Table Of Contents
- The Availability Cascade
- Attentional Budget Ethics
- Effective Availabilism
- Why Quantification Matters
- Cascade Reform Technologies
The Availability Cascade
The following questions pop up in my Facebook feed all the time.
Why is mental illness, addiction, and suicide only talked about when somebody famous succumbs to their demons?
Why do we only talk about gun control when there is a school shooting?
What is the shape of your answer? Mine begins with a hard look at the nature of attention.
Attention is a lens by which our selves perceive the world. The experience of attention is conscious. However, the control of attention – where it lands, how long it persists – is preconscious. People rarely think to themselves: “now seems an optimal time to think about gun control”. No, the topic of gun control simply appears.
When we pay attention to attention, its flaws become visible. Let me sketch two.
- The preconscious control of attention is famously vulnerable to a wide suite of dysrationalia. Like transposons parasitizing your DNA, beliefs parasitize your semantic memory by latching onto your preconscious attention-control software. This is why Evans-Pritchard was so astonished in his anthropological survey of Zande mysticism. This is why your typical cult follower is pathologically unable to pay attention to a certain set of considerations. The first flaw of the attentional lens is that it is a biasing attractor.
- Your unconscious mind is subject to the following computational principle: what you see is all there is. This brings us the availability heuristic, the cognitive shortcut your brain uses to travel from “this was brought to mind easily” to “this must be important”. The attentional lens is that the medium distorts its contents. This is nicely summed up in the proverb, “nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it.” The second flaw of the attentional lens is that bound in a positive feedback loop to memory (“that which I can recall easily, must be important, leads me to discuss more, is something I recall even more easily”).
My treatment of this positive feedback loop was at the level of individual. But that same mechanism must also promote failures at the level of social network. The second flaw writ large – the rippling eddies of attentional currents (as captured by services like Google News) – are known as availability cascades. And thus we have provided a cognitive reason why our social atmosphere disproportionately discusses gun control when school shootings appear in the news.
In electrical engineering, positive feedback typically produces runaway effects: a circuit “hits the rails” (draws maximum current from its power source). What prevents human cognition from doing likewise, from becoming so fixated on one particular memory-attention loop that it cannot escape? Why don’t we spend our days and our nights dreaming of soft drinks, fast food, pharmaceuticals? I would appeal to human boredom as a natural barrier to such a runaway effect.
Attentional Budget Ethics
We have managed to rise above the minutia, and construct a model of political discourse. Turn now to ethics. How should attention be distributed? When is the right time to discuss gun control, to study health care reform, to get clear on border control priorities?
The response profile of such a question is too diverse to treat here, but I would venture most approaches share two principles of attentional budgets:
- The Systemic Failure Principle. If a system performance fails to meet some arbitrary criteria of success, that would be an argument for increasing its attentional budget. For example, perhaps the skyrocketing costs of health care would seem to call for more attention than other, relatively more healthy, sectors of public life.
- The Low Hanging Fruit Principle. If attention is likely to produce meaningful results, that would be an argument for increasing its attentional budget. For example, perhaps not much benefit would come from a national conversation about improving our cryptographic approaches to e-commerce.
Despite how shockingly agreeable these principles are, I have a feeling that different political parties may yet disagree. In a two party system, for example, you can imagine competing attentional budgets as follows:
Interpret “attentional resources” in a straightforward (measurement-affine) way: let it represent the number of hours devoted to public discussion.
This model of attentional budgets requires a bit more TLC. Research-guiding questions might include:
- How ought we model overlapping topics?
- Should budget space be afforded for future topics, topics not yet conceived?
- Could there be circumstances to justify zero attention allocation?
- Is it advisable to leave “attentional budget creation” topics out of the budget?
- How might this model be extended to accomodate time-dependent, diachronic budgeting?
Let us now pull together a vision of how to transcend the attentional cascade.
In our present condition, even very intelligent commentators must resort to the following excuse of a thought: “I have a vague sense that our society is spending too much time on X. Perhaps we shouldn’t talk about it anymore”.
In our envisioned condition, our best political minds would be able to construct the following chain of reasoning: “This year, our society has spent three times more time discussing gun control than discussing energy independence. My attentional budget prescribes this ratio to be closer to 1:1. Let us think of ways to constrain these incessant gun-control availability cascades.”
In other words, I am prophesying the emergence of an effective availabilism movement, in ways analogous to effective altruism. Effective availabilist groups would, I presume, primarily draw from neuropolitical movements more generally.
Notice how effective availabilism relies on, and comes after, of publically-available psychometric data. And this is typical: normative movements often follow innovations in descriptive technology.
Why Quantification Matters
Policy discussions influence votes which affect lives. Despite the obvious need for constructive discourse, a frustrating amount of political exchanges are content-starved. I perceive two potential solutions for this failure of our democracy:
- Politics is a mind-killer. By dint of our evolutionary origins, our brains do not natively excel at political reasoning. Group boundaries matter more than analyses, arguments are soldiers. But these are epistemic failure modes. Policy debates should not appear one-sided. Movements to establish the cognitive redemption of politics are already underway. See, for example, Jonathon Haidt’s http://www.civilpolitics.org/ (“educating the public on evidence-based methods for improving inter-group civility”)
- Greasing policy discussions with data would facilitate progress. One of my favorite illustrations of this effect is biofeedback: if you give a human being a graphical representation of her pulse, the additional data augments the brains ability to reason – biofeedback patients are even able to catch their breath faster. In the same way, improving our data streams gives hope of transcending formerly-intractable social debates.
The effective availabilism movement could, in my view, accelerate this second pathway.
Cascade Reform Technologies
It seems clear that availability cascades are susceptible to abuse. Many advertisers and political campaigns don’t execute an aggregated optimization across our national attentional profile. Instead, they simply run a maximization algorithm on their topic of interest (“think about my opponent’s scandal!”).
With modern-day technology (polls, trending Twitter tags, motive abduction, self-monitoring), noticing attentional budget failures can be tricky. With the above technology in place, even subtle attentional budget failures will be easily detectable. We have increased our supply of failures, but how might effective availabilists increase demand (open vectors of reform towards availability cascade failure modes)?
The first, obvious, pathway is to use the same tool – attentional cascades – to counterbalance. If gun control is getting too much attention, effective availabilists will strive to push social media towards a discussion of e.g., campaign finance reform. They could, further, use psychometric data to evaluate whether they have overshot (SuperPACs are now too interesting), and to adjust as necessary.
Other pathways towards reform might be empirically-precise amplification of boredom circuits. Recruit the influential to promote the message that “this topic has been talked to death” could work; as could the targeted use of satire.
- Pay more attention to the quiet whispers of your mind. “Haven’t I heard about this enough” represents an undiscovered political movement.
- Social discourse is laced with the rippling tides of availability cascades, and are at present left to their mercy.
- As hard psychometric data makes its way towards public accessibility, a market of normative attentional budgets will arise.
- The business of pushing current attentional profiles towards normative budgets will become the impetus of effective availabilism movements.
- A cottage industry of cognitive technologies to achieve these ends will thereafter crystallize and mature.