Meta, addiction, and the strategy of attention

Clearly, it’s hard to take Mark Zuckerberg seriously.

This has always been the case, however it’s been particularly on display in the last couple of weeks following his awkward video announcement of Meta – the new name for Facebook’s holding company.

I’m sure you’re already familiar with it, but in short the idea is for them to spearhead the creation of the “metaverse”, a thing they describe as “the next evolution of social connection”, but which you and I might basically call virtual reality.  If the first step of “social connection” was for them to get us all to connect, chat, and shout at each other through our phones, the next step will be for us to do the same thing from inside our phones – plugging ourselves directly into Facebook, walking around in it, and if they have their way basically living in it.

Sounds wholesome right?

Well, this is where Zuckerberg’s innate ridiculousness comes in handy.  If the devil’s greatest trick was convincing people he didn’t exist, then the Zuck’s greatest trick is convincing people his ideas are dumb, because few are taking Meta very seriously.

It is undeniably pretty dorky, especially the VR part.  This technology has been around for a while now, and so far has been closer to 3D TVs than smartphones in terms of world changing impact – and so it’s understandable that people are pretty dismissive of its utopian (or dystopian) potential under Meta.

However, as some slightly more subtle commentators have observed, perhaps this is beside the point.

Just because we aren’t strapping on headsets, that doesn’t mean that the metaverse isn’t imminent.  Indeed, I was struck the other day when someone said that if more than 50% of your attention is directed online, then you’re already living in it.

It’s a compelling point.  We typically assume that the online world exists to serve the offline one, where we lead our “real lives”.  However if 51% of your attention is directed online, and 49% is offline, then isn’t the opposite be true?  Aren’t the offline things you’re doing – eating, sleeping, going to the toilet – simply “tools and services” that support your really real life, the online one?

I’d say so.  Whether your attention is filtered through a screen or a headset is really neither here nor there.

Now I don’t bring all this up purely for the purpose of lamenting the direction we’re heading (although I did have a chuckle when someone mentioned that in Hebrew the word “meta” means “dead”, thus making the metaverse a “dead universe”).  No, that’s all well and good, but not my remit here.

Instead I bring it up because of what it teaches us about that innocuous, under-appreciated word:


We all know what attention is of course, but I’d suggest that few of us take time to consider just how important it is.  Attention, we might say, is our most valuable resource – not only because it is finite (like time), but also because it is transformative.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “where your attention goes, your energy flows”?  Well this is a pretty big deal when you think about it.  The things you “attend to” are not only given energy, given “life”, by your attention – they also transform you in their image.

A person who directs 70% of their attention at cultivating their Instagram presence (for example) will end up being completely moulded by that behaviour.  They won’t just be a person who happens to be living online.  They will instead become an “online person” – someone who is optimised to the demands of that platform, the way an organism is optimised for its environment.

We can see this same transformation when we consider the nature of addiction.  A drug addict is, in effect, someone who attends, in an out of proportion manner, to drugs.  It is to drugs that their “energy flows”, and in turn it is around drugs that their life and persona are gradually shaped.  Like the Instagram fanatic, they become a tool of their “idol”, living to serve the thing that should be serving them.  It is this transformationwhich defines the condition.

Now naturally as a consequence of this process attention can be used for positive transformation as well as negative.  That’s the good news.  The only problem is very few of us ever bother to choose where our attention is directed.

What happens instead is that our attention is attracted to something (social media, food, booze, power, pornography, etc.), and we feel the urge to attend to it.  We interpret this urge as “choice”, and therefore validate and indulge it.  “I want to give my attention to this thing, therefore by doing so I am taking an empowering act”.  But of course this is an illusion.  Urges are not choices; they are where your attention flows when it is on auto-pilot.  The free act is not to give in to your urges, but to reject them, and to choose to give your attention to the things that are less tempting – as only then can you be sure that you have exercised any agency over the situation at all.

That is a little abstract, so to put it more simply just ask yourself: is the drug addict more free when he does what he “wants” and takes a hit, or when he resists what he wants, and doesn’t?

You get the point.

Through these dynamics then we can start to develop a “strategy of attention” which we can use for our advantage.  It comes down to recognising two key points:

  1. The thing we pay attention to transforms us


  1. The thing we feel an urge to pay attention to is not chosen by us, but rather chooses us.  Free choice is only present when we reject what we automatically desire, and choosewhat we might not

Using these points we can analyse where we devote our attention, consider its transformative consequences, and ask if there is somewhere else it would be better directed.

For an interesting example of this theory in action, consider the act of religious worship.

Worship, on the face of it, seems like quite an arbitrary thing – even to a lot of believers.  However when we view it through the lens of attention, it makes a lot more sense.  After all, worship at its heart is simply deliberate focused attention.  Just like any attention, it is transformative.  However unlike other forms of attention the worshipper has chosen the highest thing as the focus for their transformation.  Whilst some people might be transformed by their (unchosen) attention to Instagram, say, the worshipper tries to be transformed by their (chosen) attention to God.

Taken to an extreme, a monk might devote their entire attention to worship: a radical act of transformation and “elevation” which may be considered a sort of reversal of addiction: the freely chosen “upward” transformation, versus the unchosen “downward” transformation.

Naturally one need not be religious to understand this idea.  There are all sorts of constructive ways to direct one’s attention when you get the principle.  And, perhaps more importantly, there are all sorts of destructive things one can stop attending to – when you realise that the attention is neither benign nor necessarily a reflection of free will.

Now in case you’re worried this is starting to sound like a bit of a moralistic lecture, rest assured that we can apply precisely the same logic to businesses too.

Just like people, businesses direct their attention to certain places.  And again, just like people, the object of their attention has a transformative effect which may be positive or negative.

The role of a well defined strategy is essentially to give a business something to pay attention to – or even “worship”, if you like.  By turning all attention to a strategy the business will be transformed in its image – whilst also being distracted from other less useful things trying to distract it.

This is why some businesses put their strategy on the wall, where everyone can see it and be reminded of it.  This is almost like the corporate version of hanging a crucifix: it is a reminder of where one’s attention should be focused, lest it begin to drift in a less constructive direction.

You can see then that it’s not enough to simply “have” a strategy – just like it’s not enough to say you believe in certain high minded principles.  What counts is whether you attend to it.  Whether you devote time, discussion, and consideration to it.  Whether it occupies a high percentage of your time.

A strategy that you develop, think about for a moment, and then ignore for the remaining 99% of your time simply doesn’t exist.  In that case your realstrategy is what’s going on in that 99%; that’s the thing that’s shaping who you are, and what you’re going to become.

It’s like a pal of mine once said: “I never believe people when they say what’s important to them, what they care about; I simply look at what they do and then infer the truth from that”.

So there you have it.  No matter what your supposed principles are, what you say matters to you, what you think you believe, the only thing that ultimately matters is whether that is reflected by your attention.

The way it’s spent is by far the truest reflection of who you are, and who you will become.

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