In a recent paper, Benjamin Farrer, a political scientist at Knox College in Illinois, argues that we have mistaken the key resource upon which democracy, and perhaps civilization, depends. That resource is attention. But not your attention or my attention. Our attention. Attention, in this sense, is a collective resource; it’s the depth of thought and consideration a society can bring to bear on its most pressing problems. And as with so many collective resources, from fresh air to clean water, it can be polluted or exhausted.
Borrowing a concept from Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Price in economic science, Farrer argues that attention is subject to a problem known as the tragedy of the commons. A classic example of a tragedy of the commons is an open pasture that any shepherd can use for his flock. Without wise governance, every shepherd will send his flock to graze, because if he doesn’t, the other shepherds will do so first. Soon enough, the pasture is bare, and the resource is depleted.
Farrer argues that our collective attention is like a public pasture: It is valuable, it is limited, and it is being depleted. Everyone from advertisers to politicians to newspapers to social media giants wants our attention. The competition is fierce, and it has led to more sensationalism, more outrageous or infuriating content, more algorithmic tricks, more of anything that might give a brand or platform or a politician an edge, even as it leaves us harried, irritable and distracted.