Unlimited resources, limited attention
Sandro MaglioneGet in touch with me
26 July 2022[updated]•
6 min read
Recently, I came about a quote shared by Tristan Harris on Twitter. The quote comes from Neil Postman who compared the dystopian world of Horwell in 1984 and Huxley in Brave New World. The quote reads:
"Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us."
When people ask me strange questions about never heard ideas, I often answer without a second thought: "Search on the web". Yes, because it is so easy and you will certainly found the answer. No matter the subject.
Two decades ago the situation was way different.
I remember when the internet was just born. Not many people in my neighborhood had an internet connection. We were allowed only a few minutes a day to search on the web, just to have some fun.
I, as a kid, did not need any special website or game. I used Google images. And what a great time I had just looking at pictures on this thing called 'Web'.
The situation evolved fast. So fast that I cannot even remember when the internet came to my house. It felt like the day before it was not there, and the day after was something that I already took for granted.
Suddenly, I could find any information in a matter of seconds. And, at the time, it was a revolution.
At the same time as the internet came to my house, a battle was started. Once companies realized that the web was going to stay, software and services were growing like mushrooms.
At the beginning of my 'web career', two great players were fighting for my attention: Facebook (specifically Facebook games) and Messanger (Messanger from Microsoft, do you remember?).
This new source of dopamine glued me on my crappy PC for hours. I became a zombie, mindlessly clicking, waiting for a new message or a new challenge that I knew was about to come.
Things only got worst from here. New software. New games that could be bought in a store and installed with a thing called 'CD'. Unlimited, ever-expanding possibilities. Limited attention.
Naturally, I am not saying that it was all a disaster. Fortunately, my family always kept me in check. I never fell into the rabbit hole. At least not too deep that I was not able to come back on my own.
Furthermore, the web was great for school. All the information that you need in no time. School project, researches, books (not that I read at the time).
I was fascinated by the web. So much so that I decided to enroll in a school specialized in IT in high school.
My interest culminated when I was in tenth grade when I learned my first programming language (PHP). All on my own. No aid from the school, teachers, no one. I just opened my new laptop (my first one), and searched 'how to program in PHP'.
I was hooked. My attention escaped from any other platform, social media, or game. I was focused full day on programming. I did not even pay attention to high school lessons and homework.
Programming only got more interesting when I found out that PHP was only a tiny piece of what the world of programming had to offer.
My point is that the web is an unlimited source of resources. You can learn anything. Especially today, there is no one skill that you cannot learn by simply paying attention to the web.
Not only programming. Anything. And not only that, but I believe that you can learn anything for free. No need for paid membership or courses. You are a search away from a new career, a new hobby, a new life.
Wait, first you say that the web is bad, then you say that is good, which one is it?
The web is as good as you make it. The sole purpose of any service on the web is to win your attention or your money.
Winning your money is more difficult, but less subtle. Once you make your mind about a purchase, you must simply click a button and your money will fly away. You will clearly see your bank account shrinking. You would be aware that something has been spent.
Winning your attention is a ruthless race instead. Every service that does not have a price tag attached is playing to grab your attention. Unfortunately, we all dislike the idea of spending money. So, if social media is free, why I would not use it?
Attention is a limited resource. The same as time. The web is an amazing learning source. The problem is that people are not focused enough to care. Scrolling on Instagram is infinitely more rewarding in the moment (biologically) than learning a new language.
The last thing that people want is spending energy and attention to learning. I know many people that work 9 to 5 that do not even think about spending their (limited) free time learning. The common rationale is: "Why, after a long day of work at my job, would I sit and work again to learn something that I do not need anyway?".
What we desire is entertainment. Mindless scrolling and continuous rewarding. Likes, views, new content every day. The web provides you with those things. For free, no money involved, no hassle, everything is just a click, a scroll, a swipe away on the palm of your hand.
How can you escape? The first step is to acknowledge that it is in human nature to avoid work. You are not immune, and many websites are optimized to suck your attention.
Therefore, the first step is to quit those platforms completely. Completely, not even a quick scan once a day. The algorithm is too powerful for the untrained mind. Stay away from every website that does not do you any good.
Second step, funnel your attention to something that you want on the web. Find a website that you really enjoy. Something that you feel is making you better. Learning a new skill that will be worthwhile for you.
The process is simple, but it is not easy. If you get control of your attention, you can transform what has the potential to ruin society into your secret weapon that will take you way ahead of the curve. Pay attention.