Two men on the phone in China
Photo: Guang Niu/Getty Images
In just a few short years, Internet-enabled cell phones have gone from a luxury to an almost universal human necessity. We're more connected than ever, but how do we control what we see? Futurist David Houle zeros in on the power of attention.
In my last column, I took a look at our growing digital overload through the lens of history. Whenever a new major communications or information technology comes along, it has a profound cultural, economic and personal effect. The Internet and handheld communications devices are the latest to do so.

Each new technology brings both excitement and hand-wringing, as all of a sudden it seems we take on new behavior patterns and feel the need to decide whether they are good or bad, helpful or hurtful, supportive or detractive. Our latest surge of connectivity, though, has brought about a true sense of immediacy and overload. How will we deal with this immediacy and this overload is the subject of this column.

The simple fact is that the speed of technological innovation and the resultant acceleration in information creation and communication has far outpaced human physiological development. As recently as 1858, the speed of human communication was a horse day—literally how far a horse could travel in a day. This meant that if something happened in Chicago on a Friday, no one would know about it in New York for perhaps a week. In 1859, the Pony Express used maximized the horse day by placing relief stations less than 30 miles apart—as it was determined that a horse could run close to a gallop for 30 miles. Every 30 miles, there was a new rider and horse that would take the saddle bags and ride off to the next station. The Pony Express was the fastest form of communication in the United States...but only for two years. In 1861, the telegraph was invented. That was just 150 years ago!

Today, the total global population is 6.8 billion, and there are more than 4 billion people who have a cell phone or handheld device. This means that we are approaching universal adult cell phone coverage. If I use my cell phone to call someone standing 15 feet away from me, it takes about four seconds for that person's phone to ring. If I call someone in China on their cell phone, it might take eight seconds because of the extra satellite relays. The difference between reaching someone 15 feet away and 12,000 miles away is four seconds.

For the first time in human history, it can be said that there is no time or distance limiting human communication!
What is one of the first things you ask in a call to a person on a cell phone, particularly your teenager? "Where are you?" So there is no longer any time, distance or place limiting human communication. Those of us alive today are unique in human history to live in that environment. Place no longer matters for communication.

The Internet browser as a mass product was introduced in 1995. Since then, the speed of our connections and the bandwidth we use has increased exponentially. More information coursed through the Internet backbone yesterday than passed through it in all of 1995. The impossible-to-measure number of websites in the world today is in the hundreds of millions—perhaps 500 million or more. Search engines deliver search queries in fractions of seconds. As I wrote in my last column, it seems like access to all human knowledge and events are always available at your fingertip.

All of this communications connectivity occurred in the past 150 years, and most of it occurred in the past 30 years. The amount of information we have access to and the speed of connectivity we use to access it is multiples of what our parents' experienced and vastly more than 100 years ago when the telephone and radio started to reach the greater population.

During this same time, our brains didn't get bigger, our reflexes didn't get faster, yet we are called upon to somehow manage this immediacy and overload with essentially the same physiological makeup of past generations. What can we do and how can we do it?

The first thing to realize is that, since we all have too much information, information itself is no longer valued. Instead, our attention creates value for that information. The fact that so many people put their attention on the information at means that the information here has more value than at a website with a fraction of the traffic. In the Information Age, it was about information; in the Shift Age, it is about attention.

Another way of saying this is that we have more power as we control the information we let into our lives. Consumers of information have the power, not the creators. Everyone is competing for our attention all the time. That is the reason for feeling overloaded.

Well, your attention is not only the value of today—it is yours to control. You control what you put your attention on, what you let into your lives. It is your choice.

What I strongly suggest is that you develop a filter. Decide what is important to you as a person, as a parent, as someone who has a career, as a part of a group of friends, as some with interests. Look for and find sources of information that you trust, that make you smarter and that add value to your life.

Sure, we all have guilty pleasures, and that is fine. Just remember that both your time and your attention are the most valuable things you have in this regard. Don't squander them! Be open. Be receptive. Be inquisitive. If you feel overwhelmed, then you need to take back your attention and redirect it to what creates value in your life.

Do you struggle to keep your attention on what really matters? Share your methods in the comments area.

David Houle is an award-winning futurist and strategist who has launched successful brands and is an in-demand speaker about the future. He writes the popular futurist blog Evolution Shift and lives his life slightly ahead of the curve.

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