May I Have Your Attention, Please?
- 8 Curations & 2 Videos for July 2023
- The Assimilating Database: Is Resistance Futile?
- 7 Curations, 2 Videos & a Mind Map for August 2023
- Our Technologies of Attention: Narrative & Database in Tension
those seeking to pay attention to life, the universe, and what matters
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Welcome back to our exploration of identity, authenticity, and technologies of attention and meaning-making. We’ve been wandering through fields of story and algorithm, of attention, uniqueness, and what it means to develop an authentic identity in the midst of the Database-ification of contemporary life.
The core claim1 of this meandering series is that narratives are the foundation of human identity: a coherent, reliable character sustained over time. The connection of sequential, significant moments into a temporal chain of meaning—a story—is a universal skill and experience of being human, and of becoming ourselves.
The question of authenticity that motivated these explorations—what motivates our intense drive toward defining ourselves as authentically unique and uniquely authentic—spawned the framing of Narrative and Database as ways of making sense of life, and for extending who we are into the world. The Borg also appeared as an analogy that helps us understand what happens to narrative sequence when we can no longer cultivate meaningful connections between significant (to us) points of data.
Last month, we explored how the Database fractures and subsumes Narrative. We started to question how this affects our capacity for paying attention, and how this sets us up to form and sustain our identities. We further refined our understanding of Narrative and Database as technologies of attention, where:
Narrative is a technology that forms our attention toward coherence, reliability, and fidelity.
Database is a technology that forms our attention toward instability, fracturing, and contingency.
If Narrative is our key technology for attending to and making meaning out of what’s happening around us, for defining and extending who we are into the world, then trying to do this within the predominant environment of the proliferating Database requires us to create ourselves almost ex nihilo.
It forces us to cobble together whatever bits of data happen to snag our awareness at the moment so that we can improvise tentative, contingent, and temporary narratives that carry us to the next moment, where we do it all over again with whatever data happens to be in our field of awareness.
It requires us to seek out—pay attention to—the unique and the singular (what escapes the Database) as a marker of an authentic identity.
This month, I’d like to begin exploring attention. Let’s start with trying to understand what it is.
A Glossary Note
I’ve decided that, rather than using “data” or “events” or “objects,” I’m going with the word “significance” or “significances” to describe those things that stand out in our minds as worthy of remembering and mentioning. Significances are those objects (whatever their form) that we consciously or subconsciously decide become the anchors upon which we build our narratives (or string our connections and linkages).
What is Attention?
Let’s begin with a working understanding of attention. I don’t want to be accused of pulling a Humpty Dumpty, so what exactly do we mean when we use this word?
Merriam-Webster offers the following definitions:
- the act or state of applying the mind to something
- a condition of readiness for such attention involving especially a selective narrowing or focusing of consciousness and receptivity
So far, I think this is what most of us would say if we got stopped to give a “person on the street” answer. But let’s keep going.
In The Wandering Mind, her fascinating survey of how early Christian monks dealt with the problem of distraction, or the lack of attention, Jamie Kreiner observes that they often described it as a mental detour that could sometimes be a good thing. But usually those men and women saw a lack of attention as something you “didn’t want to do, and being drawn into thoughts you didn’t want to have.”2 Their contemporaries the Stoics called distraction perispasmos (which is just hella fun to say), and located it externally, in the demands, obligations, and administration of daily life.3 So the problem of attention, or the lack thereof, is an old one, no matter what devices or distractions we have at hand.
Leap-frogging ahead a few centuries, nineteenth-century psychologist William James defined attention as “the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought […]. [Attention] implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.” He further observes that, though there exist millions of objects that our senses could potentially perceive, they “never properly enter into [our] experience. Why? Because they have no interest for [us]. [Our] experience is what [we] agree to attend to.”
Commenting further on James’ observations, ethicist James Williams and artist-educator Jenny Odell each highlight this emphasis on the human will: the ability to hold the object of our attention in mind by consistently toggling between wandering from and returning to it. Odell suggests that attention also implies alignment, where our minds and even bodies act “in concert and oriented toward the same thing.”4 In this, James, Odell, and Williams echo those early Christian monks, some of whom thought that the will, though it could be a motivating force for attention, more often fell back on “what was most appealing or expedient or comfortable, rather than what was most beneficial.”5
If we don’t exert some effort, our attention simply fills up with stuff, following whatever stimuli ping our awareness. We might understand attention being as much like a weather-vane as it is a spotlight.
In his conversation with Sean Illing on The Gray Area podcast, Mike Sacasas points out that attention can be thought of in a couple of ways: as (possibly) a spotlight on some object (whether external or internal); or, as an openness to experience, a willing receptivity of potential significances. Sacasas and also Odell highlight the etymology of attention/attending and its roots in the Latin word attendere, which is often translated as “stretching toward” something.6 This understanding of attention sees it as a form of curiosity, as a means of engagement with or caring for others and the world around us.
But there are also different types of attention, because not everything requires the same heightened level or duration of awareness. We can have transitory attention that is “quick, superficial, and often involuntarily provoked,” the “weather-vane” kind (which is a great deal of what we encounter in the world, and what most social media and advertising relies on these days). Or we can also have sustained attention that is “deep, long-lasting, and voluntary,” the “spotlight” kind.7 Professor Sönke Ahrens has also described focused and floating attention. We engage the former when we’re deeply engaged in analysis or execution, the latter when we’re seeking solutions or experimenting with ideas.8
We often complain of being distracted because we want to concentrate: on an assignment, a task, a person or event. Here we can see attention as also a matter of desire as much as will: how much do we want to give time and awareness to that object? Distraction can serve as a signal of importance.9 It’s a good thing to notice cries for help in your immediate environment.
Attention begins with awareness, with the sensory or mental impingement of one thing out of a field of possible things. But it’s more than simple awareness. Attention also involves perception and judgement, which serve as filters for agreeing to the experience, for engaging one significance over another. Perception is shaped by who we ourselves are, our interests, preoccupations, and desires - we’ll notice what we’re already predisposed to notice. Then judgement ranks or prioritizes the worth or value of elevating objects of awareness to the level of significances. Attention requires a level of participation from us just as much as it operates on us.
So what can we take away from this whirlwind, not at all exhaustive, survey of attention?
I think the key insight is that there’s not just one kind or quality of attention, but rather, attention is a multifaceted capacity that helps us engage the world in different ways. It can serve as a spotlight of sustained and focused concentration. We can cultivate it as a posture of alignment, an orientation toward a single goal or activity. It can be an attitude of openness and curiosity toward the world. And it can be a passive field of awareness running in the background, constantly scanning our environment for potential objects.
Introducing The Problem of Exploited Attention
Tim Wu, in The Attention Merchants, observes that when the ubiquity of attention-harvesting (i.e., advertising) reaches a flashpoint, the audiences of such harvesting often revolt. If not revolt, we at least become very disenchanted with the methods and means of having our attentions constantly diverted “without our consent.” He points out that “behind such impassioned backlash is very often an awareness that the exploitation of human awareness is in some deeper way the exploitation of our persons.”10 Mike Sacasas says something similar when he observes that our “dominant technologies excel at exploiting our attention while simultaneously eroding our capacity to attend to the world.”
Attention opens us up to the diversity of reality. However. The Database forces a ridonkulous level of sensory impingement on our awareness, the speed and volume of which means we can only ever give these objects superficial and quick awareness. It’s the digital equivalent of flip-books: we’re only required to stare at one spot while our thumb activates the pages.
When we’re frustrated by our distraction, by our inability to “pay attention” to what we most wish to attend to, we’re recognizing that the bulk of our awareness is spent in the transitory, superficial, floating type of attention. We’re feeling the lack of flexibility, of balance in being able to effectively sort through the deluge of sensory input so that we can link significances together and make meaning.
What we’re objecting to is the constant hijacking of our passive field of awareness, and the relentless, incessant demand to decide RIGHT DAMN NOW whether or not this object is a significance.
No wonder we’re exhausted. Decision fatigue is real.
I haven’t quite sussed out where this exploration is taking us, so if you have thoughts or ideas, drop a comment or send me an email. Here’s to reclaiming all of our multifaceted attentions.
Let’s be hopeful, creative, and wise—together. Shalom, Megan.
Did this resonate with you? If so, and you think someone else in your life might enjoy it, please feel free to share!
1 Which I’ve liberated from other people who’ve already thought deeply about this.
2 Kreiner, pp. 4-5
3 Kreiner, p. 9
4 Odell, p. 81
5 Kreiner, p. 14
6 Odell, pp. 112-113
7 Wu, p. 125
8 Ahrens, p. 63.
If you’ve heard of convergent and divergent thinking, this is similar.
9 Or we could just be bored.
10 Wu, p. 23