"Everybody Is Distracted"

Authored by Sven Henrich via NorthmanTrader.com,


Are societies becoming hopelessly fragmented to the point that democracies are no longer functional as compromise solutions become impossible? Is technology tearing us apart? What are the consequences?

Big questions and probably deserving intense study and I find these questions on my mind a lot these days. Look, as much as it all seems like an old hat now the internet and social media is still new, but it has already dramatically changed the way we interact and process information and it may well be changing cultures in a big way and not necessarily for the better.

Think of all the kids today that don’t even know what a world without internet looks like. Heck I see 3 years olds glued to screens in cars, at fast food joints and every kid is running around with a smart phone. Their brains are perceiving reality quite differently than perhaps people just 20 years ago. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up being bombarded with constant content at such an early age. But we all are now.

Online, big time:

Who knows what the consequences are?

Being bombarded with content is what the entire ecosystem of consumer technology is based on. What’s $AAPL sell these days? Phones to stare at screens? That was the old business model. Now they’re selling screens to sell content to you. $GOOGL? Content (think Youtube) $NFLX? Streaming content.  $AMZN, $DIS all heading there too. $FB? $TWTR? Content, news, information and an opportunity for people to yell at each other.

After all this is what the market values: Digital content:

The internet is busy folks, very busy:

Can one even grasp the enormity of all this data that is being absorbed non stop? No wonder productivity gains remain elusive.

I suspect many of us are finding ourselves partaking in many of these sub categories. And while it looks like one cohesive pie it doesn’t reflect the echo chambers people are retreating into. Societies of old tended to gravitate toward cohesive cultures, our brave new world is fragmenting rapidly especially on the political side leading to complete paralysis of the political systems.

The US appears hopelessly divided. Every issue is subject to propaganda and misinformation. Reality and truth become lost in the noise. Facts are either dismissed or distorted and perception of reality is entirely dependent on one’s ideology or allegiance to political leanings.

Take climate change as an example:

How can one reach political consensus on action when one can’t even agree on what the problem is? The answer is you can’t and you won’t. Best hope there’s no problem to be solved.

But it’s not only the US. We see it everywhere. Democracies becoming fragmented into ever smaller factions with widely different views.

Just look at some examples of current political fragmentation in Europe:




Yes plurality is better than one party totalitarianism. But what are the consequences of dividing too far to the point that consensus can’t be reached? Permanent stalemates with no progress?

If you have followed Brexit over the past 2 years you can’t help but walk away with a sense of exacerbation. People can’t agree on anything it appears. If the Brexit horror show doesn’t make you shudder I don’t know what does.

The larger concern being: Democratic countries becoming incapable of addressing and solving any large complex structural issues. Perhaps this explains the now evident permanent reliance on central banks to kick all problems down the road.

With permanent dovish policies they give the political sphere license to not address issues and keep the illusion of growth and prosperity alive all the while realizing ever expanding wealth inequality and accumulating systemic debt setting the stage for the next financial crisis.

But don’t count on citizens rising up in discontent.

Everybody is distracted, glued to screens and attention spans are waning.

A recent study in Nature Communications supports this assertion:

“With news pushed to smart phones in real time and social media reactions spreading across the globe in seconds, the public discussion can appear accelerated and temporally fragmented. In longitudinal datasets across various domains, covering multiple decades, we find increasing gradients and shortened periods in the trajectories of how cultural items receive collective attention. Is this the inevitable conclusion of the way information is disseminated and consumed? Our findings support this hypothesis.

“In the interplay with competition for novelty, this causes growing turnover rates and individual topics receiving shorter intervals of collective attention”.

In other words we absorb less and less detail, our waning attention spans are victim of constant competing flows of surface content driven headlines.

And it’s happen in real time and is measurable as shown in the study above.

So how again is technology making us smarter and more informed? It’s not, it’s making us less informed on details as we are invited to jump from one controversy and outrage to the next. Permanent distraction through constant bombardment of content soundbites competing for our waning attention spans fragmenting society into separated and divided echo chambers.

Now let’s discuss complex policy solutions with informed voters. Ain’t going to happen. We have an election cycle to run. Best keep everybody engaged with fake outrages and controversies to distract from the real issues that are crying out for desperately needed attention.

Everybody is distracted. Everybody’s focused on the outrage of the day, in shorter and shorter increments. Details are lost or ignored. Subject matter expertise is becoming tweet deep. Everybody has expert opinions on issues they know little about. For a day or two. Soon for an hour or two?

So I ask again:

Are societies becoming hopelessly fragmented to the point that democracies are no longer functional as compromise solutions become impossible? Is technology tearing us apart? What are the consequences?

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