We once had a law to defend human attention. It’s time for an update.

It’s not your imagination. Life really is noisier than it has ever been.

Even though the shelter-in-place orders of 2020 have brought a temporary break from the cacophony, the trajectory of the modern world seems inexorable: more cars on the roads, planes in the sky, drones whirring, gadgets chiming, bustling open-plan offices and loud TVs built into gas pumps and taxi seats. The National Park Service estimates that noise pollution increases two to three times every 30 years. Fire sirens – a good indicator of the loudness of surrounding soundscapes – are up to six times louder than they were a century ago. The World Health Organization estimates that around 65% of Europeans live with noise levels that are hazardous to health.

And it’s not just auditory noise. It is also informational noise. The average person in the United States consumes at least five times more information every day than they did a generation ago. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt hypothesized in 2010 that every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization until 2003. Experts in the science of human attention say we simply can’t process anything near standard modern levels of mental stimulation.

Noise, whether literal or figurative, is not just an irritant. It is a danger to our mental and physical health. A series of peer-reviewed studies over the past few decades have shown that high decibel levels have a serious impact on cognition, especially in children, and contribute to health risks including cardiovascular disease, strokes and depression. The Center for Humane Technology – a leading research and public interest group founded by veteran Silicon Valley technologists – has listed academic research showing that most people switch between different content online every 19 seconds, that the average person spends a full hour each day dealing with online interruptions, and that the level of social media use on any given day is linked to a significant increase in memory impairment the next.

Our devices steal our attention. We have to take it back.

There are no simple political solutions to combat the proliferation of noise. After all, the mainstream idea of ​​economic progress—measured by gross domestic product—depends on expanding the noise of industrial production, big data, and the attention economy.

But history shows that there could be a way forward.

Fifty years ago this fall, at a time of growing concern about increasing industrial noise, President Richard Nixon signed the first—and arguably only—federal law devoted to protecting human attention. The Noise Control Act of 1972 was intended to give Americans the right to a reasonably quiet environment. He created the Federal Office for Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) with a mandate to coordinate noise control research, establish federal hearing emission standards for products, and provide grants and technical assistance to state and local governments to reduce noise pollution. Although the bureau lacked the authority to regulate noise from most transportation infrastructure, it led a public education effort that raised public awareness of transportation noise, ultimately prompting airports, airlines and freight companies to take the problem seriously.

The Reagan administration canceled and largely dismantled federal noise control programs as part of its anti-regulation campaign in 1982. Nonetheless, ONAC remains an admirable example of precautionary public policy that puts human health first. , well-being and cognition. The Nixon-era noise management regime was based on a notion still largely unknown within the US government – or most governments for that matter: there is an inherent value in undisturbed human attention, and society has a compelling interest in defending it..

Today, a wide range of policy ideas aim to regulate the excesses of the attention economy – from requiring transparency on algorithms, banning autoplay and infinite scrolling features, and the placement of “Surgeon General warnings” on addictive products, to antitrust actions to take down the biggest players and transform the market incentives that drive companies to develop addictive technologies.

Smart takes on this absurd modern life

During the campaign trail for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, candidate Andrew Yang proposed creating a Cabinet-level Department of Attention Economics. Although the idea at first seemed fanciful, Yang made an important point. There is no single government agency responsible for managing the attention economy, a complex issue whose areas of jurisdiction span dozens of agencies and several federal departments. If most people spend most of their waking lives on computers, phones, televisions, and other devices through which advertisers and data miners vie for their attention, why wouldn’t there be a serious political apparatus devoted to it? And why shouldn’t we streamline the tools we have to impose policies around these issues?

Beyond the ideological divide, there is great interest in reining in the excesses of Big Tech and its effects on our attention. For example, recent bipartisan legislation in the Senate requiring greater transparency from Facebook and other platforms regarding the social and psychological effects of their algorithms could help combat some informational noise. But the U.S. government would also benefit from a new attention watchdog and political clearinghouse within the executive branch – something akin to a bureau of scrutiny and noise reduction from the 21st century – with a mandate to combat the increase in auditory and informational noise.

While the idea of ​​a federal “attention watchdog” would be controversial with the industry, the government also faced retaliation against the original ONAC. Interest groups, including manufacturing industries and transit authorities, have opposed binding noise regulations. Yet policy makers moved forward. Speaking in support of the noise reduction movement in 1968, US Surgeon General William H. Stewart asked, “Must we wait to prove every link in the chain of causation?” … When it comes to health protection, absolute proof comes late. To wait for it is to invite disaster or prolong suffering unnecessarily.

In Nixon’s day, economist Herbert Simon, later a Nobel laureate, wrote, “What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Therefore, a wealth of information creates attention poverty. Today, as Simon pointed out, we live in a world where quiet time and focused attention are extraordinarily rare. It is time for the government – once again – to honor peace and quiet as a public good.

About Marjorie C. Hudson

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