Everyone wants attention. The individual family provides a beautiful microcosm for thinking about the dynamics of the “Attention Economy.” Kids compete for their parents’ attention, and video games, movies, music, and social media compete for the kids’ attention. School books very often lose out in the competition for attention. While mom is exhausted by having to give everyone else her complete attention, her needs (attention) often fall by the wayside. She needs more of her attention for herself. It’s an underappreciated fact that economics comes from the Greek words oikos (house) and nomos (managing). Home economics is a redundant idea because all economics is household management. The only difference is the size of the house and the family. Are we talking about the global family and its economy, or the Swedish family’s economy or the economy of my apartment? How big is the house and how well is it managed? What would you say about a country that looks like this?
Management is the key word when it comes to thinking about attention in a house. Working as a tutor, you see a lot of different approaches to attention management in a lot of different houses. If learning isn’t respected or prioritized, it gets little attention and becomes an afterthought. Without consistent, high-quality engagement, it doesn’t happen. If the message is repeatedly driven that math isn’t something our family is really good at, then the kids receive that message. The kids develop a fear of math and their attention is driven away from the math. This gets to the core of understanding the attention economy of a household, it boils down to feeeeeeelings. How do we feeeeeeel about housework? How do we feeeeeel about cooking at home as compared to eating out? These different emotions drive entirely different choices, which have huge cumulative effects over the long-term. The size of those cumulative effects become even larger when played out over a large household like the global economy.
While recently returning from Mexico, in the Uber ride into town from the airport, the radio was on. My friend (who doesn’t speak much Spanish) only caught two words over and over again.
Why were they talking about Justin Bieber? Because Justin Bieber is one of the 7.5 billion individuals who has succeeded in dominating the attention of the human family. Additionally, if the human family’s attention is spending so much time on Justin Bieber, then it’s not a lot of time on other things.
Having gone through Mexico City in an Uber just hours before, I know what some of those problems are and I know how lucky I am to be one of the people with the education, passport, and financial opportunities to spend my time reading, reflecting, and writing this.
As always, with that kind of power comes great responsibility. How responsibly are media darlings like Justin Bieber using all that attention that they have? Well, to answer that, you need to look no further than your own family.
If one child in a family sucks up all the attention at the expense of the others, would we say this is healthy? Nope. In fact, that’s a pretty obvious sign of dysfunction in the family. Then, what does it mean that this is true on a global scale? It means the dysfunction is even larger. However to understand that dysfunction, you have to understand what attention is for. You have to know what the appropriate use of attention is to recognize the inappropriate use. You have to know the #relevantbiology.
Justin Bieber and other media darlings like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg tap strongly into the emotion of awe. They are cool, and yet, cool has a biological survival function. It is for drawing young people into careers. When cool is overwhelmingly concentrated around professions like pop music, tech billionaire, rap star, supermodel and professional athlete, guess what young people want to be? You know what doesn’t get a lot of awe? The trades, including electricians, plumbers, and carpenters. The people who actually fix and build our entirely (dys)functional homes. Guess what? Very few young people want to enter a trade field, but we desperately need them. We need electricians, plumbers, and carpenters. We need young people to have jobs. A wise society would allocate cool proportionally, however, we don’t live in a wise society. Our household is managed poorly. We have bad economics.
Of course, this is not how people think of economics. Instead, they think of economics in terms of the sort of graphs, charts, and statistics that academic economists have used to convince the world that they are learned and understand how to manage a household. And yet, I doubt you’ve ever heard of an economist talking about how celebrity might negatively affect job creation. That’s because economists don’t look at the whole household, they look only at the household ledger. When you look only at the ledger, it’s great that Justin Bieber and Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have so much attention. It allows them to make lots of money.
Your attention is your most valuable resource. People want attention because attention is power. People want power because power is money. The simple acting of using your own attention more wisely to improve your life is actually a revolutionary act. You are denying power to attentional crack merchants. You are way more interesting than Kim Kardashian or Justin Bieber. Don’t let anyone fool you!