Monday, June 14, 2010

A Counter-Trend: Paying Attention

One of the hidden trends of the past three centuries has been a movement away from attention. Paying attention to the work we do slows things down, so we strategize, specialize, delegate, automate, and plan, all with an eye toward getting work done faster with less effort and less attention.

The extent of this trend struck me over the weekend as I spent an hour reading about BP’s emergency response plan for its deep-water oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. I was not reading the plan itself, mind you, because that would be too much work. The plan document is said to be 150 pages long, tedious, technical, and ugly. Rather, I was reading summaries and impressions from people who had read the plan, and who knew enough about the oil business to know what it meant. In some cases, I may have been reading summaries by people who had not read the plan themselves, but knew enough of the subject to create an impression of the document from the comments of others who had taken the time to read it.

You see the pattern of delegation, specialization, and indirectness already, I hope. It is everywhere.

The BP plan had significant blank sections, sections on wildlife obviously copied from an earlier plan created for Alaska, and references to experts that were 10 or 20 years out of date, among various other shortcomings. In short, instead of spending $150,000 developing a real plan on how it would respond in the event of a disaster, an investment that would have made sense considering the magnitude and novelty of the operation it was planning, BP cobbled a plan together in a couple of weeks at a cost of perhaps $5,000.

The omissions and errors in the plan are glaring enough that it could have been routinely rejected by any civil servant who looked it over, even one who had no previous knowledge of oil operations. It is safe to assume, then, that it was not reviewed before being approved.

Again, the theme is getting things done with a minimum of attention. An emergency response plan was put together without any thought of what a real emergency would imply, and approved without any thought of what the result of an inability to respond in an emergency could mean.

But this trend away from attention is much bigger than the oil business. Half the lifestyle innovations of the past half century are geared toward paying less attention: answering machines, fast food, gas grills, wholesale clubs, mobile phones, search engines, Blogger. The objective of the whole time management field is to get you to pay less attention to everything you do so you can squeeze a little more work into your schedule. The most successful Internet companies are the ones that can sell to you without knowing who you are. Test prep programs are designed to let you prove your knowledge and skill after you put just a few hours of time into the field you are being tested in. A significant fraction of new product introductions promise to be quicker, easier, or more convenient than what came before.

The trend away from attention might seem as if it will continue forever, and in some ways, I suppose it must, but there are also signs of a counter-trend. Meditation, yoga, memory systems, soundproofing, and high-definition video are examples of changes that help people pay more attention. More than this, though, you have to ask what people end up paying attention to, after they manage to free up so much of the attention that would otherwise go to their work, studies, and friends. Perhaps emblematic of this, when I checked the news this morning, the first headline I came upon was “Brad Pitt Trims His Beard.” Much of what occupies people’s time and attention, in the end, is trivia and commercial manipulation.

There is an enormous advantage that comes to people who become more conscious about choosing what they pay attention to. This is most immediately obvious in business. BP, for example, will probably be liquidated to overcome the damage the ongoing disaster has done to its brand. Competitors that have been more careful about keeping track of the most important things will carry on.

Wherever there is a decisive economic advantage, a social trend will follow. I believe the broad long-term trend toward paying less and less attention to everything will end within the next 10 years, replaced by a new trend of people paying more attention to the most basic things in life.