Dan Mercer

Software engineer, security and Web enthusiast, follower of Jesus

Information or attention?

I just finished reading Stand Out of Our Light by James Williams, a former Google engineer who left and studied philosophy at Oxford so he could write about the problems he saw in how tech companies treat our attention.

Williams makes a really interesting point about information and attention. For most of human history, information has been a scarce resource and attention has been abundant, but now we have abundant information, which means attention is the scarce resource. He points out repeatedly how many things are stuck in “information scarcity” paradigms, even things like privacy legislation (which is mostly concerned with regulating what people do with our information, not our attention).

It got me thinking about how much design falls into that trap as well. So much of design is focused on presenting information that is useful, instead of focusing on guiding the user’s attention in ways that are useful. I think notifications are perhaps the best example of this: in an effort to be useful, Slack/email/etc. loves to give us lots of notifications that it thinks will be useful to us, without stopping to think that it’s counterproductive to our hyper-fragmented attention. (As an example, today I submitted a PTO request in my company’s HR software, and I immediately got an email and a Slack message telling me it had been approved. Why though? That’s not at all urgent.)

…I’ll probably write more about this someday. If I do, I’ll try to remember to come back and update this post. 😅