Handily, The Convival Society published a long and detailed post this weekend titled “Attending to the World (written by Michael Lacasas). By detailed, I mean I really don’t have the attention span for it but nonetheless I skimmed and pulled out some bits I wanted to share in a scatter-shot way. (You can also listen to it, 32 minutes). It’s got quite a lot of breadth, presenting a multitude of related subtopics that branch out infinitely.
If you want more on this topic (these topics), Lacasas links to quite a few articles and essays and to this rather long interview by Ezra Klein of Johann Hari, whose new book is titled Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—And How to Think Deeply Again. (Again, you can read the transcript or listen to the interview.) In it, Hari ” blames ‘big forces’, i.e., “the tech companies, who have designed their technologies with a view to capturing as much of our attention as possible,” for actually stealing our attention: “In his view, we live in a technological environment that is inhospitable to the cultivation of attentiveness.”
Of course people decrying our lousy attention spans is not new — but it’s not super-old, either:
“One reaction to learning that modern day attention discourse has longstanding antecedents would be to dismiss contemporary criticisms of the digital attention economy. The logic of such dismissals is not unlike that of the tale of Chicken Little. Someone is always proclaiming that the sky is falling, but the sky never falls. This is, in fact, a recurring trope in the wider public debate about technology. The seeming absurdity of some 19th-century pundit decrying the allegedly demoralizing consequences of the novel is somehow enough to ward off modern day critiques of emerging technologies. Interestingly, however, it’s often the case that the antecedents don’t take us back indefinitely into the human past. Rather, they often have a curiously consistent point of origin: somewhere in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. It’s almost as if some radical techno-economic re-ordering of society had occurred, generating for the first time a techno-social environment which was, in some respects at least, inhospitable to the embodied human person.”
Another thing to consider — that it’s not our devices per se that we’re addicted to but the witness and affirmation of our being that they, via the social media they propogate, provide us from other humans (hello, mimetic theory):
“What we meet at the other end of our digital devices is not just a bit of information or an entertaining video clip or a popular game. Our devices do not only mediate information and entertainment, they mediate relationships. As Alan Jacobs put it writing in “Habits of Mind in an Age of Distraction“: ‘… there is a relationship between distraction and addiction, but we are not addicted to devices […] we are addicted to one another, to the affirmation of our value — our very being — that comes from other human beings. We are addicted to being validated by our peers.’
“This is part of what lends the whole business a tragic aspect. The problem of distraction can just as well be framed as a problem of loneliness. Sometimes we turn thoughtlessly to our devices for mere distraction, something to help us pass the time or break up the monotony of the day, although the heightened frequency with which we may do so may certainly suggests the signs of compulsive behavior. Perhaps it is the case in such moments that we do not want to be alone with our thoughts. But perhaps just as often we simply don’t want to be alone. … We desire to … belong and to matter. Social media trades on these desires, exploits them, deforms them, and never truly satisfies them.”
The way technological platforms grab our attention is different from the way the natural world calls us: “[O]ur media environments aggressively beckon us in a way that an oak tree does not. The difference might be worth contemplating.”
Though natural, or non-human, environments, can suddenly and dramatically demand our attention, as when thunder claps or a rattlesnake rattles, usually they don’t “badger us or overwhelm our faculties in a manner that generates an experience of exhaustion or fatigue.” But
a human-built environment, a city block or a suburban strip mall, is “rich with symbolically encoded information” that solicits our attention forcefully:
“Literate people are compelled to read texts when they appear before them. If you know how to read and an arrangement of letters appears before you, you can hardly help but read them if you notice them (and, of course, they can be designed so as to lure or assault your attention). By contrast, naturally encoded information, such as might be available to us when we attend to how a clump of trees has grown on a hillside or the shape a stream has cut in the landscape does not necessarily impress itself upon us as significant in the literal sense of the word, as having meaning or indicating something to us. From this perspective, attention is bound up with forms of literacy. … So then, we might say that our attention is more readily elicited by that which presents itself as being somehow ‘for me,’ by that which, as Thomas de Zengotita has put it, flatters me by seeming to center the world on me. …
“When I hike in the woods, there’s a relative parity between my capacity to direct my attention, on the one hand, and capacity of the world around me to suddenly demand it of me on the other.”
From here Lacasas turns to the nature of attention — is it active and seeking, or is it receptive and waiting, an openness to what’s around us (or in us)?
Lacasas quotes Robert Zaretsky writing about “Simone Weil’s Radical Conception of Attention,” which conception of attention Zaretsky describes as “the canceling of our desires. … To attend means not to seek, but to wait; not to concentrate, but instead to dilate our minds. [This is reminiscent of Annie Dillard’s blurring, which I wrote about on Day 18.] We do not gain insights, Weil claims, by going in search of them, but instead by waiting for them.”
Then Lacasas asks the fundamental questions: “What is attention for?” and “What deserves our attention?” And when we’re distracted, “what are we distracted from?”
Do “long, challenging texts” deserve our attention? Well, maybe, some of them, but is this the end toward which we seek to hone our focus? He suggests, compellingly, that it “may be the problem is not that our attention is a scarce resource in a society that excels in generating compelling distractions, but rather that we have a hard time knowing what to give our attention to at any given moment.”
What deserves my attention? It’s a good thing to think about. As a start, I’d say the intricacies of the natural world (of which I’m part); the person or being in front of me, speaking or silent; whatever helps me to “live well with and for others.” And, a la Weil and Dillard, whatever speaks to me when I listen and wait, without desire or concentration.
Weil writes (quoted in the essay) that “there is a way of waiting, when we are writing, for the right word to come of itself at the end of our pen, while we merely reject all inadequate words.” I know that way of waiting well and it’s something I’ll always attend to.
In the linked Ezra Klein interview with Johann Hari, Hari says that he felt guilty for unplugging and going to Provicetown with the goal to “pay attention” only to find that he was just taking long walks, which made him feel “mentally fertile.” He spoke with a professor, Marcus Reichel, who told him that “mind-wandering [which is not uncommon when taking long walks] is a crucial form of attention. Mind-wandering is when you process things that have happened in the past, it’s when you anticipate the future, it’s when you make connections between things you’ve experienced. And what we’ve done in our culture is we’re in this awful state where we’re not doing spotlight focusing. We’re not deep focusing. But nor are we mind-wandering. What we’re doing is very quickly toggling between tasks. … We’re toggling, toggling, toggling. And one of the things that’s really been crowded out is mind-wandering.” Klein replies that now “we fill all of that loose time that might have, at another time, been reserved for mind-wandering, when our brain can make associations and come up with new ideas, we fill it with input. …. So at a time when I might have mind-wandered in another age, I look at Twitter, I play a quick video game on my phone.”
Input is not always the enemy of mind-wandering, in my experience, nor are games, puzzles, and the like. Often, when I scan newsletters and Instagram (but probably not Twitter or FB) I’m in a way blurring my vision, bringing in information and stimuli on a vague, fuzzy level, not really noticing anything particular amid the static until something makes a connection for me, the same kind of association that a wandering mind can surprise us with. I’m looking for something but I don’t know what, and I’m waiting, hoping, that it reveals itself to me. Until it does, I won’t know what I’m seeking.
And, when I’m playing a rote game on my phone, or doing a jigsaw puzzle (but not a crossword puzzle, usually), my thinking mind is likewise backgrounded. My senses are engaged, especially sight and touch when it comes to jigsaws, but there’s a lot of brain left wandering around on its own. My senses are effectively both focusing me (on the game or puzzle) and distracting me (from following or developing my other thoughts at any length) at the same time. It’s a bit meditative in that way — instead of coming back to focus on the breath when I notice that I’m following my storylines and thought clouds, I come back to the game or puzzle.
When playing a phone game, consciously I’m matching objects or doing anagrams, focusing on patterns, shapes, and colours, but while the conscious mind is preoccupied, the subconscious or unconscious is rummaging around off-leash and maybe, hopefully, connecting the things I’m not thinking about, just like dreams can do. (It may even be that my hyper-awareness of patterns when playing these games nudges other pattern-finding activity, conscious or not?)
For me, the key is not to toggle from one thing to another, or to multitask, but to focus that block of time on one activity — itself a distraction — that keeps part of the brain busy while releasing and allowing to wander the rest of it.
I think though that there may be a place for toggling as well. An experiment with Continuous Flash Suppression uses “light-bending glasses to show people different images in each eye. One eye gets a rapid succession of brightly coloured squares which are so distracting that when genuine information is presented to the other eye, the person is not immediately consciously aware of it. In fact, it can take several seconds for something that is in theory perfectly visible to reach awareness.”
In an experiment where the genuine information presented was arithmetic questions like 9 – 3 – 4 = , followed by a fully visible number that was either the correct or incorrect answer to the math problem, they found that “participants were significantly quicker to read the target number if it was the right answer rather than a wrong one. This shows that the equation had been processed and solved by their minds –– even though they had no conscious awareness of it –– meaning they were primed to read the right answer quicker than the wrong one.”
I can imagine that toggling quickly between Twitter, Facebook, a podcast, a conversation with a friend, etc., could provide enough conscious distraction to invoke the unconscious mind to comprehend something — some information, some connection or pattern, some significance — that the conscious mind alone couldn’t grasp.
Still, I try to avoid toggling like this, especially when a live person is involved, because I’m convinced that one of the most valuable gifts we can give is our full and open-hearted attention to the person (or animal, plant, etc.) in front of us.
Even if that person is part of a group on a screen, something I struggle with at times. For more on that, there’s a relevant recent essay by Alan Jacobs, professor of humanities at Baylor University (his article “Habits of Mind in an Age of Distraction” from June 2016 was mentioned in Lacasas’s essay) at The Hedgehog Review (8 Feb. 2022), “On Attentional Norms: The inevitability of Zooming while distracted.“ As a professor, he’s not chuffed to see half of his students obviously not giving him their full attention. I may post on this separately, but for now, I’ll end with this from Jacobs’ essay:
“My experience strongly suggests that the attention level expected on Zoom (and other videoconferencing platforms) is quite remarkably low—medieval-churchgoing low. Obviously, there will be exceptions to this norm—no one feels free to look away when the Boss is giving a speech—but I can’t remember the last time I was on a Zoom call in which participants were not regularly cutting their video and audio, or just their audio, to talk to people in the room with them. Or they just walk out of frame for a few minutes. Or they type away furiously on Slack or email or WhatsApp or iMessage. And no one who does this acts inappropriately, because such fidgeting and alternations of attention are permitted by the norms that have emerged.”
Featured image is a cartoon by Avi Steinberg.