At the end of a recent trip to the Century City Mall here in Los Angeles, I was standing in line waiting to put a dollar in the automatic parking kiosk, when I heard a recorded message coming from an overhead speaker. The voice on the recording was reminding those of us within earshot to pay for parking at the kiosk because there would be no attendant at the parking exit.
In the few minutes I had to stand there I could not escape the insistent voice that repeated the same reminder over and over again without a single pause. Obviously some shrewd mall executive thought this recording was a good idea and would prevent needless backup at the parking lot exit. By the 18th or 19th repetition I also had a good idea: The CIA could use this recording to extract valuable information from high value terrorists. I was certain that even the most hardened ideologue would do anything in order not to hear that message one more time.
I was reminded of this experience while reading Matthew Crawford’s insightful and fascinating book “The World Beyond Your Head” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Crawford discusses the value of and struggle over a critical human resource—one whose control is worth an enormous amount of money: our attention. Ironically, in his research Crawford discovers that with rare exception, attention hasn’t yet achieved the level of consensus in our society to be considered a resource, much less a valuable one.
Commercial interests, on the other hand, know exactly how valuable our attention is—and they spare neither cost nor creativity in their quest to get as much of it as they can.
The investor in me is impressed by the extraordinary level of sophistication and ingenuity currently in use by those companies who benefit from controlling our attention, while the individual in me is angered and saddened by the manipulative and surreptitious intrusion into our lives.
Crawford highlights one such manipulation by comparing it to its real-world analog: As hockey players increase their skills, at some point they start to experience their sticks as parts of their own body. Studies describe this sensation as “cognitive extension”; the players’ brains no longer distinguish their sticks from their arms. The increasing competence they gain with this “new” part of their body is a pleasurable and reinforcing experience.
Large gaming companies have become experts at creating an “experience” for slot machine players that mimics this pleasure/reinforcement cycle—so much so that slots have become their single most profitable source of revenue. Of course the problem is that the very real pleasure the gambler is receiving from the experience is not built on his growing competence with the slot machine, but rather a calculated deception programmed to keep him playing as long as possible.
Most of our waking hours are spent in what Cory Doctorow terms, “an ecosystem of interruption technology.” It is so prevalent that we have become used to it; everyone has their own individual strategy for carving out some normalcy within its growing boundaries. But attention is a finite resource and Crawford warns us that, “Without the ability to direct our attention where we will, we become more receptive to those who would direct our attention where they will.”
Investing is not an easy enterprise even in the best of circumstances. The most basic obstacles we face are considerable and complex: No matter how much information you possess it is just a fraction of what’s out there; there are always other investors with more resources, more intelligence and more experience than you; and even if you are the smartest, most experienced and have access to more resources than anyone else, you will never run out of mistakes. And that is before your behavioral and social biases kick in to further cloud your judgment.