To approximate the whole thing in a vague way gives you a feeling that you’ve more or less touched the thing, but in this way you just lead yourself toward confusion and ultimately you’re going to get so confused that you’ll never find your way out.

-Bill Evans-

Design implies intent. However, when we are missing the holistic perspective, intentional solutions at a micro-level create unintentional consequences to the larger system. A shadow Design emerges, circumventing the Design process at the system-level and leaving us with a systemic solution that only vaguely touches on the fundamental problems that the system must solve.

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Issue 9. June 2017

design & attention

There are few sayings as accurate as “pay attention”. Attention is baked into our psychology of survival, our innate metaphysical currency to distribute to those things that might provide for us, improve us, entertain us, inform us, or provide us with some other service. It is valuable, a finite resource that others covet, desire, beg for, and even try to steal. And we are no angels ourselves, draining others of their attention throughout the day, taking all that we can get from friends, colleagues, total strangers & even our own mothers.

In our age, the value of our attention is also very tangible, a value deeply embedded in our democratic capitalist belief structures, where competition and popularity determine who wins. Hard money is made by page visits, link clicks, “Likes”, and other quantitative measures of attention. Power is determined by popular vote.

As Apollo Robbins, the master pickpocket, put it:

Attention is a powerful thing. It shapes your reality. So, I guess I'd like to pose that question to you. If you could control somebody's attention, what would you do with it?

- The Art of Misdirection [video], TED, 2013

video: Art that craves your attention

“And so to us this is a kind of sinister being which is trying to distract you from the things that actually need your attention, but it could also be a figure that needs a lot of help.”
Art That Craves Your Attention, Aparna Rao, 2014


Our popularity plays a role that cannot be accounted for by our socioeconomic status, IQ, family background, prior mental health difficulties, or our appearance. There’s something about the way we are regarded by others that changes our life trajectories quite meaningfully and substantially.

Cracking the Popularity Code, Gareth Cook, Scientific American, 2017

  • “Too often, we assume that willpower is about having strong moral fiber. But that's wrong — willpower is really about properly directing the spotlight of attention, learning how to control that short list of thoughts in working memory. It's about realizing that if we're thinking about the marshmallow we're going to eat it, which is why we need to look away.”

    Control Your Spotlight, Jonah Lehrer,, 2016

  • “Twitterbombing is a tactic that forces us to think about the ethics of attention. We may believe that Reese and Athene are engaged in a deeply important cause – does that mean we’re ethically justified in asking someone else to pay attention? What’s the difference between asking a friend for their attention, and someone you don’t know? A public figure versus a media curator, versus someone who simply has a lot of Twitter followers?”

    The Tweetbomb and the Ethics of Attention by Ethan Zuckerman, 2012

  • “A central assumption of liberalism is that we’re free to ignore messages we don’t like; that’s why freedom of speech involves a right to offend but no right not to be offended. Yet what if, as a matter of empirical psychology, attention doesn’t work like that?”

    Oliver Burkeman for The Guardian, 2015

system goals.

As humans, we have pain receptors to remind us to attend to nearly every biological need... So, if pain receptors cue us to consistently meet our most fundamental needs, then where is our receptor for attention? There isn’t one. The best guess as to why is that we probably didn’t need one throughout our long history as hunter-gatherers. Most tribes that crossed the savannah were likely small enough to ensure that everybody knew everyone else. Being in the constant presence of one another, individuals could easily discern when others required attention, so help and support were offered naturally. In today’s world, we are much more separate from each other, even in our own homes. But our bodies were not designed to live in walled-off rooms where even an unexpected knock on the door can be perceived as an intrusion.

Why We All Just Need a Little Attention, Robert J Maurer Ph.D., Psychology Today, 2016

  • “In short, scaring your employees is a great way to get their attention. But make sure the threat is genuine, and don’t use this tactic too often. If you do, your employees will stop believing that the threat is real.”

    Getting the Attention You Need, Thomas H. Davenport & John C. Beck, Harvard Business Review, 2000

  • “We aren’t creating human-centered experiences, we are creating attention-centered experiences, which puts the needs of the business squarely ahead of the needs of the customer.”

    Jesse Weaver, Director of Product Design @, 2016

  • “Anyone [on Facebook] with more than 100,000 followers on a social media platform is designated as a public figure – which denies them the full protections given to private individuals.”

    Facebook's internal rulebook on sex, terrorism and violence, Nick Hopkins, The Guardian, 2017

systemic failure.

We are told that we are entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts. This leaves out the observation that the war for our minds and attention is now increasingly being waged over neither facts nor opinions, but feelings.

Eric R. Weinstein in, 2017

  • “It speaks to a kind of scary place in the culture where people are willing to expose their misled ideas, their sadism, their sexual perversion, their felonious behavior, for the accolades they’ll receive through social media.”

    The Desire to Live-Stream Violence, J. Weston Phippen, The Atlantic, 2017

  • “Helplessness take hold in the moments after terror strikes, and sharing feelings and facts about the horror online can seem productive. But that urge to be a part of the group healing and grief can lead to more suffering in the long run, and give terrorists the very publicity they sought in the first place.”

    Think Before You Tweet In The Wake Of An Attack, Emily Dreyfuss, Wired, 2017


The scientists measured the success of 60 undergraduates in various fields, from the visual arts to science. They asked the students if they'd ever won a prize at a juried art show or been honored at a science fair. In every domain, students who had been diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder achieved more: Their inability to focus turned out to be a creative advantage.

Against Attention, Jonah Lehrer, Wired, 2011

  • “Marketing departments have built entire strategies on top of this unproven assumption [that humans now have shorter attention spans than fish]. They’ve pushed down the quality of their work, made it shorter and 'snackable,' desperate to appeal to an audience of fish... The result has been a wave of low-effort marketing content that floods your audiences timeline, much of it being ignored. It adds no value to your customer’s life, but we sit and wonder why our content strategies aren’t working.”

    No, You Don’t Have the Attention Span of a Goldfish, Andrew Littlefield, Ceros, 2016

  • “A person can engage in two types of attention: involuntary and voluntary. Involuntary attention is a rather effortless form of engagement with the world. Voluntary (or directed) attention, in contrast, requires a good deal of focus and energy — it plays a central role in problem solving, for instance — and is therefore susceptible to fatigue. Voluntary attention can be restored through sleep, but it can also be restored during waking hours when a person’s involuntary attention becomes highly engaged, essentially giving direct attention a breather. Kaplan and his collaborators found that nature is especially conducive to our involuntary engagement.”

    This Side of Paradise, Eric Jaffe, The Association for Psychological Science, 2010

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Our world is designed through our actions and inactions, ignorance and enlightenment. With this newsletter, we strive to provide some of the context necessary to understand the largest problems facing the world today. We are all implicit in this mess.

There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.

Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage


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