How the Internet Re-Wired Our Brains and the Man Who Warned It Was Coming


20 years ago Michael Goldhaber warned us about the complete dominance of the internet, increased shamelessness in politics, terrorists co-opting social media, the rise of reality television, personal websites, oversharing, personal essay, fandoms and online influencer culture — along with the near destruction of our ability to focus. We didn't listen.

Most of this came to him in the mid-1980s, when Mr. Goldhaber, a former theoretical physicist, had a revelation. He was obsessed at the time with what he felt was an information glut — that there was simply more access to news, opinion and forms of entertainment than one could handle. His epiphany was this: One of the most finite resources in the world is human attention. To describe its scarcity, he latched onto what was then an obscure term, coined by a psychologist, Herbert A. Simon: “the attention economy.”

These days, the term is a catch-all for the internet and the broader landscape of information and entertainment. Advertising is part of the attention economy. So are journalism and politics and the streaming business and all the social media platforms. But for Mr. Goldhaber, the term was a bit less theoretical: Every single action we take — calling our grandparents, cleaning up the kitchen or, today, scrolling through our phones — is a transaction. We are taking what precious little attention we have and diverting it toward something. This is a zero-sum proposition, he realized. When you pay attention to one thing, you ignore something else.

The idea changed the way he saw the entire world, and it unsettled him deeply. “I kept thinking that attention is highly desirable and that those who want it tend to want as much as they can possibly get,” Mr. Goldhaber, 78, told me over a Zoom call last month after I tracked him down in Berkeley, Calif. He couldn’t shake the idea that this would cause a deepening inequality. “When you have attention, you have power, and some people will try and succeed in getting huge amounts of attention, and they would not use it in equal or positive ways.”

“It’s amazing and disturbing to see this develop to the extent it has,” he said when I asked him if he felt like a Cassandra of the internet age. Most obviously, he saw Mr. Trump — and the tweets, rallies and cable news dominance that defined his presidency — as a near-perfect product of an attention economy, a truth that disturbed him greatly. Similarly, he said that the attempted Capitol insurrection in January was the result of thousands of influencers and news outlets that, in an attempt to gain fortune and fame and attention, trotted out increasingly dangerous conspiracy theories on platforms optimized to amplify outrage.

“You could just see how there were so many disparate factions of believers there,” he said, remarking on the glut of selfies and videos from QAnon supporters, militia members, Covid-19 deniers and others. “It felt like an expression of a world in which everyone is desperately seeking their own audience and fracturing reality in the process. I only see that accelerating.”

While Mr. Goldhaber said he wanted to remain hopeful, he was deeply concerned about whether the attention economy and a healthy democracy can coexist. Nuanced policy discussions, he said, will almost certainly get simplified into “meaningless slogans” in order to travel farther online, and politicians will continue to stake out more extreme positions and commandeer news cycles. He said he worried that, as with Brexit, “Rational discussion of what people stand to gain or lose from policies will be drowned out by the loudest and most ridiculous.”

We tend to ignore his favorite maxim, from the writer Howard Rheingold: “Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.”

Where do we start? “It’s not a question of sitting by yourself and doing nothing,” Mr. Goldhaber told me. “But instead asking, ‘How do you allocate the attention you have in more focused, intentional ways?’” Some of that is personal — thinking critically about who we amplify and re-evaluating our habits and hobbies. Another part is to think about attention societally. He argued that pressing problems like income and racial inequality are, in some part, issues of where we direct our attention and resources and what we value.


  1. An article worthy of a blog to itself.
    Some of it relates to Monty Pythons meaning of life, other parts to Karl Marx statements of capitalism destroying itself.
    Altogether beyond my pay scale but it could be the statement of the century.

    The information age was hijacked some time ago; you decide when?


  2. .. trailblazer 1st line .. nails my 1st thought

    I need to contemplate this.. It strikes hard & up there at McLuhan level foresight.. Or Edward de Bono who suggested we can refine our 'thinking' skills every day of our lives - that 'thinking' is not an achievement or full tank we can stop at on becoming an adult or as a teen, rather it's ideally a life long growth process

    My 'consumptions'.. and my 'attention' are grabbed up along with me physically in the net he casts

    1. Hi, Sal. As I read the NYT and Wired articles I too thought Goldhaber may be the McLuhan of the internet age. As for thinking as an achievement, I think we've regressed. We know that attention spans are narrowing. We see younger generations joined at the hip to their smart phones. I have a smart phone but I too remain reliant on my land line.

      Today we're expected to be come increasingly expert in a narrower niche field. My son-in-law is a software designer for Microsoft working on bleeding-edge technologies. It's a very focused skillset that, while very valuable, comes at a cost. Very highly skilled, highly paid micro-cogs. Polymaths and Renaissance Men need not apply.

  3. Thanks for the link, TB. A bit of Eric Idle can be very welcome in these times. This premise is hard to accept but harder still to reject. Research has shown that our brains are being re-wired. I find that it's about all I can do to read books by chapter. Gone are the days of sitting down with a book for hours at a time.

    I think we're coming to understand how the pace of change that has been accelerating since the Industrial Revolution revealed that the sense of relative permanence experienced throughout the course of civilization has disappeared. Any of us can look at the piece of pie that is our personal existence, 60, 70, 80 years and see how little of what was at the outset remains today and how we struggle to envision what is to be 60, 70 or 80 years hence.

    The Westphalian nation-state may give way to a new form of national organization. The Westphalian model that has served us relatively well since the 17th century is being eclipsed by the realities of modern technology and the loss of the state monopoly on violence.

    It was 2005 when John Ralston Saul penned the obituary of globalism. Yet it hasn't gone peacefully as he expected. The "next great thing" hasn't materialized yet. It may be something akin to the new world Goldhaber foresees. For us of the geezer class we can just perceive something new setting in but we probably won't be around to participate in it. Small blessings.

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