The Attention-pool: a tragedy of the commons

We used to live in a time of boring Sunday afternoons. Information was sparse. It was pored over intently. Its meaning was mulled. Its context was bolted down.

A book would retain our attention. A novel would be finished. A reference work would be retrieved many times. A letter would be cherished, re-read and kept possibly forever.

Those Sunday afternoons have been replaced by a constant Friday evening in Piccadilly Circus. Information arrives in volume. Some people call this information overload, although we always had more information than we could cope with in the library, or even a well stocked newsagent. What has changed is our attention, for it is attention that is limited. It is attention, within organisations in particular, that is at breaking point. We have spent the last 30 years using tools that allow us advances in productivity and creativity, by allowing data and information to be shunted around at great speeds. It is my conjecture that if we want to progress any further we must deal with organisational attention as a communal resource.

The tragedy of the commons

The tragedy of the commons is a well known economic principle. If we consider the premise of common land, where the community grazes their livestock, everyone has the incentive to graze their flock beyond the capacity of the land to cope. Solutions to this puzzle include some form of management that provides disincentives for this behaviour, either by placing rents on the farmers, or some other form of regulation that might promise some other disbenefit onto the cheats (let’s say a good kicking for starters).

Let’s begin to consider attention within an organisation to be a commons. Anyone can use the collective attention pool to get-work-done. The distribution of power to use the attention-pool is not necessarily equal: The CEO and the Internal Communications department have the means to use more of the attention-pool, but even Joe Bloggs can call a meeting, send an email or otherwise demand attention from his colleagues.

But the attention-pool is finite.

Highrise living

Where does attention come from

Let’s consider what attention is and where it comes from. When you are unexpectedly handed a hot plate, it immediately has your attention. Understanding doesn’t even come into it, the conscious mind isn’t even trusted to be able to take action quickly enough – you have a reflex action as part of your lower nervous system to drop the plate.

Many other things that we learn to do don’t even need your attention. I’m typing this on a keyboard – I acquired the ability to type well over a decade ago so it doesn’t really have my attention. Many processes within organisations become very clear about what should happen next (the phone rings, you pick it up; the boss asks you to print the presentation, you press CTRL+P; you need to do your expenses, you do your expenses). These things become work and doing them are what we are all paid for. These are things at work that are unequivocal – you don’t need to think about what to do next. They don’t consume attention, only time.

Then comes the main body of our concern – the equivocal, the ambiguous, the uncertain. Organisations are chock-full of stuff that we need time to work out what to do with. The information needs to be parsed, read, understood, given context, explored and then either it has something that must be done (an action or task), or something that we might need to know later (filed).

Whatever is left after we have done the easy stuff, the collective process of understanding what to do next, is what I define as the attention-pool, and at the moment we are drowning in it.

What’s killing attention?

I believe there are three main sources of noise that are choking the collective attention within organisations.

The largest by some margin are demands from others. Someone needs something. A boss needs something, a peer needs something. The first problem is volume, which is typically immense and this has been notable for years. But it is the nature of these requests that are not easy to interpret, because they are typically not communicated well. It is difficult to be able to extract an action out of a 1000 word email, or out of a long rambling meeting.

The second largest is the world of FYI and CYA, the periphery of CC: emails. Things that might be damned useful to know, if only we look for long enough, amid the impenetrable clouds of people insuring themselves from future criticism in cultures of mistrust. My good friends, the twin brothers of knowledge management and internal social media, are also in this group, manfully trying to calm everyone down by shouting loudly.

The smallest of these three, and the most professionalised are the demands of change that typically come from Internal Communications departments. The organisation would like us to behave differently, know something new or more ephemerally would like us to feel differently. This is the world of employee engagement, comms plans, news articles on the intranet and slickly managed management events.

So all of this is thrown at the tender mercies of employees’ attention within large organisations. People say they don’t have the time, or they are drowning in email, or they don’t have the bandwidth right now.

Dynamic systems

Firstly I would say that I don’t think this is specific to any particular tool. Tools come and go, and how we use them changes over time, but this comes down to how people behave — both in how they wish to use other people’s attention, and how they personally extract what they need from the attention-pool.

I have always believed that information systems are dynamic systems — that is they change over time. If you look at one you are only seeing a snapshot.

Take email. Employees weren’t able to deal with all of this on the desktop alone, confusing time for attention. Email went mobile, but that didn’t solve it. Feeling that email is a lost cause there is the move to new and exciting social tools. Like capitalism, attention doesn’t solve its crises. It’s like the old gag: “That place? No one goes there anymore it’s too busy.” As email becomes intolerable, the malcontents become early adopters and move to a new platform such as Yammer, where they meet like-minded refugees. For a brief moment all is clear, but then everyone one else comes along and ruins it for the chosen few.

Do the cool kids move on again? Probably, but unless organisations and their employees begin to deal with the commons of attention nothing will really change.

Possible solutions

Enough of my mewling, how can this be solved? Firstly does it need to be solved. Perhaps we shall shortly hit the limit of personal productivity? I don’t think so, we all see muda everywhere in fluffed interpersonal communications, rubbish meetings and failed initiatives, and we all know what it feels like to have a golden week when stuff flies off the to-do list.

For employees as individuals there are behavioural changes on both transmit and receive. People need the skills, frameworks and tools that allow them to focus on the relevant, and harvest the personally actionable. This is where Clay Shirkey’s supposed filter-failure lays on the provision of tools that allow the crap to be filtered out. I have hope that AI will help us here but that may be forlorn, either as another abrogation of personal responsibility, or as something we never really learn to trust.

There is plenty of help available in organising oneself productively with skills encapsulated in various methodologies such as (my preference) David Allen’s Getting Things Done. There are also the social mores in news ways of holding meetings, and how collective decisions can be made.

The main point for change in that of how we engage with other people’s attention and how we can do that far more responsibly. They say a true artist is one who can, but chooses not to. Before we put something out there, perhaps we will begin to be much more circumspect in doing so. But remember this is a commons. If you choose not to email everyone on the project, you may be at a disadvantage to the person that does. Your responsible action has made space for someone else’s irresponsible action. They have cheated, you have suffered. There needs to be an incentive to not communicate, or a disbenefit for doing so. Meeting tokens have been mooted, putting a value on shared resources. Many organisations now strictly regulate broadcast email, ensuring it is used only in crisis-communications with everything else collected into a weekly digest newsletter. Employees should be encouraged to block out time in their diaries, and advertise times when they can be contacted, or to explicitly control their attention with checking email and social for only limited times, and controlling their availability to others with status on instant messaging. The source of much of internal email is people copying each other in to cover their arses and many commentators have pointed to increasing trust within organisations for employees to get on with their jobs (and this is where social tools in the enterprise can really rock).

Crewing is another answer and games company Valve are the darlings of this. There are no managers and people work on what has their attention — things that do not have their attention die. This is not democracy, this is a market — it is essentially Darwinian. [It gets my goat when people confuse democracy for egalitarianism as one is about rule and the other is about treatment. Even if your voice is heard, there is nothing to say that your plan gets done in a democratic system.]

Do management care about the commons of attention. Broadly no, because I suspect that they are keen to grow the amount of time they have available by providing incentives to make their employees work longer hours. The management attention-pool is of course the most stressed of all and it is inherent to the nature of the job. If you think you are stressed just think for a moment about poor Antonio Horta-Osorio the CEO of Lloyds Banking Group, who in 2011 went into abject mental and physical meltdown — in short the poor fellow couldn’t switch off his attention.

So organisationally we might consider to making things unfair and I would like you, dear reader, to entertain this thought and not discount it out-of-hand:

Relationships are not symmetrical; we do not have equal voices; we do not all have the ability to be equally heard.

This goes against the grain of the high priests of some of these new tools that were ripped from the womb of Californian Internet Utopianism. Enforced flatness is encouraged as silo-busting as existing management structures are considered stifling and “uncollaborative”. Silos exist and people within organisations can be unhelpful, but that said a project manager has more rights to a project team member’s attention than anyone else. A line manager similarly has more rights to a direct report. I heard a zany tale once, and as I recall it, Volvo (it was definitely Scandinavian) once created an electronic mail system that didn’t allow you to email anyone superior to you except your boss. The fact that business rules aren’t applied to systems of communication doesn’t mean that they can’t be. An email from your boss should figuratively be the size of a flip chart. An email from someone demanding something from you outside of your responsibility should be the size of a Post-It note. The power of restricting access to groups to increase trust and improve stability has been noted by many, including Clay Shirkey and David Snowden. The point is that the design of these systems is not locked-in, we can tinker with them if we have the will. What could we make more difficult?

This is problem that I feel I have largely solved by becoming a freelancer – I am no longer overwhelmed with any form of communication [cue jokes: ask my accountant.] Asking me to do something usually costs money, therefore I tend to get asked to do things formally, and the bulk of work that I do follows an easily communicated pattern. My remaining capacity for attention is my own (that doesn’t mean I use it wisely, I am usually thinking about photography or writing this sort of thing).

Employees don’t have this luxury, and broadly both their time and attention is a commons, loosely bounded by job descriptions, cost centres and (sometimes) project codes to book their time. Not everyone can ask them to do work, but anyone can ask for their attention. When you are next making a decision about how to organise the organisation, perhaps consider how the attention-pool will be affected.

Attention and whacking the social media piñata for ever more

I had never come across Humdog on the web. Perhaps I wasn’t interested or more likely I was too optimistic about the opportunities of the Internet, but I finally came across her, quoted by Adam Curtis in “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace”. In her essay Pandora’s Vox Redux published in 1994 (a year before I’d seen a webpage and two years before I learned to code HTML) Humdog, whose real life name was Carmen Hermosillo wrote amusingly:

“so-called electronic communities encourage participation in fragmented, mostly silent, microgroups who are primarily engaged in dialogues of self-congratulation. in other words, most people lurk; and the ones who post, are pleased with themselves.”

She continues the theme discussing how people commoditise themselves on the web, forecasting the rise of social media:

” i created my interior thoughts as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board i was posting to, and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities as entertainment. that means that i sold my soul like a tennis shoe and i derived no profit from the sale of my soul.”

Is it surprising that I had never heard of humdog online? I have a suspicion that there amounts to a conspiracy of silence within the online community. Dissenting voices aren’t repeated and the over enthusiastic Pollyanna class that claims dissent as either Luddism or at least a minority report. But social media rose after this and now we are seemingly stuck with it as a way of getting on in the world. There was once online people and offline people. The web was once a so-modern and so-convenient hobby for technophiles, and therefore was optional, but like most technologies the use of the web and now social media has quickly become an obligation inseparable from other parts of our lives.

Technology is culture and culture is humanity. What starts as fiddling with a gadget becomes indistinguishable from the social practices it then supports. Currently there is much to gain and optimism and enthusiasm sells, and so the critical are labelled stick-in-the-muds. Therefore people turn themselves into zealous advocates, because in the attention economy you must be passionate to be in the running of being heard. Why would you listen to the least passionate? Why would you listen to the quiet and restrained thoughtful voices?

But this feels like a bubble and when bubbles burst, they do so with consequences.

Before the budget airlines people had a nice seat, a drink and a packet of peanuts. Then the classic airlines went bust and the budget airlines put up their prices to what the normal airlines charged but now you get with a nasty seat, no drink and no peanuts. I fear we are entering a world where our working lives are dominated by non-productive self marketing. Where it was once exceedingly difficult to get any attention because the means of communication were expensive to manipulate, now there are low barriers to entry, but a paucity of attention. In order to get attention we have to repeatedly thump the Internet using a stick made of our own identities. It’s become a piñata that we are forced to whack at blindly using social media.

So the new photographer or writer or IT consultant will spend a significant part of her working hours stimulating the social layer to get attention, instead of working for monetary gain or developing as a photographer/ writer/ consultant. So the ideas about some giving way of the Coasian floor, popularised by Clay Shirky, where new forms of communication arise as the cost of transaction reduce, might begin to go into reverse as we get into an arms race. The costs of communication and transaction may increase. Quitting or reducing social activities on the Internet will mean the attention that you require from your customers, will as a matter of certainty go to your competitors. As people swarm onto a new social platform, you must swarm with them, but your presence on the old social platforms must be maintained. Your Web site, and your blog, and your Facebook, and your Twitter, and your G+ and your Flickr, and your 500px – this all rises to a crescendo of commoditisation when you will spend a good part of your working week thumping away. Whether your trade is photography, poetry or IT consultancy, you’ll spend more time working social and less time on what you can be paid for.

This hits at a time that selling information, whether that be ideas or bits in form of music, video, pictures or code is ranging from the progressively difficult to virtually impossible, the majority of this becomes a massive overhead. Some people enjoy gaming the system and put in place a variety of mechanistic means to automate the social overhead ranging from bots on twitter to (my personal hatred) automated commenting and favouriting on Flickr. Whether the sociopathic irony of these programmatic simulacra of humanity is lost to those that pervert the basis of the social medium isn’t clear to me. It is proof that if a game is worth winning it’s worth cheating to do so and I am always happier to receive attention on my photos than I am to expend the energy in commenting on others and finding new and interesting people to follow. Part of this is the overall game of fame that we all want to have an asymmetric relationship and to be more followed than follower means that we will have made it.

But the overall perversity of this is doubled when considering peoples motivation for sharing socially has in part to seeking a form of deeply human connection. A heartfelt comment on a photo; an amusing riposte on Twitter. I think that much of this is just bound to fail in comparison to real human relationships in real life but we don’t have a filter for this yet as we are unconsciously incompetent when it comes to social media. We think we get it but we do not know what we are unaware of and because we are short or the social cues that would allow us to really know whether we are successful or not we succumb to numbers. To which, I will move to next.


Definition of colophon
There follows a rolling up of sleeves. If I’m going to do this properly there are a few things that must be made straight, to myself. So perversely I shall write the colophon, and let us smirk at the derivation of finishing touch when this is the beginning and I have already achieved so little.

1. Environment

I like to write using Scrivener. This is already a lie as I hate to write. Don’t get me wrong I enjoy the fluidity of it when it comes, but the gut wrenching self reflexive post-writing doubt that you’ve put your name against something so poor? No one likes that.
But I do love Scrivener and I have used it for scripts, research papers and blog type writing, and once you get past the separation of creation and output, the flexibility of the non-linear is enchanting. So I have set up a Scrivener project called Blogposts.scriv and I have some folders: Ideas; archive and dead. The current post gets written in the main part of the project using MultiMarkdown, so it is easy to compile it into HTML from there.
Then, to continue the theme of preventing writing using distracting techniques I have an AppleScript on a watched folder that puts the HTML into the clipboard and then opens a new post in WordPress ready to go. Paste in the HTML and it can be fettled in WordPress from then on in.

2. Objective

I like to take photos. It came suddenly and I was overwhelmed about how clean and simple it felt. I was rubbish for a few months and then, and I am positive about this, something changed in my brain and I saw things in different ways. I blogged for Londonist about it. That success fed back into my learning and it moved me onwards. I want to have the same fluidity of expression when writing. Note I said, “when writing” and not “as a writer”. I have as little inclination to become a writer as I do a photographer, but I desperately want to be able to write well, like I want to be able to take a good photograph. As instructions manuals I have:

3. Subject

Ah. Now we come to it. I, like you, spend much of my paid day writing already. I sometimes enjoy it, but they aren’t really my words, and I remain as professionally interested in my topic as ever (the water’s cold, but lovely once you’re in), but in terms of topics it is well represented already by people who are doing a great job of enjoying the cold water, but in terms of topics they are not ones that I feel my fingers will begin to fly because for me they are so well trodden. I am determined that if I have something to share I can do it here, but it won’t be the blog’s purpose.
So, what’s got my attention right now:

  • The views expressed by Jaron Lanier that we may have made a terrible mistake in letting the web give it all away for free and the power flowing away to the owners of the networks.
  • The ideas rendered down by Adam Curtis in “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” surrounding cybernetics, self forming networks and that many of the principles that have been clutched to chests in the world of social media may not be based in reality.
  • The attention economy and the amount of our time we will need to spend prodding social networks to survive
  • I am entertained (and so follows the name of the blog) when people and organisations think that people will behave like robots. I am appalled when repeatedly people actually do.
  • I am interested in the large scale social changes that are going on within organisations and what that means for management, for individuals and for society at large.
  • I am interested in the trade-offs that people are willing to make, are able to to make, to balance their work with their lives.
  • I want to know how tasks move through organisations and why task systems never work;
  • and I am fascinated about what tools and practices organisations retain out of habit and what will be the implications of the fallout when people finally notice.

I have means, motive and opportunity. Apparently. Talent and time? We’ll see eh?