Shaping Reality: Abundant Data and Scarce Attention

by Todd J. Fisher, Friday, May 13, 2022

"As William James observed, we must reflect that, when we reach the end of our days, our life experience will equal what we have paid attention to, whether by choice or default. We are at risk, without quite fully realizing it, of living lives that are less our own than we imagine."
 ― Excerpted from The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu

Last week, we shared a short list of books that I have read and recommend for anyone interested in understanding how to design technology solutions of value in the Attention Economy.  As in most cases, the ultimate value of a technology, app, data set, or platform is not really determined by the digital thing but rather by the way in which consumers react to the thing. James Carville’s famous quip, “It’s the economy, stupid” resonated because the state of the economy is indeed a primary focus of people’s attention. Often, however, smart quips seemingly ripe with wisdom tend to be overly simplistic.

If I apply the same logic in today’s big data-fueled Attention Economy, I would like to build on Carville’s statement, or perhaps more accurately reshape his quip as follows: It’s the choices people make that generate economic activity, stupid. 

Oh, how valuable units of our attention must be as the puzzle pieces that shape our realities and architect our choices. Said differently, our attention can generate value as a harvested and commoditized resource, such as is the case with social media today.  And our attention can bestow value on anything, such as certain apps, that act to preserve our attention for our own conscious allocation.

Our choices follow from where we place our focus – what we pay attention to.  Moreover, and critically important is the fact that what we choose (whether consciously or subconsciously) to attend to determines our reality.   

When in the pursuit of another's attention, sensationalized negativity beats calm and kind every time. Why, you might ask, because we are hardwired to react to threats to our survival first – whether they are real or fake.1

Lastly, after reading Nobel Laureates, Robert Shiller and Daniel Kahneman, for their work in understanding the nature of human choice. Robert Shiller for his work developing the field of Narrative Economics and Daniel Kahneman for his work on Prospect Theory2.

Click here to read the full article.

Note: For the record, I wrote the statement above after reading work written by Nobel Laureates for their work in understanding human choice. Robert Shiller for his work developing the field of Narrative Economics and Daniel Kahneman for his work on Prospect Theory. 


1At the risk of grossly oversimplifying the amazing math that sits under Prospect Theory, the result was to prove the existence of cognitive biases that can be manipulated to help and to harm – two notable examples are negativity bias and confirmation bias.

2Kahneman, Daniel & Tversky, Amos, 1979. "Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk," Econometrica, Econometric Society, May.

3Shiller, 2017. "Narrative Economics," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, May.

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