The Attention Economy: What Do We Do About People Who Sell Attentional Crack?

In the age of social media, it has become fashionable to talk about The Attention Economy. Everyone is competing for eye balls. Nowhere is this competition more clear than to someone who spends their time educating children.

Little kids are helpless. They don’t know that red means stop and green means go. They don’t know what they can eat and what they can’t. They don’t understand that one day they will be responsible for paying their own bills and that they’d better have marketable skills to make money with. And they certainly don’t understand that advertisers constantly hijack their attention for their own personal profit and to the detriment of children. It is the job of the adults to provide enough structure and clarity to help them understand these things. However, we find ourselves in competition with people who are willing to do ANYTHING to make a profit. Tupac Shakur sang about drug dealers who “Give the crack to the kids who the hell cares.” Well, it’s time we accepted that there are people who will sell “attentional crack” to the kids because “who the hell cares.” When you work with kids, you learn to care. You come to understand the degree of responsibility you have to not just pay attention to what they put in their mouths but what they put in their minds.

Crack delivers dopamine. It’s the brain’s feel good chemical. We all need dopamine. It evolved to make things that make our lives productive enjoyable. Eat some good food. You get dopamine. Run around. You get dopamine. Have sex. You get dopamine. Learn things. You get dopamine. Crack gives the human brain a quick easy fix that doesn’t require anything of you in the long-term. It doesn’t require you to challenge yourself or become a better person. Attentional crack works in the same way.

You can look at Kim Kardashian’s greasy butt and get a dopamine fix. Is it going to help you become a better, more compassionate person? Nope. Is it going to help you get a job? Nope. And yet, can you call out Kim Kardashian for this? Not effectively because people have so many different feeeeeeelings around what Kim’s greasy butt represents. To some, it’s a shameless display of nudity that doesn’t fit with their religion. To some, you trying to call her out is you trying to body shame a woman for being proud of her physique. To some, Kim’s greasy butt merely reinforces the idea that women are little more than sexual objects. Kim’s greasy butt is complicated. It’s complicated by us not having a shared culture, set of assumptions or experiences. We have a shared humanity. As kids, we all blindly copy things from our environment through the emotion of awe. We may eat different foods, worship different gods or worship no god, have different occupations, speak different languages and have different tastes in music but there is a set of biology that we all have in common and before we work through our cultural differences that is where we should form consensus. That this has to be the case has become abundantly clear to me in the last nine months.

Terrorism (and extremism more generally) is the ultimate attentional crack. These are people who are willing to do literally anything to get attention. I had an unusually terrorism-filled childhood. My family lived in Greece during the ’80s and were targeted by a Greek terrorist organization called November 17th. And then, we lived in the UK during the ’90s when groups like the IRA, the Real IRA, the Provisional IRA, the UVF and the UFF were carrying out attacks regularly. My time in the UK, in particular, gave me the ultimate education in how terrorism works. It’s all storytelling. “We are doing this not because we like violence. We’re doing this because we HAVE TO respond to what the other side is doing.” And this gets to the most important point about extremists, the opposing sides that hate each other so much actually NEED each other. They derive most of their social power by having someone to oppose. They may have different ideologies but the psychology is the same. Extremists view themselves as morally justified in attacking other humans. They have Righteous Minds.

Jon Haidt’s book reveals that the real problem of Fundamentalism is not the way some culture or some group of people far away thinks. The problem is the way that all humans think. We are AMAZING at justifying our own actions. The only real defense against this is deeper and deeper levels of self-awareness. It’s becoming so familiar with the patterns of your own thinking and your own emotions that you don’t get seduced into the feeeeeeeeelings of self-righteousness that can so easily take hold of us all. And yet, for all the power of his own insight, what can Jon do to combat extremism? Appeals for self-reflection simply aren’t sexy. They don’t grab attention like saying “Our values are under attack! There’s an enemy who is out to get us. Cowards will refuse to admit the danger we’re in. We must do something.” The rhetoric has been the same throughout the ages. The characters have changed. In 1950’s America, Joseph McCarthy spread fear of Communists in the name of righteousness. In the 21st Century, the challenge is not that we have a single Joseph McCarthy. It’s that we have many of them. There are people in every single political group spreading fear in the name of righteousness. These past two weeks, America has gotten to see what I saw growing up in the UK. Extremist enemies are allies in extremism. They justify each other. There can be no Antifa without Fascists and NAZIs. And the presence of Antifa, makes the NAZIs more able to justify their own behavior. Eighty-five years ago, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said we have “nothing to fear but fear itself.” Extremists create a climate of fear and that is how a tiny minority hijacks the attention of the majority. Extremism, like shark attacks, is rare but it makes for amazing attention-grabbing TV.

And so, at the end of 2016, I decided to try and beat the extremists at their own game. They had gained fame by telling stories about their opposition and about themselves. They were the good guys telling the truth when no one else was. We had to do something about the bad guys who were so obviously so terrible. I decided to try and beat them at their own game in a strategy I called Intellectual Terrorism that sought to hijack the public personae of famous, divisive figures. That social experiment is now coming to an end. It clearly isn’t going to solve the problem but it did provide valuable lessons and so I thought I’d sum them up for anyone who is interested in comparing notes on this to better solve this challenge.

  1. Western Fundamentalists Are A MASSIVELY Underutilized Resource In Understanding Extremism. ISIS is hard to study. They’re inaccessible and they’re violent. There’s a real challenge to studying them. Groups like the Anarcho-Capitalists and the New Atheists/Anti-theists ground their sense of moral superiority in their opposition to violence at all costs. Trigger strong emotion in ISIS or Neo-NAZIs and you might get shot. Trigger strong emotion in an Anarcho-Capitalist or Anti-theist and you’ll get plenty of vitriol. (See the comments here.) You won’t, however, get a bullet in your head probably. They’re actually the best place to study extremism.
  2. Westerners Have No Idea How Extremism Works. For all the news coverage of ISIS, it’s clear that most Westerners don’t understand how extremism works. For years, we’ve heard calls that Muslims should call out the Fundamentalists in their midst. When you try and apply that principle in the West, you get the same responses that Muslims get when they try and do that. “He’s defending our values. Why are you attacking him? We’re under threat. We need to rally together not be splitting hairs over who is on our side. He’s a good Muslim boy.” Islamic Fundamentalists and Joseph McCarthy don’t derive their power from attacking people’s cherished values. They derive their power from wrapping themselves in the flag and claiming that they love these values more. To claim that Tom Woods is defending capitalism or that Sam Harris loves science is like saying, “But, dude! ISIS LOVES Islam. How can they be the problem?” The issue is not wrapping yourself in these symbols. It’s about practicing Islam or Science or really understanding Capitalism. The problem is that acquiring the understanding of any of these takes A LOT of slow thinking. It is, by definition, a slow process that requires sustained attention and looking at things about yourself you may not initially like. Even when I succeeded in engaging people from these groups, the basic problem was that the follow up step was for them to read 100+ books. People didn’t and won’t do that.My absolute favorite defense of Western fundamentalist thinkers is that they are “very smart” and “have good points.” And what do you think is said of Fundamentalist Imams? They’re “great scholars” and make “very good points.” It is the same defenses that keep them from being called out too. Oh…and they have much more social power both in terms of their social media and in terms of who their friends are. Same same.
  3. There are A LOT of people out there who want to solve the problem. The very best thing to come out of this whole experiment was attracting a group of people who understand the problem. We don’t agree on everything but we’re aware enough of the shared problem to work together to try and solve it. There are a few thousand engaged individuals in Mixed Mental Arts with about 20 or so who are deeply committed and helping shape and refine the Mixed Mental Arts belt system. This is actually the biggest challenge. Reasonable people massively outnumber extremists. It’s getting people to stop defending their tribe and focus on helping sort through the problem together. We now have that. I’m excited for the release of the Mixed Mental Arts belt system and to keep iterating better and better content as we go.
  4. Confirmation Bias is an Easier Sell Than Cognitive Dissonance. Much of what Fundamentalists sell is confirmation bias. It’s brain ice cream. It’s delicious empty calories. It’s attentional crack. Real learning comes with cognitive dissonance. It’s something you have to acquire a taste for because initially it’s yucky. “What?!? I don’t know it all. Ewwww. Gross.” It’s attentional broccoli. It’s good for you…but not fun initially.
  5. Fundamentalists like Drug Dealers Attract Troubled People. Yes, Sam Harris, Tom Woods, Richard B. Spencer and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi have large followings but who are these people. They’re lost people who are desperate for some sort of clarity. My major interaction was with anti-theists. Their profile names are things like @atheistsensei, Ex-Mormon Atheist and @reason_evidence. They have a peculiar obsession with this which is why they’re so effective at promoting these ideas. It’s their total obsession. The irony is that fundamentalists unwittingly draw attention to their own trauma by exaggerating the problem they see so clearly. Take Peter Schiff. He wants to remove all or most government. Is it a coincidence that his dad was a tax protestor who died in Federal Prison while serving time for tax evasion? No wonder he dislikes the government. That doesn’t mean removing government is a good idea. Likewise, anti-theists who endless call God the #skydaddy are only highlighting that they have #skydaddyissues. This is the real source of the issue. If you want to help these people, you have to get them to expose the source of the trauma and help them sort through it. This is difficult and, in practice, it’s pretty clear that extremists are the place to focus your attention. That’s precisely the problem. They succeed in drawing all the attention to themselves. The Mixed Mental Arts Facebook group as of this writing had 1500 people. It was pretty harmonious. And then one divisive figure single-handedly succeeded in setting off a cascade of responses that derailed the group. It was what is happening worldwide in miniature. In the end, calling him out only made him more powerful because it gave him more attention.
  6. Fundamentalism will have to be outcompeted with self-knowledge. Even if I or anyone else succeeded in convincing anyone that fundamentalists regardless of ideology have a lot in common in terms of their thinking, then what? Well, we’d have to then sort through what we should believe. We’d have to clarify a new world view and a new social contract. This is a much more attractive option anyway and should be done first. People who are interested in doing this work will rush into join and help. Since our whole view is based on everyone having value as a thinker rather than the power of a single thinker, we have a huge competitive advantage. Calling out Fundamentalists only muddies the issue for people. Fundamentalists aren’t ALL bad. Sam Harris has brought on some great guests to his podcast. Tom Woods is a great dad. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi loves Islam and provides a path to a lot of lost, young people. You can always tell a story that makes yourself look good…or bad. That’s why humans have had thousands of years of conflict. We’re AMAZING storytellers. Our ability to exaggerate our virtues and diminish our faults is limitless. In the end, it’s going to take self-awareness to not fall for these divisive narratives. The Ancient Greeks said Know Thyself. The Muslims speak of ijtihad. We might call it self-awareness or self-reflection. It is the process of slow thinking about you, your faults and your thinking. It is in getting billions of humans to engage in that process that we will truly combat extremism. And we have one huge lever in promoting this type of thinking: jobs. As Alvin Toffler has said “the illiterate of the 21st Century will be those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” And what does it take to do that? Self-awareness and the flexibility of mind that eludes fundamentalists. Fundamentalism makes you unemployable. And that is what will drive it out of business. At some point, enough of us might have enough clarity to be able to call people out but that is not where we are now.

Sadly, there’s not much we can do to stop people from selling attentional crack. They want to make a G today and they either don’t care or don’t know enough to know what’s wrong with that. So be it. We’ll just have to outcompete them by selling the heck out of learning and self-reflection. Time to hustle and flow. We’ve got to outdeal the attentional crack dealers.

 

Right after being born in Saudi Arabia, I was taken to the Callen house. Since then, Bryan and I have travelled the world with our Citibank fathers and somehow ended up in LA together. There we'd run into each other at family gatherings and do something that no one else in LA seemed to be doing: we talked about books. Since Bryan was kind of a big deal, Hunter and Bryan hatched a scheme to use his podcast to get on their favorite authors and professors. Out of that evolved Mixed Mental Arts and this tribe. For me, the marriage of entertainment and education is a return to how things used to be before our culture split story into two separate things. It's exciting to be able to build on the work Katie O'Brien and I did for The Straight-A Conspiracy and expand it out to every area of life. While I play a series of roles in the Mixed Mental Arts community (including Shitty Dutch Uncle and Bryan's #1 fan) my favorite role is as Toto who pulls back the curtain and let's the world see that there are no wizards...only men and women who try and puff themselves up to seem important.

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