How Mobile has Hijacked Human Nature

We live in abundance; why does our attention feel so scarce?

Our biology hasn’t caught up to our technology. Today, we live in a time of abundance — abundance of information, content, and connectivity. Yet our time and attention

 has never felt more scarce — or scattered. How we manage the interplay between these dynamics is critical to our future yet completely unresolved. We are in uncharted territory.

Falling down.

The age-old expression “There’s never a dull moment” has never been more true than it is today.

Just look around at the shoppers in line at the store, the drivers at the traffic light, your co-workers at the happy hour, or even — increasingly and frustratingly — your family at the dinner table. What do you see? Downward gazes toward mobile devices. Fingers on glass clearing notifications, swiping feeds, and dealing with something (ostensibly) important.

The smartphone is the escape portal in our pocket that promises transportation to another place. Distraction. Through our phone’s vibrations come whispers of entertainment, work, messages, whatever. All impatiently wait for our attention.

So long as you have a signal and a decent charge no amount of time is too small. In the minutes spent waiting, stuck in traffic jams, or walking to meetings; the seconds between bites of food, at periodic pauses in conversation, or lulls in the Netflix shows we stream — we get little chances to escape.

What once was merely marginal time — downtime between more important activities — has become significant, unlocked by our smartphones.

Where does the time go? Spinning my wheels.

Estimates suggest we are checking our Mobile devices some 110–150 times a day.¹ All those moments add up. Mary Meeker’s 2017 Internet Trends presentation shared that time spent with Mobile has increased from about an hour a day in 2011 to going on 6 hours a day in 2016:

Whether we’ve hit the upper limit in time spent with Mobile or not is yet to be seen (Though there is only so much time in a day). To that end, a recent TED talk given by NYU professor of psychology Adam Alter shared research on the average 24-hour workday, focusing on how time was spent across four categories: Sleep, Work+Commute, Survival, and Personal. You can see the findings below. Note that within “Personal” is a red bar that represents screentime.

Alter’s findings show that from 2007 to 2017 Personal time has been consumed by screentime. It’s hard to grasp the gravity of such a colossal shift in human behavior — one that occurred in a mere ten years, yet self-reflection bears it out. Personal time —our leisure time — feels like it has evaporated. Why?

Standing still — it’s like running on ice.

The value of time is highly subjective to the person experiencing its passing. Consider how someone with nowhere to be might not mind a minor delay at a red light. Contrast that same person with someone trying to make it to the airport in time to catch a flight — this person will find waiting at that red light much more painful.

Before the Internet — and especially before smartphones — having meaningful downtime was normal. In your downtime you could turn on the television, read a book, spend time with a friend (or family), or just sit there and do nothing. You could very easily get bored.

But the Internet, as made ubiquitous through our Mobile devices, has connected us to endless opportunities to distract ourselves, do work, do something. While in our connected era, you can still do all of the same things as before, doing something as simple as doing nothing has become downright hard.

Louis C.K. nailed this idea on Conan almost four years ago (0:55s).

You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away. Is the ability to just sit there like this. That’s being a person, right? — Louis C.K. on Conan

Our constant connectivity made possible by Mobile has made it cheap to always be doing something. By extension it’s raised the price of doing nothing. Doing something on Mobile now costs us only our time and attention. Meanwhile, the price of doing nothing requires willfully ignoring all the possible stuff we could be doing on our Mobile devices.

I only get a little attention when I fall.

All of the stuff we can do on Mobile comes down to content creation and consumption. The device in our pocket gives us the opportunity broadcast or to hunt and devour.

The game is plentiful. There has never been more content to consume than there is today. Whether it’s professional content — the kind of stuff you might pay a premium for like a movie, book, streaming video service, music — or amateur content, which is everything that is shared on social media, our lives are inundated with content.

The abundant sources of streaming music.

Mobile devices are the ultimate content creation devices — sharing is creation. A short three years ago Mary Meeker estimate that 1.8 billion photos were being uploaded every dayYouTube has over one billion hours of video watched daily. Everyone you know on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat is their own little micro-celebrity (Twitter, too).

Creation and consumption of amateur content over social media.

Much of this content amounts to ephemeral noise, but there are enough gems to keep us swiping and searching.

Benedict Evans has written about how our phones are the only device that matters today. It’s the remote control for the world and the Internet is the network. Through Mobile we have access to all the content we could want. Whereas in time’s past distribution channels mattered a great deal (e.g. network TV, cable services, book publishers, music labels, etc.), these proprietary channels matter very little in the age of the Internet.

All of this content clamors for our time and attention. Shouldn’t we be happy to live in a time of such abundance?

Why is it when we look around at our friends and family people seem so distracted, so anxious?

What’s wrong with us?

We aren’t wired for this.

If all of our time can be spent doing something over the Internet and there is a never-ending, growing list of things to do — be it content to create or consume, how might we expect humans to behave?

Mobile connectivity has put a price on our marginal time and that price can be understood by turning to the economic concept of “opportunity cost.”

Opportunity cost is the hypothetical future you give up when you make a choice. It’s the imagined missed opportunities. When we think about what we gave up to do something we are filled with discomfort and anxiety — a sense of loss for some potential future that is now gone forever.

Opportunity cost the fear of missing out.


Consider this situation. Imagine you’re missing work because of a dentist appointment. As you wait to be called, you see a magazine you could pick up and read. Or you could open your Mobile phone, check your work email, and knock off a couple to-dos. If you choose the magazine (or Facebook, Instagram, etc.), the opportunity cost is the foregone stuff you could have done on your Mobile device.

Here’s another one. You spend 20 minutes scanning Netflix for something to watch. You want to pick something you’ll enjoy, but struggle to sift through the hundreds of options available. You know there has to be something worth watching and that knowledge creates anxiety because, well, you don’t have to watch anything, at all. You better make a good choice — the best choice. Otherwise you’re giving up some other use of your time.

You finally settle on a movie that has decent reviews and you sorta want to watch — only to find that 15 minutes into it, your mind drifts to that possibility engine within arms reach. Hmm … maybe this movie isn’t worth watching, after all.²

Here, the opportunity cost isn’t just the other streaming options you skipped, it’s also the other entertainment options offered up by your Mobile device. Is it a surprise that 70% of streaming, live, or DVR TV watching during Primetime involves other activities³.

Loss aversion and human nature.

If you’ve read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow you’ll recall his discussion of Loss Aversion and Prospect Theory.

A quick summary. At the margins, we are willing to pay a premium to eliminate a small chance of a big loss — the example du jour is settling a frivolous lawsuit. Even if you have a low probability of losing, the small chance nags at us. We’re willing to pay more than would make logical sense (were we rational actors) to eliminate that small chance.

On the other end of the spectrum, we are willing to pay an overly large premium for a small chance to have a big gain. The relatable example? Playing the lottery. You have almost no chance of winning yet you pay a price for a ticket that is significantly greater than the value of the ticket because “You can’t win if you don’t play.”

The small chance to win big helps understand why people play slot machines.

Both of these behaviors at the margin help explain why we have anxiety about our choices in consuming content — there’s a small chance that the content we choose won’t be worth our time. Meanwhile, our Mobile devices present the opportunity for an outsized gain — we have a small chance at making a fortuitous discovery. We overweight that chance in our decision-making and are left feeling compelled to turn to our phones.

We play the lottery with our attention, hoping for outsized gains. We hedge potential losses through multi-tasking.

And ‘round and ‘round we go. “Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.” The modern predicament of our connected era.

Reasserting control.

I’m tired of telling myself it’s okay to be this tired.

How might we reclaim our time and attention? If anything, it starts with awareness of the problem — we are in uncharted territory when it comes to the interplay of access to information and human biology, which has not evolved to catch up to it’s current environment.

Asserting rationality.

Our natural response to turn to the phone to avert potential losses or seek potential gains is irrational, but it’s human. If we can accept the veracity of our nature, we can take steps to thwart it.

Daniel Kahneman talks about cognitive illusions — those times when our brains can’t see the reality of a situation. They are tricked. He makes an analogy to the Müller-Lyer illusion. A.k.a. this:

The Müller-Lyer illusion

If you’re familiar with the above illusion, you know that our minds can’t help but see the lines as being different lengths — yet it simply isn’t the case. By being aware of the illusion, we can take assert rationality over our mistaken perceptions.

When we feel the innate drive to pull out our Mobile devices, ready to play the lottery with our attention or avert spending our time in a less-than-optimal way, we can take a deep breath, and realize our brains are up to their instinctive tricks.

We can re-center our focus and put our Mobile phones down.


This re-focusing of our attention shares much in common with meditation. Acknowledging distractions that take our focus away from the present — centering on the breath — is critical to meditation.

Interest in meditation appears to be on the rise. Take a look at this Google Trends for “meditation:”

Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, has given much thought to modern human predicament. Perhaps it’s no coincidence he has taken to meditation — going so far as to take a month a year to meditate.


Perhaps there’s a chance we finally learn: our quest to optimize every moment of our time is futile. It can’t be done, so why chase the impossible?

The future is unknown.

While the future unfolds before us, what’s certain is that there will be no slowing of technology. The demands on our time and attention are only going to become more extreme. What we do about those demands is up to us, but starting from awareness of the problem and taking even small steps to reassert control feel like moves in the right direction.

¹ Android app Locket pegs the number at 110X/day (October 2013) while the TomiAhonen Almanac from 2013 puts the number at 150X.

² I call this streamer’s remorse.

³ GFK, September 2015

Certain section titles are lyrics from Vertical Horizon’s Falling Down.

The Axis of Content Consumption is Attention

The democratization of content may have already happened but it’s far from over. Today, we are all drowning to consume as much content as possible, treading water as we doll out our time to whatever content manages to grab our attention. And no matter what we choose, we never feel like we make the tiniest dent. We’re left dissatisfied and still drowning. The Internet is a flood.

The axis of consumption is attention.

Let’s take a step back before the Internet became widespread.

Twenty years ago, the primary axis for content consumption was how much you were willing to pay to get access to the content. The Internet dethroned content as king. As Benedict Evans put it, “the device is the phone and the network is the internet.”

Today, the axis of consumption is how much attention you are willing to give to any given piece of content. The price of that attention is shifting away from how much you pay for access to the content—because most content these days is near-cheap or free—but how much content you are willing to skip. Your choice to consume one thing comes at the cost of not consuming something else.

In economic terms, the price of your attention is the opportunity cost of missing all the content you choose not to consume. In a world where content is plentiful and effectively free, human attention has become the scarce resource that sets the price.

While it’s nearly objectively true that the type and amount of content available for consumption today is significantly higher quality than that created a few decades ago, are we individually any better off? Are we any happier? I’m skeptical. A look around and people seem more on edge than ever. Perhaps it’s our innate loss aversion at work. It’s our nature to want to avoid losses—but a world that is overrun with content requires every choice we make to cost us our ability to consume something else. We have anxiety—fear of missing out—with regard to the content we choose not to consume.

We are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.

I must make the best choice.

This “no win” situation leaves us anxious about our leisure time—it must be spent wisely! We can’t afford to make a poor choice when it comes to picking a streaming television show—there’s too much good content out there (and you know it!) to waste your attention on something not worthwhile. So we spend 20 minutes flipping through Netflix trying to decide on something to watch.

We need really good reasons to consume particular content. Social signals are useful—is everyone going to be talking about this show at the water cooler? Who recommends this article? What can I hope to get out of reading this book? Whatever the content offers, the juice better be worth the squeeze.

When it comes to distribution, barriers to content are annoying, at best, and will result in content being skipped or ignored, at worst (this is the more likely outcome). The connection between slow-loading sites and users giving up on content has been researched at length (here’s but one quick set of results from Doubleclick on mobile site loading). The point? Any friction between content and users is going to cost you attention. The less valuable the content, the less friction users will tolerate.

How cheap content affects advertising.

That’s why there is a flight to quality when it comes advertising — users will only tolerate interruptions in content if the content is deemed valuable enough to suffer the ads. Examples are helpful:

  • The Super Bowl. Here you have a time-sensitive event that the majority of Americans consume—and will be talking about the next day. You can’t time-shift your consumption of the Super Bowl because the content’s relevance only lasts for a very short window. The result is commercials are exceptionally expensive. And while the Super Bowl is at the extreme end of this, all live sporting events tend to follow the same pattern — users put up with the advertising friction because the relevance of the content is time-sensitive.
  • Facebook. Facebook content is selected algorithmically. What you see in the stream should be about the best content you can possibly see in your stream. That said, “best” is probably pretty mediocre (no offense to my friends), which is why Facebook’s advertising must be as low-friction as possible—and it is. Ads are targeted specifically to you, which at least removes some of the possible friction of seeing a totally irrelevant bit of marketing. More importantly, the ads aren’t screen takeovers nor do they firewall your feed consumption — they’re just presented in-stream. Even videos auto-play siliently, to be as subtly in your face, passively trying to get your attention as possible.
  • YouTube. YouTube’s pre-roll ads and skippable ads are huge barriers to content consumption, and as such, are much disdained by users. Unlike Facebook, Google’s approach here feels to me like an example of what not to do (And yes, I mentioned this to whoever would listen at Google, but I didn’t exactly have the ear of Susan susan Wojcicki). It’s not bad enough that you sometimes have to wait for a video to load (4 out of 5 will click away if a video stalls while loading — Google), but to have to watch some terribly executed ad for a paltry bit of YouTube video? On a personal note, I never would have opted into YouTube Red but I got it via my Google Play Music All Access plan, which meant I never had to watch any more YouTube ads. The unexpected result? Wow is YouTube so much better without ads. I cannot watch YouTube anymore if it has ads. I will immediately bounce and make sure I’m logged in to Red to avoid YouTube ads. Aint nobody got time for that.
  • Google Search. Now consider Google search. Whereas YouTube ads are painful, Google search ads are “in stream” (you need but scroll past them) so they are low friction. They’re also keyed to your query, which is to say that they are likely to be as relevant an ad as you can get, both in content and in timeliness. It’s no surprise that Google search is still one of the most valuable places to advertise on the web.

The point of the above examples is that advertising in a world that is drowning in content is about making the advertising as friction-free as possible and highly relevant. There is a real flight to quality when it comes to content—users will leave channels that either have low-quality content or content that isn’t worth the price of consumption. Adding noise to channels (and irrelevant advertising is noise) means that users are going to leave that channel for other content-streams that have a stronger signal—higher quality content. Either that or they are going to use tools to shut the advertising down (i.e. ad blockers).

Meanwhile, the wealthy are just going to pay to avoid the advertising entirely. It’s the content equivalent of “white flight” whereby luxury affords you the ability to live in a high-quality content world, free of ads. Scott Galloway has been beating this particular drum for awhile. The rich need not watch ads. I think he’s right.

The high price of attention.

Who doesn’t like having higher quality content that is less expensive? Ads that are being forced to be relevant or, at least, low-friction? Access is incredible.

Yet even as content has been democraticized—in creation, distribution, and consumption—I can’t help but feel anxious, like I’ve lost control of my facilities. I look around at our harried existence when people would sooner risk causing a horrible car accident than to put their phones down and pay attention to the road. Or how I feel the nagging gravitational pull to spend every second consuming or creating some bit of content over the Internet. This anxious existence is the present. Is it the future?

If you are fascinated by attention, take time to read up on the attention economy. Here are a couple resources to get you started:

  • The Attention Economy and the Net — Michael Goldhaber. Prescient read that was written now over 20 years ago (April, 1997)!
  • The Wikipedia article on the Attention Economy is quite useful.
  • Gary Vaynerchuk has indicated that attention is a primary focus of his. He makes mention of attention arbitrage, which I see as relevant to what I call the flight to quality in advertising. Advertising is most impactful when deployed on channels that are low-noise, high-relevance. Watch him talk to Weiden and Kennedy back in 2016 and mention how Zuckerberg is also keyed into something called the “attention graph.”
  • Is it a coincidence that interest in meditation is on the rise? See Google Trends or Google’s Ngram viewer.

Live Experiences vs. Recordings — What We Pay to Engage Attention

David D. Friedman recently posed the question of whether or not YouTube recordings of his lectures were adequate substitutes for the live experience. DDF wrote:

Quite often, when I give a talk, someone records it, often as video, and webs it. That raises a question relevant to what talks I give: Is watching the video a reasonably close substitute for attending the talk? …

This links to a question that has puzzled me for a long time. One common pattern in schooling is the mass lecture—a professor speaking to an audience in the hundreds with students taking notes.  In the fourteenth century, that made a lot of sense as a low cost way of spreading knowledge, but why did it survive the invention of the printing press?

For me, this question firmly centers itself upon the subject of attention, and how much attention people are willing to give a recorded experience that is given away for free (“Free” being simply defined, ignoring non-trivial opportunity costs of consuming the content).

Many chimed in with thoughts on the matter, but I didn’t find anyone directly tackling the issue from the perspective of engaged attention. These days when our attention comes at a heavy price (something I will write more on), engagement is everything.

So I left the comment below.

… I think it’s all about attention. More specifically, it’s about how much I am willing to engage in a live experience vs. a recorded experience. There are a few things to unpack here:

  • Upfront costs. Almost all live experiences have non-trivial costs associated with them. You have to get to class. You have to pay tuition. You have to adjust to the environment (that is, listen up, direct focus). When we “pay” for a live experience, we are more likely to feel like we’re wasting our time if we don’t pay attention. In a way, note-taking is arguably yet another way to force paid attention. I don’t think I’ve ever taken notes while watching a recorded lecture or talk.
  • Perceived value of a live experience. Live experiences are necessarily more unique rare than recorded ones that can be watched at will (at low cost). Mind, this isn’t binary: a 3x/week live mass lecture to 500 students will have a lower perceived value than a one-off lecture by a guest speaker to the same 500 students; or 3x/week lecture given to 20 students. Every scenario you can imagine will signal things about value. Can a lecture that is free (b/c it’s a recording) really be worth watching? Of course! But the signals to interpret value are going to be derived from other aspects — views received, expected content, production quality, vouched value by others who’ve consumed it, and so on and so forth.
  • Optionality of the live experience. There must be some non-zero potential value of attending a live experience. This can be the opportunity to ask questions of the presenter, the chance of meeting other like-minded people in attendance, and the value of being able to discuss the lecture with other attendees when the content is fresh on their minds.
  • The value of interpersonal connection. This one is probably a little related to perceived value, but what happens when a lecturer can look you in the eye? How does that engage your attention? Related: video conferencing with one other person is incredibly less enjoyable/valuable (to me) that in person communications.
  • What else? I’m sure there are other reasons we engage our attention more with a live experience as compared to a recording.

Today with the sky-rocketing volume of “free” content, I find I’m resorting to many new signals as to the value of content and whether or not it’s worth my attention. Recorded experiences are great, but they suffer from harder to read signals as to quality. To make matters worse, when I consume this content, the medium of consumption makes it trivial to abandon the recording (either literally closing it or letting my mind wander off).

All said, I wonder to what extent better VR will mitigate some of these negative (and in my mind, undesirable) effects of recorded content by simply engaging more senses and increasing the price of shifting my attention away (due to having to take “goggles” and headphones off).