"I suffer from attention surplus disorder, Fraa Orolo liked to say, as if it were funny."
This line really stood out to me when I heard author Neal Stephenson read from his new book, Anathem, last Monday. Stephenson, along with William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and others, is part of the generation of "cyberpunk" authors whose vision of a wired, accelerated culture both predicted and helped shape the Internet age. Lately, however, Stephenson has turned his attention to the long view.
Anathem, which I have not yet read, involves a cloistered community of monks that only interacts with the outside world every hundred years, and thus sees the progress of civilization in a kind of exaggerated, time-lapse view that makes the fickle nature of contemporary culture seem even more ridiculous. This work follows on the heels of Stephenson's titanic Baroque Trilogy, which examined the origins of the modern age, including the rise of empirical science and the birth of banking.
It was a propos of that last point that someone asked Stephenson his thoughts on the potential end of the global finance system, given that he had written so voluminously on its beginnings. This was Monday night, after the liquidation of Lehman Brothers, the fire-sale of Merill Lynch, and a 500-point drop in the Dow Jones average, so no one laughed at the question - or at Stephenson's answer.
"It's a symptom of our collective attention deficit disorder," he said. "I mean, what does it say when banks lend out money, but then can't be bothered to figure out if the borrower can pay it back?"
Stephenson, who says he writes his fiction in longhand to give his brain a chance to participate in the editing process, has apparently become a velocity skeptic. Events give weight to his words. The downside of the immediacy, connectivity, and perpetual access to practically everything afforded by the Internet is the loss of a certain strategic perspective that only comes from patience.
The banking crisis is an illuminating example. For most of their 350 year history, global financial institutions thrived by operating at a glacial pace, based on deliberation, precedent, centralized decision-making, and painstaking processes. To keep up with the accelerated requirements and escalating expectations of their customers, financial services firms began dealing in transactions that would never have met their historical standards of prudence and transparency. I guess bankers felt that exercising caution, under the circumstances, would have been too risky.
The result today resembles a pile-up of 18-wheelers that were drag-racing on a curved road. As food for thought from a future-of-technology perspective, all the benefits promised by pervasive connectivity and the Internet have arguably made the crisis worse. Knowledge-sharing, information access and collaboration facilitated the rapid spread of bad practices, not best practices. The network effect, rather than providing resiliency to fragile systems, exposed institutions at the edge of the crisis to the risky dealings of those at the center, as even more conservative investment firms such as Vanguard, PIMCO and Franklin Advisors may be left holding the bag for Lehman's bad debts. The lack of attention paid by bankers and regulators in the age of velocity and technology-induced ADD has injected dangerous uncertainty into the global economy.
So perhaps it is time to reassess the virtues of attention surplus disorder. After all, attention may be the only commodity available in surplus in the coming months.