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What Do 19th Century Farmers Tell Us About Smartphone Notifications?

Jul 28 2022 • 3 min read

Imagine that you are a 19th century cattle farmer whose herd grazes on common land shared by many other farmers (and many other cows).

You are trying to decide whether to add one more cow to your herd. On the positive side, an extra animal would bring you additional income. On the negative side, another cow means the common land must bear the burden of another mouth to feed.

What do you do?

This particular scenario was popularised by the American ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968. Hardin concluded that farmers would generally choose to take on another cow because the benefits of the additional income go directly to the farmer; while the costs of overgrazing are shared between all the farmers.

The result is a ‘tragedy of the commons’ whereby each farmer has an incentive to add another cow…and another…and another…until the land has nothing left to give, and everyone is worse off than they would have been if they had all decided to stick with their original lot.

The tragedy of the commons is a concept that has been used by researchers for several decades to understand the management of many limited common resources, from forests to fisheries. But it turns out that it can also help us think about a more personal resource: our attention.

At first glance, our individual attention might seem very different to the collective commons. But our attention is similarly a limited resource that, in today’s world, is being grazed upon by multiple apps and websites (the 21st century equivalent of our 19th century farmers).

One particularly popular grazing tool is the smartphone notification. Recent surveys indicate that around half of adults in the US feel that they receive too many notifications; and around half of adults in the UK say that without their phone they would feel more focused and pay more attention to the world around them. These findings suggest that, just as overgrazing depletes the commons, notifications deplete and dissipate our attention.

What Hardin’s metaphor helps us to understand is why organisations (farmers) feel compelled to send us more and more notifications (take on more cows). The reason lies in a similar asymmetry between the benefits and costs of doing so.

The only organisation that derives a benefit from sending a notification, for instance, is the one that sends it. On the other hand, the costs – such as an overwhelmed or interrupted recipient who is more likely to ignore further notifications – tend to be shared by all of the organisations vying for our attention. And so, as a result of this asymmetry, we receive another notification…and another…and another.

Following the publication of his famous paper in 1968, Hardin emphasised two points. First, that the decisions of greedy farmers harm both the farming community and themselves in the long run. And second, that tragedies are much more likely to occur in unmanaged commons.

His lessons for notification senders and recipients alike are, we hope, clear enough.

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