Solving the challenge of digital overwhelm: attention management

Transformational technology has always triggered change in multiple parallel fields. But, before now, we weren't constantly exposed to information about it. How do we focus when there's more change that we can track?

Are you old enough to remember the dot.com boom? The late 90s were defined by the first real bubble in digital technology, as the web spread, news businesses set up, on insane valuations — and then died catastrophically as the markets turned. The so-called “new economy” of the day proved to be surprisingly prone to the restrictions of the old economy in terms of making profit…

For all that went wrong, though, that era of digital change felt easier to handle. We were dealing with primarily web technology, accessed on desktop or laptop computers. 20 years ago was, truly, a simpler digital age.

Today, if you’re trying to keep on top of digital, you’re trying to understand blockchain, and AI (or is it machine learning?) and quantum computing and see how the latest scandal at Facebook is going to change things, and worry about GDPR, and fret about whether you should have a TikTok strategy, and how's that report on speech interfaces coming along and… There’s so much happening simultaneously that it can feel impossible to keep track — and both the pressure and the information flows can be overwhelming. I'm someone who makes much of his living from tracking all this, and I often feel over-whelmed.

This was inevitable.

A transformative technology very rarely impacts only a single field. We’re in the process of integrating the impact of digital  into the whole of our lives, and that means multiple Parallelwelten of change.

A history of simultaneousness

This is not an entirely new phenomenon. Major technological innovation has consequences that impact all sorts of fields. The printing press changed the religious, social and political landscape in Europe, as information and ideas spread in new ways. The internal combustion engine started by changing our speed of movement, and ended up by transforming our landscape, our urban planning and our supply chains. One of the threads that emerges from the possible rise of autonomous vehicles is how it will change our cities…oh, heck. There's another stream to keep track of. Darn it.

Change has always happened in multiple parallel streams.

But, in the past, we couldn’t really see that. Now, we can. And we see it with a speed and clarity we could barely have imagined a few years ago.

This is primarily an information revolution. We hide that behind the label “digital”, but digital technology is principally information processing technology. What digital technology is fantastic at is moving data from one place to another. So, not only is the technology itself transforming business, society and culture all around, but we can also hear about it much more quickly than we ever could before.

All those parallel worlds of change are rushing into our consciousness at once, though those glowing rectangle we carry with us everywhere.

In other words, even if the rate of change was the same as in previous times of revolutionary change, we would still feel more overwhelmed by the amount of parallel change going on, because we hear about it. We’ve connected ourselves to the world’s information, and we are unable to usefully process it all.

Putting your foot on the change accelerator

There’s another factor, too: the pace of change is faster. Between the last major technological revolution and this one, we’ve built ourselves supply chains and global business infrastructure that let innovations transform products and processes with unprecedented speed. Manufacturing and process innovation combine with product innovation half the globe away from each other, and they birth new devices that are on sale worldwide in months, not years.

So, is it any wonder that some people feel overwhelmed by this vast change we’re going through? Future shock is a very real phenomenon, and we’re experiencing it at both a cultural and a personal level right now.

Attention attrition

Perhaps the best solution to this is a personal one: we need to exercise discipline in the choices we make. Just because there are now more parallel worlds than we can count, doesn’t mean that we have to live in all of them. Concentrating on the information that we need to understand to manage our working and personal lives is a challenge in itself. We need to be aware of wider technology changes - but “does that effect me?” is a valid question to ask.

In an age of information abundance — and widespread change — or most valuable resource is actually our time. How we chose to spend it, and where we focus our attention will be how our lives are defined in the 21st century. Luckily, perhaps, we actually have more choices than ever on how we do that.

But learning how to make the right choice is getting harder.


Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash