Fat Heads and Long Tails: Living in a Viral World

I, and the rest of the world, bought “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” last Friday. Forbes reports that in one weekend, it has climbed to the top of the Amazon booklist, and demand for the book is “unprecedented.”

We use that word a lot now. Our world seems to be a launching pad for “unprecedented” events. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s black swans used to be the exception — that was the definition of  the term. Now they’re becoming the norm. You can’t walk down the street without accidentally kicking one.

Our world is a hyper-connected feedback loop that constantly engenders the “unprecedented”: storms, blockbusters, presidents. In this world, historical balance has disappeared and all bets are off.

One of the many things that has changed is the distribution pattern of culture. In 2006, Chris Anderson wrote the book “The Long Tail,” explaining how online merchandising, digital distribution and improved fulfillment logistics created an explosion of choices. Suddenly, the distribution curve of pretty much everything  — music, books, apps, video, varieties of cheese — grew longer and longer, creating Anderson’s “Long Tail.”

But let’s flip the curve and look at the other end. The curve has not just grown longer. The leading edge of it has also grown on the other axis. Heads are now fatter.

“Fire and Fury” has sold more copies in a shorter period of time than would have ever been possible at any other time in history. That’s partly because of the  same factors that created the Long Tail: digital fulfillment and more efficient distribution. But the biggest factor is that our culture is now a digitally connected echo chamber that creates the perfect conditions for virality. Feeding frenzies are now an essential element of our content marketing strategies.

If ever there was a book written to go viral, it’s “Fire and Fury.” Every page should have a share button. Not surprisingly, given its subject matter,  the book has all the subtlety and nuance of a brick to the head. This is a book built to be a blockbuster.

And that’s the thing about the new normal of virality: Blockbusters become the expectation out of the starting gate.

As I said last week, content producers have every intention of addicting their audience, shooting for binge consumption of each new offering. Wolff wrote this book  to be consumed in one sitting.

As futurist (or “futuristorian”) Brad Berens writes, the book is “fascinating in an I-can’t-look-away-at-the-17-car-pileup-with-lots-of-ambulances way.” But there’s usually a price to be paid for going down the sensational path. “Fire and Fury” has all the staying power of a “bag of Cheetos.” Again, Berens hits the nail on the head: “You can measure the relevance of Wolff’s book in half-lives, with each half-life being about a day.”

One of the uncanny things about Donald Trump is that he always out-sensationalizes any attempt to sensationalize him. He is the ultimate “viral” leader, intentionally — or not — the master of the “Fat Head.” Today that head is dedicated to Wolff’s book. Tomorrow, Trump will do something to knock it out of the spotlight.

Social media analytics developer Tom Maiaroto found the average sharing lifespan of viral content is about a day. So while the Fat Head may indeed be Fat, it’s also extremely short-lived. This means that, increasingly, content intended to go viral  — whether it be books, TV shows or movies — is intentionally developed to hit this short but critical window.

So what is the psychology behind virality? What buttons have to be pushed to start the viral cascade?

Wharton Marketing Professor Jonah Berger, who researched what makes things go viral, identified six principles: Social Currency, Memory Triggers, Emotion, Social Proof, Practical Value and Stories. “Fire and Fury” checks almost all these boxes, with the possible exception of practical value.

But it most strongly resonates with social currency, social proof and emotion. For everyone who thinks Trump is a disaster of unprecedented proportions, this book acts as kind of an ideological statement, a social positioner, an emotional rant and confirmation bias all rolled into one. It is a tribal badge in print form.

When we look at the diffusion of content through the market, technology has again acted as a polarizing factor. New releases are pushed toward the outlier extremes, either far down the Long Tail or squarely aimed at cashing in on the Fat Head. And if it’s the latter of these, then going viral becomes critical.

Expect more fire. Expect more fury.

Watching TV Through The Overton Window

Tell me, does anyone else have a problem with this recent statement by HBO CEO Richard Plepler: “I am trying to build addicts — and I want people addicted to something every week”?

I read this in a MediaPost column about a month ago. At the time, I filed it away as something vaguely troubling. I just checked and found no one else had commented on it. Nothing. We all collectively yawned as we checked out the next series to binge watch. That’s just what we do now.

When did enabling addiction become a goal worth shooting for? What made the head of a major entertainment corporation think it was OK to use a term that is defined as “persistent, compulsive use of a substance known to the user to be harmful” to describe a strategic aspiration? And, most troubling of all, when did we all collectively decide that that was OK?

Am I overreacting? Is bulk consuming an entire season’s worth of “Game of Thrones” or “Big Little Lies” over a 48-hour period harmless?

Speaking personally, when I emerge from my big-screen basement cave after watching more than two episodes of anything in a row, I feel like crap. And there’s growing evidence that I’m not alone. I truly believe this is not a healthy direction for us.

But my point here is not to debate the pros and cons of binge watching. My point is that Plepler’s statement didn’t cause any type of adverse reaction. We just accepted it. And that may because of something called the Overton Window.

The Overton Window was named after Joseph Overton, who developed the concept at a libertarian think tank  — the Mackinac Center for Public Policy — in the mid-1990s.

Typically, the term is used to talk about the range of policies acceptable to the public in the world of politics. In the middle of the window lies current policy. Moving out from the center in both directions (right and left) are the degrees of diminishing acceptability. In order, these are: Popular, Sensible, Acceptable, Radical and Unthinkable.

Overton_Window_diagram.svgThe window can move, with ideas that were once unthinkable eventually becoming acceptable or even popular due to the shifting threshold of public acceptance. The concept, which has roots going back over 150 years, has again bubbled to the top of our consciousness thanks to Trumpian politics, which make “extreme things look normal,” according to a post on Vox.

Political strategists have embraced and leveraged the concept to try to bring their own agendas within the ever-moving window. Because here’s the interesting thing about the Overton Window: If you want to move it substantially, the fastest way to do it is to float something outrageous to the public and ask them to consider it. Once you’ve set a frame of consideration towards the outliers, it tends to move the window substantially in that direction, bringing everything less extreme suddenly within the bounds of the window.

This has turned The Overton Window into a political strategic tug of war, with the right and left battling to shift the window by increasingly moving to the extremes.

What’s most intriguing about the Overton Window is how it reinforces the idea that much of our social sensibility is relative rather than absolute. Our worldview is shaped not only by what we believe, but what we believe others will find acceptable. Our perspective is constantly being framed relative to societal norms.

Perhaps — just perhaps — the CEO of HBO can now use the word “addict” when talking about entertainment because our perspective has been shifted toward an outlying idea that compulsive consumption is OK, or even desirable.

But I have to call bullshit on that. I don’t believe it’s OK. It’s not something we as an industry — whether that industry is marketing or entertainment — should be endorsing. It’s not ennobling us; it’s enabling us.

There’s a reason why the word “addict” has a negative connotation. If our “window” of acceptability has shifted to the point where we just blithely accept these types of statements and move on, perhaps it’s time to shift the window in the opposite direction.

Why Reality is in Deep Trouble

If 2017 was the year of Fake News, 2018 could well be the year of Fake Reality.

You Can’t Believe Your Eyes

I just saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi. When Carrie Fisher came on screen, I had to ask myself: Is this really her or is that CGI? I couldn’t remember if she had the chance to do all her scenes before her tragic passing last year. When I had a chance to check, I found that it was actually her. But the very fact that I had to ask the question is telling. After all, Star Wars Rogue One did resurrect Peter Cushing via CGI and he passed away 14 years ago.

CGI is not quite to the point where you can’t tell the difference between reality and computer generation, but it’s only a hair’s breadth away. It’s definitely to the point where you can no longer trust your eyes. And that has some interesting implications.

You Can Now Put Words in Anyone’s Mouth

The Rogue One Visual Effects head, John Knoll, had to fend off some pointed questions about the ethics of bringing a dead actor back to life. He defended the move by saying “We didn’t do anything Peter Cushing would have objected to. Whether you agree or not, the bigger question here is that they could have. They could have made the Cushing digital doppelganger do anything – and say anything – they wanted.

But It’s Not just Hollywood That Can Warp Reality

If fake reality comes out of Hollywood, we are prepared to cut it some slack. There is a long and slippery ethical slope that defines the entertainment landscape. In Rogue One’s case, it wasn’t using CGI, or even using CGI to represent a human. That includes a huge slice of today’s entertainment. It was using CGI to resurrect a dead actor and literally putting words in his mouth. That seemed to cross some ethical line in our perception of what’s real. But at the end of the day, this questionable warping of reality was still embedded in a fictional context.

But what if we could put words in the manufactured mouth of a sitting US president? That’s exactly what a team at Washington University did with Barack Obama, using Stanford’s Face2Face technology. They used a neural network to essentially create a lip sync video of Obama, with the computer manipulating images of his face to lip sync it to a sample of audio from another speech.

Being academics, they kept everything squeaky clean on the ethical front. All the words were Obama’s – it’s just that they were said at two different times. But those less scrupulous could easily synthesize Obama’s voice – or anyone’s – and sync it to video of them talking that would be indistinguishable from reality.

Why We Usually Believe Our Eyes

When it comes to a transmitted representation of reality, we accept video as the gold standard. Our brains believe what we see to be real. Of all our five senses, we trust sight the most to interpret what is real and what is fake. Photos used to be accepted as incontrovertible proof of reality, until Photoshop messed that up. Now, it’s video’s turn. Technology has handed us the tools that enable us to manufacture any reality we wish and distribute it in the form of video. And because it’s in that form, most everyone will believe it to be true.

Reality, Inc.

The concept of a universally understood and verifiable reality is important. It creates some type of provable common ground. We have always had our own ways of interpreting reality, but at the end of the day, the was typically some one and some way to empirically determine what was real, if we just bothered to look for it.

But we now run the risk of accepting manufactured reality as “good enough” for our purposes. In the past few years, we’ve discovered just how dangerous filtered reality can be. Whether we like it or not, Facebook, Google, YouTube and other mega-platforms are now responsible for how most of us interpret our world. These are for-profit organizations that really have no ethical obligation to attempt to provide a reasonable facsimile of reality. They have already outstripped the restraints of legislation and any type of ethical oversight. Now, these same platforms can be used to distribute media that are specifically designed to falsify reality. Of course, I should also mention that in return for access to all this, we give up a startling amount of information about ourselves. And that, according to UBC professor Taylor Owen, is deeply troubling:

“It means thinking very differently about the bargain that platforms are offering us. For a decade the deal has been that users get free services, and platforms get virtually unlimited collection of data about all aspects of our life and the ability to shape of the information we consume. The answer isn’t to disengage, as these tools are embedded in our society, but instead to think critically about this bargain.

“For example, is it worth having Facebook on your mobile phone in exchange for the immense tracking data about your digital and offline behaviour? Or is the free children’s content available on YouTube worth the data profile that is being built about your toddler, the horrific content that gets algorithmically placed into your child’s feed, and the ways in which A.I. are creating content for them and shaping what they view? Is the Amazon smart speaker in your living room worth providing Amazon access to everything you say in your home? For me, the answer is a resounding ‘no’.”

2018 could be an interesting year…

What Price Privacy?

As promised, I’m picking up the thread from last week’s column on why we seem okay with trading privacy for convenience. The simple – and most plausible – answer is that we’re really not being given a choice.

As Mediapost Senior Editor Joe Mandese pointed out in an very on-point comment, what is being creating is an transactional marketplace where offers of value are exchanged for information.:

“Like any marketplace, you have to have your information represented in it to participate. If you’re not “listed” you cannot receive bids (offers of value) based on who you are.”

Amazon is perhaps the most relevant example of this. Take Alexa and Amazon Web Services (AWS). Alexa promises to “make your life easier and more fun.” But this comes at a price. Because Alexa is voice activated, it’s always listening. That means that privacy of anything we say in our homes has been ceded to Amazon through their terms of service. The same is true for Google Assist and Apple Siri.

But Amazon is pushing the privacy envelope even further as they test their new in-home delivery service – Amazon Key. In exchange for the convenience of having your parcels delivered inside your home when you’re away, you literally give Amazon the keys to your home. Your front door will have a smart door lock that can be opened via the remote servers of AWS. Opt in to this and suddenly you’ve given Amazon the right to not only listen to everything you say in your home but also to enter your home whenever they wish.

How do you feel about that?

This becomes the key question. How do we feel about the convenience/privacy exchange. But it turns out that our response depends in large part on how that question is framed. In a study conducted in 2015 by the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, researchers gathered responses from participants probing their sensitivity around the trading of privacy for convenience. Here is a sampling of the results:

  • 55% of respondents disagreed with the statement: “It’s OK if a store where I shop uses information it has about me to create a picture of me that improves the services they provide for me.”
  • 71% disagreed with: “It’s fair for an online or physical store to monitor what I’m doing online when I’m there, in exchange for letting me use the store’s wireless internet, or Wi-Fi, without charge.
  • 91% disagreed that: “If companies give me a discount, it is a fair exchange for them to collect information about me without my knowing”

Here, along the spectrum of privacy pushback, we start to see what the real problem is. We’re willing to exchange private information, as long as we’re aware of all that is happening and feel in control of it. But that, of course, is unrealistic. We can’t control it. And even if we could, we’d soon learn that the overhead required to do so is unmanageable. It’s why Vint Cerf said we’re going to have to learn to live with transparency.

Again, as Mr. Mandese points out, we’re really not being given a choice. Participating in the modern economy required us anteing up personal information. If we choose to remain totally private, we cut ourselves off from a huge portion of what’s available. And we are already at the point where the vast majority of us really can’t opt out. We all get pissed off when we hear of a security breach a la the recent Equifax debacle. Our privacy sensitivities are heightened for a day or two and we give lip service to outrage. But unless we go full out Old Order Amish, what are our choices?

We may rationalize the trade off by saying the private information we’re exchanging for services is not really that sensitive. But that’s where the potential threat of Big Data comes in. Gather enough seemingly innocent data and soon you can start predicting with startling accuracy the aspects of our lives that we are sensitive about. We run headlong into the Target Pregnant Teen dilemma. And that particular dilemma becomes thornier as the walls break down between data siloes and your personal information becomes a commodity on an open market.

The potential risk of trading away our privacy becomes an escalating aspect here – it’s the frog in boiling water syndrome. It starts innocently but can soon develop into a scenario that will keep most anyone up at night with the paranoiac cold sweats. Let’s say the data is used for targeting – singling us out of the crowd for the purpose of selling stuff to us. Or – in the case of governments – seeing if we have a proclivity for terrorism. Perhaps that isn’t so scary if Big Brother is benevolent and looking out for our best interests. But what if Big Brother becomes a bully?

There is another important aspect to consider here, and one that may have dire unintended consequences. When our personal data is used to make our world more convenient for us, that requires a “filtering” of that world by some type of algorithm to remove anything that algo determines to be irrelevant or uninteresting to us. Essentially, the entire physical world is “targeted” to us. And this can go horribly wrong, as we saw in the last presidential election. Increasingly we live in a filtered “bubble” determined by things beyond our control. Our views get trapped in an echo chamber and our perspective narrows.

But perhaps the biggest red flag is the fact that in signing away our privacy by clicking accept, we often also sign away any potential protection when things do go wrong. In another study called “The Biggest Lie on the Internet,” researchers found that when students were presented with a fictitious terms of service and privacy policy, 74% skipped reading it. And those that took the time to read didn’t take very much time – just 73 seconds on average. What almost no one caught were “gotcha clauses” about data sharing with the NSA and giving up your first-born child. While these were fictitious, real terms of service and privacy notifications often include clauses that include total control over the information gathered about you and giving up your right to sue if anything went bad. Even if you could sue, there might not be anyone left to sue. One analyst calculated that even if all the people who had their financial information stolen from Equifax won a settlement, it would actually amount to about $81 dollars.

 

Why We’re Trading Privacy for Convenience

In today’s world, increasingly quantified and tracked by the Internet of Things, we are talking a lot about privacy. When we stop to think about it, we are vociferously for privacy. But then we immediately turn around and click another “accept” box on a terms and conditions form that barters our personal privacy away, in increasingly large chunks. What we say and what we do are two very different things.

What is the deal with humans and privacy anyway? Why do we say is it important to us and why do we keep giving it away? Are we looking at the inevitable death of our concept of privacy?

Are We Hardwired for Privacy?

It does seem that – all things being equal – we favor privacy. But why?

There is an evolutionary argument for having some “me-time”. Privacy has an evolutionary advantage both when you’re most vulnerable to physical danger (on the toilet) or mating rivalry (having sex). If you can keep these things private, you’ll both live longer and have more offspring. So it’s not unusual for humans to be hardwired to desire a certain amount of privacy.

But our modern understanding of privacy actually conflates a number of concepts. There is protective privacy, the need for solitude and finally there’s our moral and ethical privacy. Each of these has different behavioral origins, but when we talk about our “right to privacy” we don’t distinguish between them. This can muddy the waters when we dig deep into our relationship with our privacy.

Blame England…

Let’s start with the last of these – our moral privacy. This is actually a pretty modern concept. Until 150 years ago, we as a species did pretty much everything communally. Our modern concept of privacy had its roots in the Industrial Revolution and Victorian England. There, the widespread availability of the patent lock and the introduction of the “private” room quickly led to a class-stratified quest for privacy. This was coupled with the moral rectitude of the time. Kate Kershner from howstuffworks.com explains:

“In the Victorian era, the “personal” became taboo; the gilded presentation of yourself and family was critical to social standing. Women were responsible for outward piety and purity, men had to exert control over inner desires and urges, and everyone was responsible for keeping up appearances.”

In Victorian England, privacy became a proxy for social status. Only the highest levels of the social elite could afford privacy. True, there was some degree of personal protection here that probably had evolutionary behavioral underpinnings, but it was all tied up in the broader evolutionary concept of social status. The higher your class, the more you could hide away the all-too-human aspects of your private life and thoughts. In this sense, privacy was not a right, but a status token that may be traded off for another token of equal or higher value. I suspect this is why we may say one thing but do another when it comes to our own privacy. There are other ways we determine status now.

Privacy vs Convenience

In a previous column, I wrote about how being busy is the new status symbol. We are defining social status differently and I think how we view privacy might be caught between how we used to recognize status and how we do it today. In 2013, Google’s Vint Cerf said that privacy may be a historical anomaly. Social libertarians and legislators were quick to condemn Cerf’s comment, but it’s hard to argue his logic. In Cerf’s words, transparency “is something we’re gonna have to live through.”

Privacy might still be a hot button topic for legislators but it’s probably dying not because of some nefarious plot against us but rather because we’re quickly trading it away. Busy is the new rich and convenience (or our illusion of convenience) allows us to do more things. Privacy may just be a tally token in our quest for social status and increasingly, we may be willing to trade it for more relevant tokens.  As Greg Ferenstein, author of the Ferenstein Wire, said in an exhaustive (and visually bountiful) post on the birth and death of privacy,

“Humans invariably choose money, prestige or convenience when it has conflicted with a desire for solitude.”

If we take this view, then it’s not so much how we lose our privacy that becomes important but who we’re losing it to. We seem all too willing to give up our personal data as long as two prerequisites are met: 1) We get something in return; and, 2) We have a little bit of trust in the holder of our data that they won’t use it for evil purposes.

I know those two points raise the hackles of many amongst you, but that’s where I’ll have to leave it for now. I welcome you to have the next-to-last word (because I’ll definitely be revisiting this topic). Is privacy going off the rails and, if so, why?

Why I Go to a Store

I hate shopping. Let me clarify. I hate the physical experience of shopping. I find no joy in a mall. I avoid department stores like the plague. If I can buy it online, I will.

Except..I don’t, always.

Why is that? I should be the gold standard of e-commerce targets. And most of the time, I am. Except when I’m not. Take home improvement stuff, for instance. I still drive down to my local Home Depot, even though I can order online.

As prognosticators of the online space, we’ve been busy hammering the nails in the coffin of bricks and mortar retail for a while. In a recent story in the Atlantic, E-tail was called the perfect match for the emerging sloth of the first world consumer: “E-commerce is soaring and food-delivery businesses are taking off because human beings are fundamentally lazy and they don’t want to leave the couch to buy stuff.”

That makes sense. But while the smart bets seem to be placed on a consumer stampede heading towards e-tail, Amazon just invested 13.7 billion in buying Whole Foods Market. So if bricks and mortar retail is dead, why the hell did Amazon buy almost 500 more physical stores? That same Atlantic article does a pretty thorough job of answering this question, offering three compelling reasons:

  • To dominate the food delivery market
  • To create an instant fulfillment network
  • To broaden Amazon’s footprint within the consumption habits of affluent Americans

I can buy that. The second point in particular seems to make eminent sense. If I know something is in stock at my local store and I need it right now, I’ll make the trip. And Amazon is currently struggling to deliver the last mile of fulfillment. But I keep going back to my original question: why do I – a man who detests the physical act of shopping – still decide to go to a store more often than I probably want to?

There has been various strategies put forward for the salvation. In a recent post on Mediapost, Mahesh Krishna said Personalization was the answer – use data to tailor an in-store experience. I myself wrote something similar in a previous post about Amazon testing the waters of a bricks and mortar retail environment. But there’s nothing personalized about Home Depot. I’m anonymous til I get to the till. So for me, anyway, that doesn’t seem to explain why.

Experiential shopping is another proffered recipe for the salvation of retail. A recent article from Wharton cited an Italian culinary themed retail success story: “Another experiential success… is Eataly, a chain of Italian marketplaces that combines restaurants, grocery stores and cooking schools. It capitalizes on the appeal of Italian culture and sophistication. ‘It all works together like a little universe,’ she says. ‘There’s a nice synergy there; you can taste the foods in the restaurant … you might then go to the grocery store to buy it so you can make it at home.’

But how much “experience” do I really need in my shopping? The answer is not a lot. As undeniably fantastico as Eataly is, for me it would be a 3 to 4 times a year visit. And let’s face it – the retail niches that suit this over-the-top experiential approach are limited. No, there needs to be a more pragmatic reason why I’ll actually drag my butt away from a screen and down to the local mercantile.

I realized, when I really examined the reasons why I usually go to the store, they all had to do with risk. I go to the store when I’m afraid that stuff could go wrong:

  1. When I’m unsure what I need
  2. When I’m afraid I may have to return what I bought
  3. When I have to ask a question about use of something I want to buy

For me, bricks and mortar shopping is usually nothing more than a risk-mitigation strategy, pure and simple. And I suspect I’m not alone. Apple Stores are often cited as an example of experiential shopping, but I believe the real genius of this retail success story is the Genius Bar. The jigsaw puzzle integration of the All Things Apple universe can be a daunting prospect. Having an actual human to guide you through the process is reassuring, and reassurance is most effective when it’s face-to-face. That’s why I go to a store.

 

Attention: Divided

I’d like you to give me your undivided attention. I’d like you to – but you can’t. First, I’m probably not interesting enough. Secondly, you no longer live in a world where that’s possible. And third, even if you could, I’m not sure I could handle it. I’m out of practice.

The fact is, our attention is almost never undivided anymore. Let’s take talking for example. You know; old-fashioned, face-to-face, sharing the same physical space communication. It’s the one channel that most demands undivided attention. But when is the last time you had a conversation where you were giving it 100 percent of your attention? I actually had one this past week, and I have to tell you, it unnerved me. I was meeting with a museum curator and she immediately locked eyes on me and gave me the full breadth of her attention span. I faltered. I couldn’t hold her gaze. As I talked I scanned the room we were in. It’s probably been years since someone did that to me. And nary a smart phone was in sight.

If this is true when we’re physically present, imagine the challenge in other channels. Take television, for instance. We don’t watch TV like we used to. When I was growing up, I would be verging on catatonia as I watched the sparks fly between Batman and Catwoman (the Julie Newmar version – with all due respect to Eartha Kitt and Lee Meriwether.) My dad used to call it the “idiot box.” At the time, I thought it was a comment on the quality of programming, but I now know realize he was referring to my mental state. You could have dropped a live badger in my lap and not an eye would have been batted.

But that’s definitely not how we watch TV now. A recent study indicates that 177 million Americans have at least one other screen going – usually a smartphone – while they watch TV. According to Nielsen, there are only 120 million TV households. That means that 1.48 adults per household are definitely dividing their attention amongst at least two devices while watching Game of Thrones. My daughters and wife are squarely in that camp. Ironically, I now get frustrated because they don’t watch TV the same way I do – catatonically.

Now, I’m sure watching TV does not represent the pinnacle of focused mindfulness. But this could be a canary in a coalmine. We simply don’t allocate undivided attention to anything anymore. We think we’re multi-tasking, but that’s a myth. We don’t multi-task – we mentally fidget. We have the average attention span of a gnat.

So, what is the price we’re paying for living in this attention deficit world? Well, first, there’s a price to be paid when we do decided to communicate. I’ve already stated how unnerving it was for me when I did have someone’s laser focused attention. But the opposite is also true. It’s tough to communicate with someone who is obviously paying little attention to you. Try presenting to a group that is more interested in chatting to each other. Research studies show that our ability to communicate effectively erodes quickly when we’re not getting feedback that the person or people we’re talking to are actually paying attention to us. Effective communication required an adequate allocation of attention on both ends; otherwise it spins into a downward spiral.

But it’s not just communication that suffers. It’s our ability to focus on anything. It’s just too damned tempting to pick up our smartphone and check it. We’re paying a price for our mythical multitasking – Boise State professor Nancy Napier suggests a simple test to prove this. Draw two lines on a piece of paper. While having someone time you, write “I am a great multi-tasker” on one, then write down the numbers from 1 to 20 on the other. Next, repeat this same exercise, but this time, alternate between the two: write “I” on the first line, then “1” on the second, then go back and write “a” on the first, “2” on the second and so on. What’s your time? It will probably be double what it was the first time.

Every time we try to mentally juggle, we’re more likely to drop a ball. Attention is important. But we keep allocating thinner and thinner slices of it. And a big part of the reason is the smart phone that is probably within arm’s reach of you right now. Why? Because of something called intermittent variable rewards. Slot machines use it. And that’s probably why slot machines make more money in the US than baseball, moves and theme parks combined. Tristan Harris, who is taking technology to task for hijacking our brains, explains the concept: “If you want to maximize addictiveness, all tech designers need to do is link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing. Addictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable.”

Your smartphone is no different. In this case, the reward is a new email, Facebook post, Instagram photo or Tinder match. Intermittent variable rewards – together with the fear of missing out – makes your smartphone as addictive as a slot machine.

I’m sorry, but I’m no match for all of that.