Attention Values Are All You Need

By Dr. Sabba Quidwai and Stefan Bauschard

Your Attention is Being Directed

For a week the world became increasingly obsessed with Kate Middleton, focusing its attention on what her medical condition might be, whether she was leaving or staying with William, and why she might not be coming out in public or explaining what had happened to her.

On January 16 Kate Middleton went in for an abdominal surgery, a day after the Palace issued a statement saying it went well and that she would not resume public duties until after Easter. 

The world went quiet for a bit, but more and more questioned her whereabouts. When the Palace released a photo on March 10, Mother’s Day in England, that the AP News reported as photoshopped, the public became so engaged in what they thought was a mystery, and much of the speculation became non-stop and nasty.

Attention Values Are All You Need

So why did the internet become so fascinated with Kate Middleton, to a point where curiosity turned into an invasion of privacy forcing a woman to share a cancer diagnosis she wanted to deal with in private?

The answer might be outlined in a new book “Day Trading Attention” by Gary Vaynerchuk: 

Increasingly, platforms are distributing content based on what users are interested in, rather than who they follow. Small businesses, large corporations, and creators can take advantage of this trend to develop brands and grow sales by producing relevant, strategic content, even if they don’t have an audience. But how does one make relevant content? What should advertisements look like, in this new world?

It’s a practice Kim Kardashian, Blake Lively, Stephen Colbert, or Owen Jones and thousands of others jumped on.  They have all now issued apologies, except for Kim Kardashian. And Stephen Colbert, who made jokes about an affair as a reason for Kate’s absence, was just sent a legal notice by Rose Hanbury. 

“This new photo I just took today to announce our 4 new @bettybuzz & @bettybooze products! Now you know why I’ve been MIA,”

Blake Lively | Instagram Post (now removed)

All of our attention got directed by an algorithm because a few friends, or the online personalities we follow place their attention in areas.  The algorithms pay attention to the surge in interest, and re-boost it.  As a result it begins to infiltrate all our feeds and drives our attention.

As Gary Vaynerchuk continues to share:

“Always watching, always playing, always looking for that next opportunity. Whether it’s digital or whether it’s traditional, when I day trade attention, I don’t focus on the newest app. Instead, I focus on what the hell people are doing.”

That’s how he says marketing works in today’s world. 
We can even become a part of the story itself. When the story starts depicting people acting cruelly, we often start to act cruelly as well.

But why does an algorithm decide what grabs our attention and influence our behavior? 

Why don’t we? We can. By directing our own attention. 

In doing so we gain insights into how curiosity turned invasive. And it presents a mirror reflecting our own interactions with digital worlds, shaped by unseen algorithms.

How Do You Direct Your Attention?

Those who applied the “Day Trading Attention” strategy, lost sight of a family asking for time to recover from a health issue. And now we are all having a moment of reckoning. What values and norms, or lack thereof, prompted the whole world to feel as if they were entitled to this information? 

“I think we as a society should take a long look at ourselves, because the trolls on the internet have put about the most ridiculous conspiracy theories consistently, and we, the mass media, actually, have given some of those theories airtime, which I think is entirely wrong,” said Royal commentator Jennie Bond. 

Efforts to focus attention on what is most relevant is not new and it’s not always bad. The algorithmic instructions to focus on attention was the revelation that brought us generative AI apps like ChatGPT shared in the now famous ‘Attention is All You Need’ paper from 2017. 

This wasn’t just another academic article; it was a significant advancement ending what some saw as another “AI winter.” The core idea? The ability to focus selectively on different parts of information based on the user’s prompt. 

The paper introduced the world to the Transformer model, a novel architecture that allowed AI to look at all parts of the text at once, determine the relevance of each piece, and dynamically adjust its focus. This meant that AI could now understand context in language with unprecedented accuracy.

Let’s look at an example.

Imagine you’re flipping through a magazine filled with a wide array of articles and advertisements. Your goal is to find ideas for your next vacation. As you browse, your eyes skip over many articles about home improvement and fashion, focusing instead on those about exotic travel destinations. This selective focus isn’t just random; it’s driven by your current interest in travel. Even though the magazine contains diverse content, you effortlessly filter out what’s irrelevant to your immediate goal.

Now, picture an AI system designed to summarize news articles. Given a vast array of topics, it learns to focus on key sentences and phrases that are most relevant to generating a concise summary. Similar to how you zeroed in on travel-related articles. 

Both the algorithms that drive our interests and help focus our attention are based on the similar idea of attention. The difference, however, is that we as humans have agency. And when we take advantage of the transformer technology, we direct the transformer algorithm to what we want it to pay attention to. 

This is why prompting is such an important skill. Being able to intentionally and skillfully articulate where you want the generative AI tool to focus its attention influences the relevance of results you will get. 

Understanding AI’s ability to sift through information with human-like precision brings us to a pivotal question: If machines can learn to navigate our complex digital landscapes, how do we, as individuals, exercise our agency in a world curated by algorithms?

How Do We Practice Digital Agency

The intricate connection between AI’s information processing, the algorithms shaping our digital worlds, and the marketing strategies aimed at generating revenue underscores a critical reality: attention is a pivotal tool, necessitating deliberate agency to direct it effectively. Here’s how we can begin to reclaim and exercise our digital agency:

  • Challenge Algorithmic Influence: Develop an awareness of how algorithms influence our choices and directly challenge their success at capturing our attention.
  • Education and Transparency: Advocate for personal education on algorithm functionality and demand platform transparency, allowing users to understand why certain content is recommended to them.
  • Consumer Choice: Empower users to set preferences that limit exposure to addictive content and minimize distractions. Including managing notification settings to maintain focus on life beyond the screen.
  • Regulatory Measures: Support the development of regulations that curb algorithms designed to exploit psychological vulnerabilities, promoting a wider array of content 

What ties these strategies together is an intentional, human-centered approach to technology, one that prioritizes individual well-being over corporate interests and advertising revenue. Without proactive measures—awareness, tools, and intentionality—we risk being perpetually shaped and defined by algorithms, falling victim to their designed attention traps. Conversely, armed with understanding and strategic action, we can influence these systems towards fostering environments of kindness and genuine connection.

What is the Difference Between Attention and Intention

Now, many have also shared that it was the Palace who provoked this by sharing a photoshopped image. While the rumors had definitely been flowing, they were nowhere near the scale that we saw after the image release. They were straightforward with Charles and his diagnosis, as he also has cancer. Kate however, wanted to wait until her children were on Easter holiday and needed more time. Never has the phrase hindsight is 20/20 been so accurate. Looking back it’s easy to see how this might have been done in hopes of reducing the rumors. It is in times of desperation that we often make the worst mistakes. Instead of reducing the rumors, they fed the attention further.

So who is to blame? The Palace? The People? Predictive algorithms? 

Or perhaps everyone. Everyone who let their attention be unintentionally directed, and along the way, forgot about their values.

Can Shared Values Provide a Foundation for Digital Agency

Perhaps paying attention is what it means to consider the complexities, the ethics, the safety parameters needed to thrive in a world with humans and machines and to make deliberate choices. The unfolding narrative around Kate Middleton’s privacy saga and the pervasive role of social media algorithms brings us to a critical juncture: the exploration of agency versus digital agency. As we’ve seen, our interactions online, whether intentional or passive, feed into the algorithms that shape our digital experiences. 

As Gary Vaynerchuk shares in this article, “I genuinely believe social media is unfairly blamed for a lot of problems in society.” 

News about the United Nations passing an AI resolution didn’t get nearly as much attention as Kate Middleton despite happening in the same week. The unanimous resolution giving global support to an international effort to ensure the powerful new technology benefits all nations, respects human rights and is “safe, secure and trustworthy.” 

Yet a third news story, which also didn’t get as much attention, was a ceasefire vote that took 171 days to end the unimaginable suffering in Gaza. The final vote was one from which the US abstained. Yet what happens next is to be seen?

It’s clear that the global organizations designed to protect the rights of all people from the UN to the ICJ and ICC hold very little enforceable power. 

So why did Kate Middleton’s story rise to the top, amongst these other stories?

Could it be because we chose attention over intention? Which brings us back to our challenge: who chooses where our attention goes, and how can we best use our human agency to direct our attention to what really matters. 

If social media is as Vaynerchuk says “unfairly blamed,” because it is a reflection of society. 

What challenges might AI bring? 

How do we define human rights? Who do we include, and who do exclude?

To what degree can the UN truly act to protect people?

These questions need our attention.

As Yuval Noah Harari shares in this interview with Steve Bartlett, host of Diary of a CEO, the last industrial revolution provoked a series of political experiments of imperialist and totalitarian regimes. Like many experiments we often fail. 

Can we afford the same experiments? Can we survive another round of imperialist wars and totalitarian regimes, ironically both of which we’re currently seeing. 

“To those who say we passed the industrial revolution with all the prophecies of doom in the end we got it right. As a historian I would give humanity a C- to how we adapted. If we get this again, it’s the end of us.  

From marketing to education to geopolitics, what values will guide the experiments in an AI world

How Might We Innovate with Integrity?

Successfully integrating AI will require our intentional efforts.

Last year we wrote an article on the importance of innovating with integrity. We highlighted the imperative of aligning our technological advancements with our core values and vision. This alignment is not just a philosophical ideal but a practical strategy for fostering a sustainable and ethical culture of innovation. Being overwhelmed by advancements in artificial intelligence is an understatement. Compounded by the many issues facing school organizations, we believe a community-based approach to what this means for us as individuals, organizations, communities, and humanity at large, can only be realized one conversation at a time when everyone plays an active role. 

We released a guide that is continuously updated, sharing an overview of existing AI frameworks and guidelines, and a list of recommended steps to help communities turn confusion into clarity and confidence. 

The future of our digital world depends not on the algorithms that predict our preferences but on the choices we make every day, to be not just consumers of content but guardians of a digital legacy that honors our shared humanity.

I’m Sabba.

I believe that the future should be designed. Not left to chance.

Over the past decade, using design thinking practices I've helped schools and businesses create a culture of innovation where everyone is empowered to move from idea to impact, to address complex challenges and discover opportunities. 

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