To get mad or not to get mad

How do you know when to get outraged, and at what, and by how much ...

I

Britain, in the fullness of empire building and ultimate hubris, brought back souvenirs from everywhere they went and conquered. A visit to the British museum in London shows the treasures liberated from Egypt to India to Tanzania to Greece. Pieces of the Parthenon, parts of the Sphinx, the Rosetta stone, Indian pantheon, the list goes on.

So when you get a message about why you should return the pieces of Parthenon to Greece, it's almost too easy a question. Someone is clearly setting it up to get a predictable outrage response.

There are two standards to think about reparations. One is amelioration of actual issue caused. If you did something bad, undo it so the world can go back to normal. This is what we normally teach children. You took a toy from your brother? Give it back. You stole a cookie? Give it back or pay for it or forego the next one.

The second is the amelioration of actual harm done. This one is much tougher. The harder questions of social justice sit here. Should we do slavery reparations? Yes but how would we even know how to measure the harm done. And how to actually execute the process of repairing. Or how to do it in a way that doesn't now tilt the playing field against those doing said reparations. I.e., how do you level the field again without tipping over into the other side.

But there's a third implicit issue as well that needs to be addressed, one that often goes unseen because it is implicit in our answers to the first two points. And it is the answer to this question.

Which problems do we solve first?

II

Let's assume for a moment that the problems are all real. Some of course aren't, and there will always be people who raise hell about things which are clearly unrealistic just because their expected value of said hell raising is positive. But for the time being let's ignore them, shall we? Let's just look at those cases where this is very real.

If you live a normal life in a normal town in a normal world with a normal job, you have somewhere around 6 hours a day to yourself, and a couple of weekends. If you work 200 days a year total, that means you have around 5000 hours to spare in a year. Around 60% of 'peak capacity'. This doesn't include time to eat, shower, or socialise. Once you take those out, let's say it shrinks to a third of what was there before, around 1500 hours.

If you read an article every 10 minutes, or a book every 5 hours, that's the equivalent to 300 books or 9000 articles. But of course that's silly. You would have zero time to think in between or even choose what to read. Once adjusted for that, all it another factor of three, you get to an insanely productive figure of around 100 books a year. But people do things other than just read and respond. They also do things like binge watch game of thrones, or read Harry Potter for fun. That must take up some time.

Which means that your total information input/ output time is around a book every couple weeks or so, and that's under rather optimum capacity. You could read more (I am Tyler's book recommendations), but you'd be selectively browsing and not necessarily reading cover to cover.

The key though is that there is a limited amount of things you have the ability to pay attention to. There's the problem. Attention isn't an infinite resource.

In economics, or physics, or life, if you want to optimise something, you normally have to try and go through a ranking and selection process. What's the most important decision that a CEO needs to make? How do you triage a patient list? What's the optimum way of packing a bunch of different sized balls into a trunk? All areas that require a holistic understanding of all aspects of a system.

The infamous homo economicus tries to make sure that there exists an amount of rationality within a person that they act as it they will maximise their own utility. Even though this is a stylistic exaggeration which helps make the maths more tractable, we suffer from the same problem at a societal level as well.

Amongst the cacophony of varied interest groups all trying to get attention, it's almost impossible to stand out. Economics used to be known as the science of the allocation of scarce resources, which might or might not be true any longer. The basic concept says that if a particular resource is exhaustible, then for maximum benefit it should be deployed where it can have the maximum impact.

When there are a thousand different causes yelling at you from all over, how do you choose whom to listen to?

You might have strongly held feelings about the topics you (or your immediate family) are directly affected by. The level of attention is proportional to its newsworthiness. The closer it is to your own circle of concern, the greater the impact. The larger the magnitude of the event, the greater the impact. The higher the frequency, the higher the predictability, and lower the impact.

So if a major event happens to your immediate family that's unexpected, that's top of the attention board. When grandma dies, it matters! When a frequent event happens to strangers across the globe, even if it's high in amplitude, it's closer to background noise. Like when you read there was another bombing in Kabul.

III

In the olden days information percolated to you through a few, predictable, channels. Friends and family, who shared what's news with you, and a few newspapers/ radio/ television who looked at themselves with varying degrees of seriousness. Those were the sources. Of course, that has changed.

And with the attention economy has been hacked. It's difficult to figure out which event affects us personally vs which ones don't. The magnitudes of events that occurred and could have occurred are obscured or even obfuscated. While before you could plausibly look at the column inch size as a proxy for seriousness of a piece of news, now there are no easy go-to indicators.

A natural consequence is that mangrove finches won't get the attention giant pandas will. It's not just because we intrinsically care less about one than another. All value here is perceived value.

When ecological warriors get upset at the destruction of the natural habitat of a type of toad and a special species of chipmunk, that's perceived value too. An argument for the sanctity of the ecological spectrum.

But we don't think of ecological impact or ecosystem fragility when we donate. That would actually be much too hard and cognitively demanding. Instead we try and assign a dollar value to our sense of caring, more for closer and less for further away, put a tick mark against the item, and move on.

We're all paying a hefty complexity discount.

The pursuit of our goals will always hit up against this constraint. The constant demand on our attention forces us to focus solely on the loudest or most immediately visceral of things, and we will inevitably lose sight of the important.

In the Eisenhower matrix it's as if everything tilted sideways and all of a sudden the whole board ended up in the column market Urgent-Important. When everything is urgent, nothing is urgent. When everything is important, nothing is important.

Our job has changed too. We can no longer rely on incoming information to decide information priority for us. We have to be more proactive in defining areas of interest and focus there, and ignore the vast majority of attention seeking missiles that come our way. It's impossibly hard to adapt to this change. But then I think, so was the old way!