Seeing What Does Not Ask You for Your Attention

Food for Thought

Robert carries copies of his magazine called AND THEN and sells them to people he meets. Independent bookstores used to be willing to take some copies on consignment, but no more. There aren’t many bookstores left anyway.

We met at Washington Square Park, and I bought a copy of the latest issue. It’s a collection of short essays, poems, and artworks by his friends. He has been publishing it for many decades.

We went to the original Mamoun’s to pick up their classic falafels. The place hasn’t changed even after the aggressive expansion orchestrated by Mamoun’s sons. If it weren’t for their marketing savvy, Mamoun’s would have remained a hole in the wall. Who knows if it would have even survived.

@arron.aron.erin was just lamenting the fact that meeting new people has become harder because human connection is now almost entirely mediated by technologies. Chance encounters that naturally evolve to friendships and love relationships are rare these days, just as we don’t stumble across books and magazines at bookstores.

Before the Internet, gatekeepers prioritized contents and products, but much of the discovery was ultimately random because the mechanisms available to match supplies with demands were inefficient. “Random” doesn’t sound good, but in social studies, truly random samples are crucial for getting an accurate picture of what is going on in our society.

Today, random sampling is almost impossible as the opportunities for random encounters, like bookstores, are disappearing. Since so many things are competing for our attention, we do not have time for random encounters. But we would be wrong to assume we are choosing what to pay attention to; they are chosen for us by sophisticated algorithms designed to maximize our dopamine release. We construct our worldview through confirmation bias, and we become blind to things that do not compete for our attention. Even if we search for something specific on Google, it’s their algorithm that decides what we should look at first.

As we ate our falafels on a park bench, we noticed countless things competing for our attention in real life too. In a way, to see the world rightly today, we have to be blind.