Book in Brief: Living in Information

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Editors’ note: This “Book in Brief” feature here on Boxes and Arrows is from
Living in Information: Responsible Design for Digital Places by Jorge Arango.

We’ll publish an excerpt, up to 500 words, of your book. The catch is that we’ll only publicize one book a month; first come, first serve. Other rules will certainly occur to us over time. Hit us up at idea at

Cover art; white tiles of various sizes form a wall surrounding a yellow door. The tiles have icons on them of an apple, a play button, a coffee mug, a cloud, etc.

Chapter 4: Engagement

You walk into the kitchen with the intent of making a sandwich, when suddenly you hear glass shatter. You immediately turn toward the source of the sound. Your pulse quickens as scenarios play in your mind. Has someone broken into your house? Where are your kids? You walk into the living room to discover your son with a surprised look on his face and a ball lying on the floor next to the shattered window. Fortunately, he’s alright. You comfort him and discuss what has happened, and then take your phone out and Google glaziers. You find a company that seems reputable and call them to set an appointment for the next morning. You go back to the kitchen and wonder, “Now, where was I?”

Thus far in this book, we’ve been discussing tangible ways in which places influence our behavior. But there are also more subtle ways in which environments affect us. One that is of particular importance is how they impact our ability to focus our attention.

Sometimes our attention is taken away by an exceptional occurrence, such as the sound of a breaking window. This is useful; the ability to respond quickly to changing conditions can help us escape danger. However, most of the time, we want to be in control of our attention. An environment that nudges us to spend more of our time there—or keeps interrupting us—would make it difficult for us to get things done.

The places we inhabit can either allow us to remain in control of our attention or snatch it from us for purposes of their own. Unfortunately, many of today’s most popular information environments are based on business models that incentivize the latter. The term used in the technology business is “engagement”: the amount of time people spend looking at or interacting with components in the environment. Given how important our attention is, it’s worth looking at how designing for engagement affects it.

What Attention Is and Why It Matters

You can think of attention as your ability to focus your mind on one piece of information among many so that you can achieve a particular goal. The sound of breaking glass offers your senses new information that interrupts your train of thought. It causes you to suspend your immediate aim—the sandwich—in favor of another, more urgent one: making sure everything’s okay with your home.

As you read this paragraph, you’re sensing information about your environment: the temperature of the space, various background noises, the level of lighting, and so on (including the words that make up the paragraph). Your mind is also prompting you with information unrelated to the words you’re reading: memories of what you had for breakfast, a plan for this evening’s date, a reminder to call your mom, and so on. Your ability to finish reading this paragraph requires that you somehow ignore these distractions so that you can focus on the running stream of words your eyes are making available to you.

This ability to focus our minds is an essential survival mechanism. Our remote ancestors wouldn’t have lasted long in the savanna had they not been able to look out for predators. Their survival required that they pay close attention to their surroundings for new pieces of information: a rustling in the grass, a particular musky smell, and so on. On the flip side, it would have been impossible for our forebears to hunt if their minds kept getting caught on whatever their eyes and ears happened to land on at any given moment; they needed to remain alert. Survival required that they be able to marshal their cognitive resources toward particular goals (e.g., steak!) to the exclusion of others (e.g., crane flapping overhead!).

Note how attention is closely related to the environment. Even though our mental chatter is among the pieces of information we need to sift amongst, much of what we focus our attention on are stimuli outside of us, conveyed to our minds by our senses. That musky predator smell is not emanating from our bodies (well, not from most of us) but from something out there in the world. We learn to recognize these stimuli and tell them from each other: for example, this noise hearkens food, this one signals possible death, this one means it’s safe to take a nap, and so on.

Foraging for Information

As you can see, the ability to focus our attention toward particular goals is an essential part of our biological makeup. Given how central these mechanisms are to our experience of the world, it’s worth delving a bit more into how they evolved. Obtaining food is an essential goal for an animal. Alas, foraging does not come free: scouting the environment in a focused way requires that the animal expend lots of energy. The animal must take in more energy than it uses if it is to survive. Over time, evolution has selected patterns for foraging that allow organisms to acquire the highest energy sources at the lowest energy costs. Optimal foraging theory is a model that predicts how animals will behave when they search for food in this manner. It takes into consideration factors related to the structure of the animal itself, such as its size and metabolism, its ability to move around and carry food with it (and hence, the time required for it to search for food), and environmental factors such as the distances between possible sources of food.

In the late 1990s, researchers working at Xerox’s PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) noticed similarities between the way people search for information and the way that animals forage for food. The theory they developed, called information foraging, has been influential in the history of user interface design. The basis of these theories is the idea that our ability to focus our attention developed as a survival mechanism, which made it possible for our ancestors to find food in a complex environment while avoiding getting killed.2 While it’s unlikely you’ll meet a hungry predator on your way to the water cooler, you still inhabit complex environments which offer all sorts of distractions. Whether it be making it across a busy intersection or finding an email from your landlord, this ancient ability to exclude some pieces of information in your environment in favor of others is essential for you to accomplish your goals. Understanding how our attentional mechanisms work helps us design environments that allow us to achieve our goals more by cutting down on distractions.

Being There

What does it mean for you to “be” somewhere? Let’s examine where you are right now. Are you sitting in a room while reading this book? Perhaps you’re out-of-doors, in a park or natural setting. Whatever the case, your body is located somewhere in space. You can feel the effects of gravity holding you down.3 If you choose to focus your attention, you can feel the points where your legs touch the chair or your feet touch the floor, and the weight of the book or tablet as you hold it. You can sense the temperature and humidity of the air around you. Your body can only be in one place at a time, and, wherever that is, there you are.

But is that really where “you” are? After all, your body is not all there is to you; you also have a mind that is experiencing all of this. This mind is not only the apparatus that allows you to focus on some of these external stimuli by ignoring others, but it also provides distractions of its own. For example, at this point, you may be thinking, “What is he going on about? Why did he add that stupid footnote about the space station? Why should I care about this stuff?” (Who said that? Where does that voice come from? Do you consciously decide to pay heed to it? Or does the chatter start of its own volition? Whose volition?)

“Being” somewhere—being you—is the experience of a particular stream of stimuli (both external and internal) that you choose to focus on, consciously or not. You can think of it as a sort of spotlight that allows you to illuminate different things at any given moment.4 Right now, your attention is on these words. Two paragraphs ago, it was the pull of gravity on your body. This shifting of attention between various pieces of information becomes the content of your life. You make decisions based on the stream of things you focus on. Over time, this stream leads you to develop a particular way of understanding and being in the world. As Jos. Ortega y Gassett said, “Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.”

At the risk of depressing you, this is where I must remind you that at some point this stream will stop. Humans have an average lifespan of 79 years. (How far into this number are you? I’m keenly aware of being well past the midway point myself.) Whatever happens to your consciousness after death is a matter for religious debate, and we will not get into that discussion here. What is indisputable is that in this plane of being, the time available for you to experience the world is limited. When we focus intensely on something or someone, we say we are paying attention to it. This metaphor suggests that we think of our attention as a sort of resource or currency that we spend at will. However, this idea of attention-as-currency is not accurate, since we can’t save our attention for later expenditure. The current moment is all we have, and once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. If we’re to think of attention as a resource, it should be as one that is nonrenewable. Your attention is one of your most precious possessions—one you should zealously guard from squandering.

Buying and Selling Attention

Part of the reason why attention is so precious is that what you attend to influences how you understand the world and thus, how you behave. Because attention is so limited and so essential to our survival, we’re taught to handle it with care. You may recall Aesop’s fable about the boy who cried wolf: the boy kept calling his neighbors’ attention, tricking them into thinking a wolf was coming to attack his flock of sheep. When the wolf eventually showed up, nobody believed the boy, and he and his flock were eaten.

If I can claim your attention, I can change your behavior. If there is, in fact, a predator hiding around the corner from the water cooler, knowing so in advance could mean the difference between enjoying a drink of water and exiting the gene pool prematurely. If I possess this piece of information about the state of the environment and you don’t, I have an advantage over you. I can choose whether to share this information with you or not. This understanding of the current state of the world has a material effect on your decision-making abilities: if your goal is to get a drink without dying, knowing a predator is on the prowl can make the difference.

Gathering information about the state of the world is not without cost: it may be that I’m risking my life by being on the lookout for predators, or that I’ve invested in installing devices that allow me to get a read on their presence. I also incur costs in sharing that information with you. For significant parts of human history, people who wanted to leverage other’s knowledge of the state of the environment had to pay for the privilege by exchanging their own information, or later buying a book or newspaper. In groups larger than small hunter-gatherer societies, access to information did not come cheap.