The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We once had a law to defend human attention. It’s time for an update.

The Noise Control Act of 1972 sought to give Americans the right to a reasonably quiet environment. We need something similar for our digital world.

Our noisy digital world is increasingly full of distractions. Justin Zorn and Leigh Marz argue that we would benefit from legislation to help regulate it. (Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)

It’s not your imagination. Life really is noisier than it’s ever been.

Even if 2020’s shelter-in-place orders brought a temporary break from the cacophony, the trajectory of the modern world seems inexorable: more cars on the roads, planes in the skies, whirring drones, pinging gadgetry, buzzy open-plan offices, and squawking TVs embedded in gas pumps and taxi seats. The National Park Service estimates that noise pollution increases two-to-three-fold every 30 years. Fire engine sirens — a good proxy for the loudness of surrounding soundscapes — are up to six times louder than they were a century ago. The World Health Organization estimates that roughly 65 percent of Europeans live with noise levels that are hazardous to health.

And it’s not just auditory noise. It’s informational noise, too. The average person in the United States consumes at least five times more information on any given day than she did a generation ago. Former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt speculated in 2010 that every two days, we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003. The leading experts in the science of human attention say we simply can’t process anything near the standard modern levels of mental stimulation.

Noise — of both the literal and figurative kinds — is not just an irritant. It’s a hazard to our mental and physical health. A range of peer-reviewed studies over the past decades has shown that high decibel levels have a serious impact on cognition, especially among children, and contribute to health risks including cardiovascular disease, stroke and depression. The Center for Humane Technology — a leading public-interest research and advocacy group founded by veteran Silicon Valley technologists — has catalogued academic research showing that most people switch between different online content every 19 seconds, that the average person spends a full hour every day dealing with online interruptions and that the level of social media use on a given day is linked to a significant increase in memory failure the next day.

Our devices steal our attention. We need to take it back.

There are no easy policy solutions to address the proliferation of noise. After all, the prevailing idea of economic progress — as measured by gross domestic product — depends on expanding the clangor of industrial production, Big Data and the attention economy.

But history shows there could be a way forward.

Fifty years ago this fall, at a time of growing concern about rising industrial noise, President Richard 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 the 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. Nevertheless, ONAC remains an admirable example of precautionary public policy that prioritizes 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 U.S. 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.

Smart takes on this absurd modern life

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 U.S. 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 honor peace and quiet as a public good.