A law to defend human attention is an idea whose time has come

Fifty years ago this fall, at a time of growing concern about rising industrial noise, US President Richard M. Nixon signed the first – and arguably only – federal law devoted to safeguarding human attention. The Noise Control Act of 1972 aimed to give Americans the right to a reasonably quiet environment. It created a federal Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) with a mandate to coordinate research on noise control, set federal auditory emission standards for products, and provide grants and technical assistance to state and local governments to reduce noise pollution. While the office didn’t have the authority to regulate noise from most transportation infrastructure, it spearheaded a public education effort that built awareness of transport noise, eventually prompting airports, airlines and freight companies to take the issue seriously. The Reagan administration defunded and largely dismantled the federal noise control programs as part of its anti-regulation push in 1982.

2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang proposed a Andrew Yang proposed creating a Department of the Attention Economy.Credit:AP

Nevertheless, ONAC remains an admirable example of precautionary public policy that prioritises human health, well-being and cognition. The Nixon-era noise-management regime was predicated on a notion that’s still largely unheard of in the US government – or in most governments for that matter: There is inherent value in untroubled human attention, and society has a compelling interest in defending it.

Today, a wide range of policy ideas aims to regulate the excesses of the attention economy – from requiring transparency on algorithms, banning autoplay and infinite-scroll features, and placing “Surgeon General’s Warnings” on habit-forming products, all the way up to antitrust actions to break up the biggest players and transform the market incentives that drive companies to develop addictive technologies.

On the campaign trail for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, candidate Andrew Yang proposed creating a Cabinet-level Department of the Attention Economy. While the idea at first sounded gimmicky, Yang raised an important point. There’s no single government agency responsible for managing the attention economy, a complex issue whose areas of jurisdiction span dozens of agencies and multiple federal departments. If most people spend most of their waking lives on computers, phones, TVs and other devices through which advertisers and data miners compete for their attention, why wouldn’t there be a serious policy apparatus devoted to it? And why shouldn’t we streamline the tools we have to impose policies around those issues?

Across the ideological divide, there’s high interest in reining in the excesses of Big Tech and its effects on our attention. For example, recent bipartisan legislation in the Senate requiring greater transparency from Facebook and other platforms with respect to the social and psychological effects of their algorithms could help to address some informational noise. But the US government would also benefit from a new attention watchdog and policy clearinghouse in the executive branch – something akin to a 21st-century Office of Noise Control and Abatement – with a mandate to address rising auditory and informational noise.

While the idea of a federal “attention watchdog” would be controversial with industry, the government faced pushback against the original ONAC, too. Interest groups, including manufacturing industries and public-transit authorities, opposed binding noise regulations. Yet policymakers forged ahead. Speaking in support of the movement for noise abatement in 1968, U.S. Surgeon General William H. Stewart asked: “Must we wait until we prove every link in the chain of causation? … In protecting health, absolute proof comes late. To wait for it is to invite disaster or to prolong suffering unnecessarily.”

During Nixon’s day, the economist Herbert Simon, later a Nobel Prize winner, wrote: “What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” Today, as Simon indicated, we’re living in a world where quiet time and focused attention are extraordinarily scarce. It’s time for government – once again – to honour peace and quiet as a public good.

Washington Post

Justin Zorn and Leigh Marz are the co-authors of Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise.

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