piece of novelty. And through this process, our attention span diminishes. It reaches the point where we equate reading of a headline to acquiring knowledge about the whole article.

All of this is obvious and superficial information. This entire post is void of any novelty, and likely any usefulness. After all, we are expecting a magic solution to a mysterious problem. It is why this problem, along with the proposed solutions, often get mystified. Embarking on a spiritual journey of "dopamine detox" sounds much more exciting (and deceptively "scientific"): it convinces us that our attention has been atrophied by an induced chemical imbalance within our brains, and the solution is to restore that balance by quitting the alluring technology which our overlords use to control us. Not only does that not solve the fundamental problem, but going down the rabbit hole of that elusive self-help does nothing except ironically feed the problem of seeking superficial novelty.

We skirt around the real problem and solution because it is boring and it requires effort. The real truth is unfortunately boring, and the real solution unfortunately requires effort. We become defensive when confronted with the reality that we are responsible for our undermined attention spans. We blame the technology and corporations, because only one side can be blamed. Confronting one side means completely defending the other side. Stating that we are responsible for our actions nullifies the responsibility of the evil corporations whom prey upon our vulnerable, weak and fragile minds. Any expectation for personal accountability means that we are blaming the victim and excusing the offender.

In truth, advertising & technology corporations are indeed responsible for weakening our attention. Despite that, we are responsible for strengthening it. Many of us already know that this is a bad habit and we are partly responsible for feeding it; however, rather than solving it, we victimise ourselves by declaring it's too late to resolve this. We say this because we subconsciously associate the solution with boredom and effort - the two enemies we have been conditioned to fear the most.

But simplicity is key, for complexity undermines the solution. Unfortunately, we are imposing obstacles on ourselves. We over-complicate and rationalise ways of avoiding the solution. We do so by believing and declaring that we need to use the apps and websites which devour our time and attention. If we truly need to use these resources, then why aren't we actually using them? We are letting them use us. For a bit of pretentious philosophy: using something means extracting something of value from it. The aforementioned resources extract the time and attention from within us, meaning that we are the ones being used. Why do we let ourselves be used? It's because we've been conditioned to be used under the illusion of us being the user. We are conditioned to consume until we become consumed.

It especially gets dangerous when we feel that this consumption is allegedly beneficial. We can catch up with our friends on Facebook, we can stay up to date with current affairs on Twitter, and we can feed our curiosity on HN/Reddit. Are we truly seeking and doing that, or are we simply coming up with convenient justifications? If we wanted to catch up with friends, what stops us from actively seeking a friend's page and reading their latest posts with intent, or better yet, actually contacting them? What stops us from thinking about what topics we may need to be informed about, and mindfully looking up news about specific topics which we are actually interested in and actually benefit us? What stops us from fulfilling our curiosity by deciding the topics, exploring, discovering and experimenting by ourselves?

The answer to it all is that we expect all information to be given to us, instead of us seeking the specific information we need. We don't know what information we want, so we want it all. We fear missing out on anything, so we desire everything to be provided to us. As such, we lose our focus, because we don't use our lens. That's the fundamental problem: us allowing technology to use us.

The solution is to reverse the paradigm - to start treating technology like it was initially designed: a tool for us to use with intent. Even the apps and websites which have been optimised for engagement can be valuable. The value is what we make of it, just like how the websites make value out of us. Advocating for quitting technology unfortunately becomes more and more of an impractical advice, as technology is further ingrained into our lifestyle. What matters the most is being mindful and honest with ourselves. The moment we lose sight of how we use something, it starts using us.

Regaining our focus can only be done by using our lens, and to do that, we need to use the Internet with mindful intent, instead of proceeding with our daily habits. And when we proceed with our daily habits, we should refrain from excusing/victimising ourselves and remember that each moment is an opportunity to fix the problem, or at least improve it. Once it becomes a habit to use technology instead of letting it use us, our attention will return, and so will the opportunities for reading books which we now fear as being too boring.

If this solution is something you are avoiding, then ask yourself why, and if the reasons link to a fundamental feeling of victimisation, helplessness or fear, then consider that it is this fundamental problem which traps you into this cycle. It is your choice to continue feeding this wolf, or to finally starve it. Whichever choice you make, it will hopefully be one you've intended completely out of your own internal volition, rather than an external condition.