Programmable attention

Michael Nielsen has suggested that the review sessions of a Spaced repetition memory system don’t just help you remember things: it orchestrates your repeated attention over time across hundreds of tiny tasks, too many to manage by hand. Systems like these are a form of programmable attention.

More generally, environments can be designed to modify their occupants attention by e.g. lowering executive overhead, mitigating unhelpful habits or biases, orchestrating the attention of multiple people in concert, distributing known-good attentional strategies, etc. You use simpler forms of programmable attention all the time: inboxes with snooze and alarm features; bots which remind you of things; Twitter is a kind of programmable attention. What is the core properties of such systems? What is their potential reach?

Such systems are often focused on productivity, but I believe they can be used to support creative work—reading, thinking, expressing, problem-solving.

For more, seen specifically through the lens of spaced repetition: Spaced repetition systems can be used to program attention

This term is evocative, but it has unfortunate connotations of roboticism and alienation. I think I’ll ultimately want to find another.

  • computer-supported attention? computer-augmented attention? (vague)
  • attention playbooks (too static in implication)
  • cybernetic attention (slightly more accurate, maybe, but also with unpleasant connotations)
  • Michael has also suggested “designed attention” / “designer attention” and (2022-11-15) “algorithmic attention.”
    • I like that “designer attention” evokes “designer drugs”—altered states of consciousness, superpowers—in addition to implying a wide possibility space for inventing arrangements of attention.
    • “Algorithmic attention” places emphasis on the authored arrangement of the attention—the attention algorithm. Relative to other terms, “algorithm” also imples a more hands-off relationship, and perhaps opacity.

Maybe it’s better to focus on finding great terms for specific instantiations of programmable attention—e.g. “coordinated attention” for ideas around collective intelligence, etc.


The concept and term come from Michael Nielsen, in conversations from ~2018—I’ve forgotten the details, unfortunately.

Correspondence with Igor Dvorkin, 2020-05-12

Coaching is paying someone to program your attention