By Godwin Semunyu

I recently stumbled on an interesting report by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) revealing that human beings’ attention span; the amount of time humans spend concentrating on a task before becoming distracted. Has fallen from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to just 8 seconds today. Less than goldfish that has a 9-second attention span. In other words: The average human attention span is now shorter than a goldfish. Blame it on technology, they say.

At first, we blamed cellular phones for distractions, then the internet boom, later social media, and now, smartphones have become our brains’ nemesis. The latter being the undisputed source of distraction.

The insights took me back to one of Mark Manson’s article– the attention economy, where he illustrated how life has changed, and the economies morphed into new things. For instance, if you’ve ever spent time in a challenging neighborhood or with people who grew up in poverty, you’ll notice how much they talk about food — their favorite foods, what they’re going to eat this weekend, how they like this and don’t like that, and so on. Much of their lives and conversations revolve around food for the simple reason that the scarcity of food makes it appear incredibly important.
But in first-world cultures where food is never an issue, discussions of food among most people are superficial and usually over within a few seconds.

For most of human history, the significant economic scarcity in the world was land. There was a limited amount of productive land; therefore, there was a limited amount of food. And because there was a limited amount of food, most day-to-day economic concerns, and political squabbles involved land. Most people spent their lives contemplating what land they were going to work, what they were going to grow, what kind of harvest to expect, and so on. Food was always on the top of people’s minds.

Eventually, when the industrial revolution hit, the primary scarcity was no longer land, as machines could now help cultivate more than enough food for everybody. Now the considerable scarcity was labor. You needed trained people to run all of these machines that did all of the cool new stuff so you could make money and get rich. Thus, for a couple of hundred years, the organizing principle in society was based on labor — who you worked for, how much you made, and so on.

Then, in the 20th century, more was produced than anyone would ever need or could ever purchase. The new scarcity in society was no more prolonged labor or land; the scarcity was now knowledge. People had so many choices of what to buy with their hard-earned money, but they didn’t know what to purchase. I once visited a lavished Nike store in the US, and I got overwhelmed by choices. I left.

The abundance of choices then gave way to brands. Thus, people spent most of their day-to-day existence trying to figure out what the best toothpaste was, what a toaster oven could do, and so on. The advertising and marketing fields then came to dominance to disseminate information people needed to make “informed purchases.”

Now, the internet and smartphones have disrupted everything. The primary scarcity in society is no longer comprehensive information. In fact, there is now more information than any of us could know what to do with. Everything can now be figured out in mere seconds. My twelve-year-old son would often scold me, “You can google that, dad, google is your friend,” whenever I ask for information or directions.

The scarcity in our world is no longer comprehensive knowledge, neither labor nor land. The new scarcity in the modern internet age is called; attention. People would do anything to get followers, the likes, impressions, and comments. The new bottleneck on our economy is attention. We tend to seek attention at all costs while paying little attention to things that matter. We are indeed in an attention-based economy with an increasing lower attention span.

The author is Head of Marketing and Communication at Equity Bank(T). The article is his personal views and does not represent his employer. He can be reached through: godwin.semunyu@equitybank.co.tz.

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