(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘attention

“The things right in front of us are often the hardest to see”*…

Fake news, like conjuring, plays on our weaknesses — but, as Tim Harford explains, with a little attention, we can fight back…

Why do people — and by “people” I mean “you and I” — accept and spread misinformation? The two obvious explanations are both disheartening. The first is that we are incapable of telling the difference between truth and lies. In this view, politicians and other opinion-formers are such skilled deceivers that we are helpless, or the issues are so complex that they defy understanding, or we lack basic numeracy and critical-thinking skills. The second explanation is that we know the difference and we don’t care. In order to stick close to our political tribe, we reach the conclusions we want to reach.

There is truth in both these explanations. But is there a third account of how we think about the claims we see in the news and on social media — an account that, ironically, has received far too little attention? That account centres on attention itself: it suggests that we fail to distinguish truth from lies not because we can’t and not because we won’t, but because — as with Robbins’s waistcoat — we are simply not giving the matter our focus.

What makes the problem worse is our intuitive overconfidence that we will notice what matters, even if we don’t focus closely. If so, the most insidious and underrated problem in our information ecosystem is that we do not give the right kind of attention to the right things at the right time. We are not paying enough attention to what holds our attention.

The art of stage magic allows us to approach this idea from an unusual angle: Gustav Kuhn’s recent book, Experiencing the Impossible, discusses the psychology of magic tricks.

“All magic can be explained through misdirection alone,” writes Kuhn, a psychologist who runs the Magic Lab at Goldsmiths, University of London. Such a strong claim is debatable, but what is beyond debate is that the control and manipulation of attention are central to stage magic. They are also central to understanding misinformation. The Venn diagram of misinformation, misdirection and magic has overlaps with which to conjure.

[There follows a fascinating unpacking of the relevance of misdirection to to misinformation…]

We retweet misinformation because we don’t think for long enough to see that it is misinformation. We obsess over bold lies, not realising that their entire purpose is to obsess us. We see one thing and assume it is another, even though we are only deceiving ourselves. We will argue in favour of policies that we opposed seconds ago, as long as we can be distracted long enough to flip our political identities in a mirror.

And behind all this is the grand meta-error: we have no intuitive sense that our minds work like this. We fondly imagine ourselves to be sharper, more attentive and more consistent than we truly are. Our own brains conspire in the illusion, filling the vast blind spots with plausible images.

But if you decide to think carefully about the headlines, or the data visualisations that adorn news websites, or the eye-catching statistics that circulate on social media, you may be surprised: statistics aren’t actually stage magic. Many of them are telling us important truths about the world, and those that are lies are usually lies that we can spot without too much trouble.

Pay attention; get some context; ask questions; stop and think. Misinformation doesn’t thrive because we can’t spot the tricks. It thrives because, all too often, we don’t try. We don’t try, because we are confident that we already did…

Simple, but profoundly important, wisdom: “What magic teaches us about misinformation,” from @TimHarford. eminently worth reading in full. (Originally appeared in the Financial Times Magazine, from whence the illustration above.)

Related: the Barnum (or Forer) Effect

Apollo Robbins, world-famous pickpocket and illusionist

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As we dissect disinformation, we might spare a thought for Oscar Hammerstein; he died on this date in 1919.  As a newly-arrived immigrant to the U.S., Hammerstein worked in a cigar factory, where he discovered ways to automate the rolling process.  He patented his innovation and made a fortune– which he promptly reinvested in his true passions, music and the arts.  Possessed of a sharp sense of design and an equally good acoustical sense, he built and ran theaters and concert halls, becoming one of Americas first great impressarios…  a fact worth honoring, as history tends to overlook “Oscar the First” in favor of his grandson, Oscar Hammerstein II, the gifted librettist/lyricist and partner of Richard Rodgers.

Hammerstein (on left, with cigar) and conductor Cleofonte Campagnini

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“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives”*…

On the history and impact of a seemingly simple service…

If I was to ask you what was the most important invention of the 20th century, you might mention the car, the television, the computer, or the internet. But there’s another invention that had such a huge impact on culture and society that people would organize their lives around it, and it drove the growth of multi-billion dollar industries. Despite this, most of us wouldn’t think of it as an invention at all, as it seems to have always just been there. So here’s a brief history of one of the most important overlooked inventions of modern times: the TV schedule…

The TV schedule organized the attention of millions of people at the same time, sharing the same experience, whether it was Richard Nixon sweating in a presidential debate, Neil Armstrong stepping foot onto the moon, or finding out who shot JR. These live, synchronous events created a kind of public sphere at a scale that had never been seen before, and we’re unlikely to see again. Sports are the only TV events that get close—on the list of most-watched US TV programs of all time, the only entries from the 2000s are Superbowls.

For nearly a century, a simple list, based around the hours of the day, structured the daily habits of millions of people, shaped the careers of politicians and celebrities, and powered a multi-billion dollar advertising industry. As we spend less time watching live TV, and more time on digital platforms, that power is now passing from the TV schedule to another way of organising our attention—algorithmic streams

Entertainment, technology, and shared experiences: “The TV Schedule Edition,” from Why Is This Interesting? (@WhyInteresting), by Matt Locke (@matlock).

(Image above: source)

* Annie Dillard

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As we tune in, we might recall that it was on this date in 1980 that Magnum, P. I. premiered on CBS; consistently highly-rated and the recipient of numerous Emmy and Golden Globe nominations and awards, it ran until 1988, and made a star of its lead, Tom Selleck.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 11, 2021 at 1:00 am

“The element of mystery to which you want to draw attention should be surrounded and veiled by a quite obvious, readily recognisable commonness”*…

Day And Night (1938)

An appreciation of the marvelous M.C. Escher…

Despite being a fan of Rennaisance Art and the work of the Impressionists, he feels increasingly pulled in a different direction…

When you look at this picture, you’re flipping between world views. Either you’re seeing the white birds, and the bright, presumably sunlit day scene with its cheerful flotilla of steam ships puffing their way upriver – or you’re seeing the black birds, and your eye is drawn to the night-shrouded landscape where the houses have their lights on and the sky’s already eaten the horizon & is creeping nearer…

Except, that’s not quite right. The black birds are in the daylight side, and the white ones are flying into the night. These aren’t just mirror images: they’re like the Ancient Chinese yin-yang symbol, each side containing part of its opposite…

Escher’s love of the fantastical is primarily inspired by what he sees around him, not what he can dream up out of next to nothing… By looking closely at the real world, and trying to understand how it works, Escher will invite his initially small but intensely loyal fanbase to explore some very strange mysteries indeed.

Ascending And Descending (1960)

It’s the 1960s now, and nonconformity is all the rage. Hair is getting longer, psychedelics-powered artistry is flourishing, and anything that seems to scream to hell with the rules is increasingly in vogue… Because of the fantastical elements of his work, Escher is acquiring a reputation as a surrealist. As a self-identifying “reality enthusiast,” it’s the very last thing he wants. Take Ascending & Descending, where he’s clearly turning his imagination to the futility of so much in the human-centred world. In a letter to a friend, he says:

“Yes, yes, we climb up and up, we imagine we are ascending; one step is about 10 inches high, terribly tiring – and where does it get us? Nowhere.”

But until the end of his career, his work will continue to speak to something deeper – a rebellion against human incuriosity, or a constant rallying-cry for the act of paying attention…

Read it in full: “Fooling With Certainty: The Impossibly Real Worlds Of MC Escher,” from Mike Sowden (@Mikeachim)

* M. C. Escher

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As we look closely, we might recall that it was on this date in 1859 that our perspective was shifted in a different kind of way: Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species.  Actually, on that day he published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life; the title was shortened to the one we know with the sixth edition in 1872.

Title page of the 1859 edition

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(Roughly) Daily will be on a brief Thanksgiving hiatus, returning when the the tryptophan haze has passed…

“Curiosity has its own reason for existence”*…

This is, as nearly as I can tell, the 5,000th (Roughly) Daily post (4,505 blog posts, preceded by 495 email-only pieces). On this numerologically-significant occasion, my deep thanks to readers past and present. It seems appropriate to devote this post to the impulse that has powered (Roughly) Daily from the start, curiosity– free-range curiosity…

Recently I read a terrific blog post by CJ Eller where he talks about the value of paying attention to offbeat things.

Eller was joining an online conversation about how people get caught up in the “status and celebrity game” when they’re trying to grow their audience. They become overly obsessed with following — and emulating, and envying— the content of people with massive audiences. The conversation started with this poignant essay by the author Ali Montag; she concludes that rabidly chasing followers endows your writing (and thinking!) with “inescapable mediocrity.” (It also tends to make you miserable, too, she points out)…

Instead of crowding your attention with what’s already going viral on the intertubes, focus on the weird stuff. Hunt down the idiosyncratic posts and videos that people are publishing, oftentimes to tiny and niche audiences. It’s decidedly unviral culture — but it’s more likely to plant in your mind the seed of a rare, new idea.

I love the idea of “rewilding your attention”. It puts a name on something I’ve been trying to do for a while now: To stop clicking on the stuff big-tech algorithms push at me… social behavior can influence our attention: What are the high-follower-count folks talking/posting/arguing about today? This isn’t always a bad thing. We’re social animals, so we’re necessarily (and often productively) intrigued by what others are chewing over. But as these three writers note, it’s also crucial to follow your own signal — to cultivate the stuff you’re obsessed with, even if few others are.

On top of the social pressure from people online, there’s technological pressure too — from recommendation systems trying to juke our attention… Medium’s algorithm has deduced that … I’m a nerd. They are correct! I am. The other major social networks, like Twitter or YouTube, offer me the same geek-heavy recommendations when I log in. And hey, they’re not wrong either; I really do like these subjects.

But … I’m also interested in so many other things that are far outside these narrow lanes. I am, for example, a Canadian who’s deeply into Canadian art, and a musician who spends a lot of time thinking about composition and gear and lyric-writing and production and guitar pedals, and a father who thinks a lot about the culture my kids show me, and I have a super-snobby fanboy love of the 18th century poet Alexander Pope.

You’re the same way; you contain your own Whitmanian multitudes, your pockets of woolly-eyed obsession. We all do.

But our truly quirky dimensions are never really grasped by these recommendation algorithms. They have all the dullness of a Demographics 101 curriculum; they sketch our personalities with the crudity of crime-scene chalk-outlines. They’re not wrong about us; but they’re woefully incomplete. This is why I always get a slightly flattened feeling when I behold my feed, robotically unloading boxes of content from the same monotonous conveyor-belt of recommendations, catered to some imaginary marketing version of my identity. It’s like checking my reflection in the mirror and seeing stock-photo imagery.

The other problem with big-tech recommendation systems is they’re designed by people who are convinced that “popularity” and “recency” equal “valuable”. They figure that if they sample the last 15 milliseconds of the global zeitgeist and identify what’s floated to the top of that quantum foam, I’ll care about it. Hey, a thing happened and people are talking about it, here’s the #hashtag!

And again … they’re sometimes right! I am often intrigued to know the big debates of the day, like Oscar Wilde peering into his daily gazette. But I’d also like to stumble over arguments yet more arcane, and material that will never be the subject of a massive online conversation because only a small group of oddballs care about it.

You’re the same way too, I bet. We’re all weird in different ways, but we’re all weird.

Big-tech recommendation systems have been critiqued lately for their manifold sins— i.e. how their remorseless lust for “engagement” leads them to overpromote hotly emotional posts; how they rile people up; how they feed us clicktastic disinfo; how they facilitate “doomscrolling”. All true.

But they pose a subtler challenge, too, for our imaginative lives: their remarkably dull conception of what’s interesting. It’s like intellectual monocropping. You open your algorithmic feed and see rows and rows of neatly planted corn, and nothing else.

That’s why I so enjoy the concept of “rewilding”… For me, it’s meant slowly — over the last few years — building up a big, rangy collection of RSS feeds, that let me check up on hundreds of electic blogs and publications and people. (I use Feedly.) I’ve also started using Fraidycat, a niftily quixotic feed-reader that lets you sort sources into buckets by “how often should I check this source”, which is a cool heuristic; some people/sites you want to check every day, and others, twice a year.

Other times I spend an hour or two simply prospecting — I pick a subject almost at random, then check to see if there’s a hobbyist or interest-group discussion-board devoted to it. (There usually is, running on free warez like phpBB). Then I’ll just trawl through the forum, to find out what does this community care about? It’s like a psychogeographic walk of the mind.

Another awesome technology for rewilding my attention, I’ve found, is the good old-fashioned paper book. I go to a bookstore, pick up something where it’s not immediately obvious why it’d appeal to me, then flip around to see if anything catches my eye. (This works online, too, via the wonderful universe of pre-1923, freely-accessible ebooks and publications at the Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, or even Google Books. Pre-WWI material is often super odd and thought-provoking.)…

Step away from algorithmic feeds. In praise of free-range curiosity: “Rewilding your attention,” from Clive Thompson (@pomeranian99).

See also “Before Truth: Curiosity, Negative Capability, Humility, ” from Will Wilkinson (@willwilkinson)

* “Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.” — Albert Einstein, “Old Man’s Advice to Youth: ‘Never Lose a Holy Curiosity.'” LIFE Magazine (2 May 1955) p. 64”

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As we revel in rabbit holes, we might send insightfully-humorous birthday greetings to William Penn Adair Rogers; he was born on this date in 1879.  A stage and motion picture actor, vaudeville performer, cowboy, humorist, newspaper columnist, and social commentator, he traveled around the world three times, made 71 films (50 silent films and 21 “talkies”), and wrote more than 4,000 nationally syndicated newspaper columns.  By the mid-1930s Rogers was hugely popular in the United States, its leading political wit and the highest paid Hollywood film star.  He died in 1935 with aviator Wiley Post when their small airplane crashed in northern Alaska.

Known as “Oklahoma’s Favorite Son,” Rogers was a Cherokee citizen, born to a Cherokee family in Indian Territory (now part of Oklahoma).

“I am not a member of an organized political party. I am a Democrat.”- Will Rogers

220px-Will_Rogers_1922

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“My father taught me to work; he did not teach me to love it.”*…

 

04-kinky-labor-supply

 

Over the past few decades, labor force participation has sharply dropped for men ages 20-34. Theories about the root cause range from indolence, to a lack of skills and training, to offshoring, to (perhaps most interestingly) the increasing attractiveness and availability of leisure and media entertainment. In this essay, we propose that the drop in labor participation rate of young men is a result of a combination of factors: (i) a decrease in cost of access to media entertainment leisure, (ii) increases in both the availability and (iii) quality media entertainment leisure, and (iv) a decrease in the marginal signalling utility of (conspicuous) consumption goods for all but the highest earners.

At the macro level, this results in sub-optimal production, as firms are unable to satisfy their demand for labor via the usual mechanism of increasing wages. If you believe that economic productivity and growth are good, this presents a challenge when attempting to design stimulus policy, because subsidies or increases to the minimum wage would yield the same non-result as firms increasing wages. We discuss the potential efficacy of the somewhat radical idea of a tax on human attention or time spent consuming entertainment media as a way to stimulate productivity…

Somewhat radical, indeed…  Economics for the Leisure State: Andrew Kortina (co-founder of Venmo and fin.com; @kortina) and Namrata Patel (Product at Airbnb and former VP, Product + Design at Minted; @namratalpatel) on “Kinky Labor Supply and the Attention Tax.”

* Abraham Lincoln

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As we sample soma, we might send inclusively-calculated birthday greetings to Barbara Bergmann; she was born on this date in 1927.  An economist, she was a trailblazer in the development of feminist economics, contributing important work on topics that ranged from childcare and gender issues to poverty and Social Security.  She was co-founder and President of the International Association for Feminist Economics and a trustee of the Economists for Peace and Security.

Bergmann source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 20, 2020 at 1:01 am

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