An economy which rewards those who capture the most attention has given rise to manipulative technologies, invasive advertising, and manufactured outrage. Attention activists resist this exploitation through innovation, regulation, ethics, leadership, education and mindfulness.

Yes, you heard that right - mindfulness. We need systems change, but we also need to reclaim choice as individuals. We can train our minds for a freedom of attention in waking life. In a culture where ads and apps compete to influence you, the pursuit of mental clarity has become a subversive act.

- Jay Vidyarthi

sense of community

Thanks for all your replies about last week's letter on intended consequences. It's really inspiring to hear how many of you care about these issues.

Two of you wrote back to talk about asynchronous communication and relationships (thx AP and BR!). There's agreement that something is categorically different in how we behave and feel on social media vs. our personal, face-to-face relationships. Yet there's some nuance here. Not all social media are asynchronous. Good point, friends. Technically a video call or online gaming platform is synchronous, since we engage with each other in real-time. So how do we think about synchronous, digital communication? A great question, definitely pokes a hole in the way I phrased it in my previous letter.

Let me clarify. I really don't think there's any problem with our digital social lives in general. They're fun, beautiful and magical. If I didn't think so, would I be writing letters to you? In fact, I grew up playing online games and chatting with friends on early social media like ICQ and mIRC (a/s/l?). Online relationships have been a part of my DNA since I was a kid. There's a bit of a spectrum between an asynchronous and synchronous. And also the modalities count: is it text-only or is there an audiovisual component? How much social information is being passed through the medium?

But all these issues aside, I think the challenge arises when these digital channels start to replace our social lives in the physical world. We've evolved to be social. Our bodies crave a non-conceptual, embodied social life. We are sentimental animals. Having a user interface indicating that you have hundreds of friends means almost nothing to your body compared to being in a room with a few good friends. I suspect that a lot of the spiking mental health issues with today's youth are related. I don't know exactly the anatomy of this, but my educated guess is that our bodies need a visceral, perceptual sense of community to feel well-adjusted. Sure, we can survive without it, but I think there's fairly substantial neuroscientific and anthropological evidence suggesting that an embodied sense of social connection is important to your well-being.

So what I really meant to say in the last letter relates to the issue of scale. These technologies are amazing and in most ways they make our lives better. Yet they are so comfortable and ubiquitous that it's easily to slip into dependency without even realizing it. Especially for those growing up with Instagram and Snapchat. People sometimes use the word "addiction" to talk about technology - I think that's a fairly irresponsible way to talk about it given the realities of substance abuse. But I do sense that we're losing something important when we depend on this tech to satisfy our basic need to live in community.

It's a fascinating (but pointless?) thought experiment to wonder if one day we might fully digitize all aspects of our social interaction so our bodies can't tell the difference, but at this stage, we're nowhere close.

the cool thing to do

a recipe for intended consequences