I was talking with a friend recently about Cal Newport’s idea of Deep Work and whether or not it’s truly necessary in informational society. According to Newport, this is the definition of Deep Work:
Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
It’s pretty easy to see how this is a valuable skill. No one has ever developed a distributed computing algorithm by scrolling through their Twitter feed, nor could they. Instead, genuine value can only be created via distraction-free sessions of work over a non-trivial amount of time. And I call it a skill because it really is something you have to practice. You can’t just go from doing nothing of depth for the past three months to a week of trying to concentrate for extended periods of time – it’s not going to happen. Instead, you’ll find yourself fidgety and unable to focus.
The ability of most individuals in first-world societies to single-mindedly go deep on a task is decreasing just as it’s becoming more valuable to be able to produce new value in domains of complex knowledge. This fractured attention characteristic of the modern knowledge worker can largely be attributed to new tools for high-availability communication and the expectation in many knowledge workplaces for employees to respond promptly to emails and other messages. You can’t get into a state of deep concentration when an email from Cindy pops up asking if you’re bringing anyone to the office party on Friday.
The only way to create new value in complex domains is through intense, single-minded concentration over non-trivial timeframes. So, it follows that anyone capable of engaging in this skill of deep work will create a tremendous amount of new value in society compared to someone who is incapable of it.
However, how true is this in informationalist society? We have entered a world where digital networks are the dominant production of meaning (see Bard and Soderqvist’s The Futurica Trilogy) and we will only continue to go deeper. These networks are formed on social media (aka Distraction Factories). You cannot engage in deep work when you’re chatting with friends, no matter the topic. In the Netocrats, Bard and Soderqvist speak of two major classes of society in the future: the netocrats and the consumitariat. The netocrats are the rulers of this society. Essentially, they are social nodes with many different bidirectional connections to other netocrats in high-value networks. Via their plethora of connections, netocrats gain power in a world where the number of high-variety, high-quality connections you have determine a person’s power. Constantly producing new value allows them to maintain their current connections in high-value networks, build new connections, and garner attention from the consumitariat.
The consumitariat (as you may have guessed) produce little – if any – value and instead give attention to the netocrats without receiving any in return. Everyone is a member of both of these classes to some extent, but what determines your status is how much time you spend in each of the categories.
Notice that money didn’t come up once in either of my descriptions of the two primary classes of informationalist society. This is because it’s very possible to have a poor (in terms of normal currency) netocrat and a very rich consumitarian. This is because the main currency in netocratic society is something every single living person on planet Earth is granted the same amount of: attention. What determines your place in netocratic society is where you decide to put your attention.
Every human throughout history has been given the same amount of attention to spend every day. The difference between netocratic society and societies of the past however is that on the web, you have near full control of where you spend your attention. Peasants in medieval Europe had to spend their attention on taking care of their farm duties, otherwise they’d starve. Factory workers had to spend their attention making widgets at the factory every day in order to get money to pay rent and buy food.
The reason there will be consumitarians is because, for many people, it will be extremely difficult to resist giving their attention to a world of infinite novel stimuli and receive intermittent dopamine kicks. For those who are more disciplined, they can spend their time producing in order to make sure that attention flows to them.
Quantitatively, attention is always determined by the same formula: attention = awareness * credibility. However, it’s worth mentioning that attention is different qualitatively depending on the network. For example, someone who gets a million views on Vine and is consistently putting out content that reaches a base of loyal subscribers will have a high attention score within the Vine network. This same attention can probably even translate to some extent to other adjacent platforms such as YouTube. However, try moving this Vine comedian to GitHub and see how many followers they can get. Chances are, no one is going to care. This Vine superstar has zero credibility in the open source software community. There’s probably a decent chunk of GitHub users who know who they are, but awareness doesn’t matter if it isn’t accompanied by credibility.
So here’s the question: if this Vine superstar wanted to increase their credibility on the GitHub network, how would they go about doing this? Well, the answer to this is the answer to “how does someone learn how to program?” And the answer to that question is it takes deep work. Deep work will probably involve buying an intro programming book and doing the exercises in it, following tutorials online, etc. Then they have to actually create programming projects of their own (no one is following someone’s GitHub who exclusively has intro to data structures exercises committed). But that’s still not enough to achieve credibility in the programming community. Achieving true credibility involves building a novel program, creating a tool that fills some sort of niche in the developer community, or some variation of those two. And guess what? None of those things can be achieved without deep work. You must engage in non-trivial concentration in order to achieve sufficient credibility and to garner a higher attention score.
What about this Vine-star’s original domain of 7-second videos? Do these require deep work? Most of the time, no. It very well may, but it’s certainly not strictly necessary.
Something worth noting: each of these sorts of attention have different lifespans. The Vine-type of attention is short-lived and requires continuous maintenance to stay in the limelight. Not regularly putting out funny content? Credibility goes down pretty quickly in a world of infinite content. Are the videos that you are putting out gaining a substantial number of views? If not, your awareness is not sufficient to have a high attention score.
What about the GitHub-type of attention that requires deep work? Awareness could probably be measured in part by how many developers are using your code in their own projects. Since developers are hesitant to change any libraries their code is using for fear of this having negative side effects, people will remain aware of it. Thus, awareness dissipates only if the software you built is now irrelevant or you stop maintaining the code. What about credibility? Credibility can be measured in part by how useful your project is to other people and how well it measures up to what you say it does. Since we have already covered that it takes a long time and deep effort to make these sorts of projects, the frequency of shiny new things is lower than in the 7-second video world. Thus, you can sit on that credibility for much longer; the attention you worked to gain will be slower to dissipate.
In fact, I’d argue this: the higher the median time and effort is for gaining attention in a network, the more slowly the attention you gain will dissipate.
So does deep work have a place in the informationalist paradigm? It depends on the type of network you’re trying to gain attention in.