Monthly Archives: March 2015

79 Theses on Technology: On Attention

“Everything,” claims Alan Jacobs in 79 Theses on Technology, “begins with attention.” Throughout his theses, Jacobs describes attention as a resource to be managed. We “pay,” “refuse,” and “invest” attention. Behind these distributive acts is a purposeful, willful agent. I can choose whether to “give” attention to writing this post or “withhold” it from my eleven-year-old son (who wants me to explain what the Turing test is). The idea that I can allocate attention as I could any other resource or good suggests that attention is fungible. I’ve got a limited store of attention, and I have to decide when and where to expend it. It’s as though I wake up every day with 100 units of attention. And it’s up to me manage them well.

If attention is a good that I can spend well or badly, then it is under my control. I could, on such an account, also lose my attention, in the same way that I lose my keys. And this distributive notion of attention seems to underpin many of our contemporary anxieties about our current moment of digital distraction. The constant notifications from Twitter, Facebook, and my iPhone are all greedy consumers of my attention. If I were just focused, I could assert my powers of distribution and maintain control of my limited units of attention. I would be able to decide exactly which among the myriad objects clamoring for my attention deserves it.

Underpinning Jacobs’ distributive model of attention is an assumption that some general mental faculty, a particular power of the mind, exists that can manage this precious resource. The power of attention—just like other traditional faculties such as reason, memory, imagination, or will—is a latent capacity that needs to be disciplined in order to become fully actual and susceptible to manipulation. It’s like a muscle that needs to be exercised. And if I engage in the right kinds of exercises—maybe if I read really long novels in one sitting or dismantle the WiFi on my laptop—then I can become the master of my own mind. I can be free and in control of who and what can enjoy the benefits of my limited attention. For Jacobs, then, attention is attention, regardless of the object I’m “investing” it in. And my task is to cultivate better habits of managing and controlling my attention.

Jacobs’ suggestion that attention is a mental power that we distribute here or there or anywhere makes sense in certain circumstances. When I engage in discrete tasks, I can think of attention as a limited good that requires tight control and manipulation. If I try to follow my Twitter feed, read a book, and write an article, then I won’t do any of those things well. If I refuse attention to Twitter and the book, however, I may well be able to finish a paragraph.

But this image of a sovereign self governing an internal economy of attention is a poor description of other experiences of the world and ourselves. In addition, it levies an impossible burden of self mastery. A distributive model of attention cuts us off, as Matt Crawford puts it, from the world “beyond [our] head.” It suggests that anything other than my own mind that lays claim to my attention impinges upon my own powers to willfully distribute that attention. My son’s repeated questions about the Turing test are a distraction, but it might also be an unexpected opportunity to engage the world beyond my own head.

If we conceive of attention as simply the activity of a willful agent managing her units of attention, we foreclose theThe Ecstasy of Saint Theresa possibility of being arrested or brought to attention by something fully outside ourselves. We foreclose, for example,
the possibility of an ecstatic attention and the possibility that we can be brought to attention by a particular thing beyond our will, a source beyond our own purposeful, willful action.

Consider, for example, Bernini’s sculptural ensemble in the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, “The Ecstasy of Teresa.” Bernini has given us an image of complete attention and devotion, but one in which the agency of the will has been relinquished. Or consider the more mundane example of the first bud on a dogwood, wholly unexpected after a cold, icy winter. It surprises me by alerting me to a world beyond my own well-managed economy of attention. And, perhaps more perversely, what about all those shiny red notifications on my iPhone that take hold of me? If I imagine myself as master of my digital domain, I’m going to hate myself.

I know Jacobs is acutely aware of the limitations of such a distributive model of attention. He asks, for example, in Thesis 9, whether different phenomena require different forms of attention. There are, he suggests, different ways to attend to particular objects at particular moments—without “giving” or “paying” attention. And it’s these other forms, in which an agent doesn’t simply manage her attention, that seem just as crucial to making sense of how we inhabit our world.

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79 Theses on Technology. For Disputation.

Alan Jacobs has written seventy-nine theses on technology for disputation. A disputation is an old technology, a formal technique of debate and argument that took shape in medieval universities in Paris, Bologna, and Oxford in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In its most general form, a disputation consisted of a thesis, a counter-thesis, and a string of arguments, usually buttressed by citations of Aristotle, Augustine, or the Bible.

But disputations were not just formal arguments. They were public performances that trained university students in how to seek and argue for the truth. They made demands on students and masters alike. Truth was hard won; it was to be found in multiple, sometimes conflicting traditions; it required one to give and recognize arguments; and, perhaps above all, it demanded an epistemic humility, an acknowledgment that truth was something sought, not something produced.

It is, then, in this spirit that Jacobs offers, tongue firmly in cheek, his seventy-nine theses on technology and what it means to inhabit a world formed by it. They are pithy, witty, ponderous, and full ofDisputation-300x295 life. And over the following weeks, we at the Infernal Machine will take Jacobs’ theses at his provocative best and dispute them. We’ll take three or four at a time and offer our own counter-theses in a spirit of generosity.

So here they are:

    1. Everything begins with attention.
    2. It is vital to ask, “What must I pay attention to?”
    3. It is vital to ask, “What may I pay attention to?”
    4. It is vital to ask, “What must I refuse attention to?”
    5. To “pay” attention is not a metaphor: Attending to something is an economic exercise, an exchange with uncertain returns.
    6. Attention is not an infinitely renewable resource; but it is partially renewable, if well-invested and properly cared for.
    7. We should evaluate our investments of attention at least as carefully and critically as our investments of money.
    8. Sir Francis Bacon provides a narrow and stringent model for what counts as attentiveness: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”
    9. An essential question is, “What form of attention does this phenomenon require? That of reading or seeing? That of writing also? Or silence?”
    10. Attentiveness must never be confused with the desire to mark or announce attentiveness. (“Can I learn to suffer/Without saying something ironic or funny/On suffering?”—Prospero, in Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror)
    11. “Mindfulness” seems to many a valid response to the perils of incessant connectivity because it confines its recommendation to the cultivation of a mental stance without objects.
    12. That is, mindfulness reduces mental health to a single, simple technique that delivers its user from the obligation to ask any awkward questions about what his or her mind is and is not attending to.
    13. The only mindfulness worth cultivating will be teleological through and through.
    14. Such mindfulness, and all other healthy forms of attention—healthy for oneself and for others—can only happen with the creation of and care for an attentional commons.
    15. This will not be easy to do in a culture for which surveillance has become the normative form of care.
    16. Simone Weil wrote that ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’; if so, then surveillance is the opposite of attention.
    17. The primary battles on social media today are fought by two mutually surveilling armies: code fetishists and antinomians.
    18. The intensity of those battles is increased by a failure by any of the parties to consider the importance of intimacy gradients.
    19. “And weeping arises from sorrow, but sorrow also arises from weeping.”—Bertolt Brecht, writing about Twitter
    20. We cannot understand the internet without perceiving its true status: The Internet is a failed state.
    21. We cannot respond properly to that failed-state condition without realizing and avoiding the perils of seeing like a state.
    22. If instead of thinking of the internet in statist terms we apply the logic of subsidiarity, we might be able to imagine the digital equivalent of a Mondragon cooperative.
    23. The internet groans in travail as it awaits its José María Arizmendiarrieta.

    24. Useful strategies of resistance require knowledge of technology’s origin stories.
    25. Building an alternative digital commons requires reimagining, which requires renarrating the past (and not just the digital past).
    26. Digital textuality offers us the chance to restore commentary to its pre-modern place as the central scholarly genre.
    27. Recent technologies enable a renewal of commentary, but struggle to overcome a post-Romantic belief that commentary is belated, derivative.
    28. Comment threads too often seethe with resentment at the status of comment itself. “I should be the initiator, not the responder!”
    29. Only a Bakhtinian understanding of the primacy of response in communication could genuinely renew online discourse.
    30. Nevertheless certain texts will generate communities of comment around them, communities populated by the humbly intelligent.
    31. Blessed are they who strive to practice commentary as a legitimate, serious genre of responsiveness to others’ thoughts.
    32. And blessed also are those who discover how to write so as to elicit genuine commentary.
    33. Genuine commentary is elicited by the scriptural but also by the humble—but never by the (insistently) canonical.
    34. “Since we have no experience of a venerable text that ensures its own perpetuity, we may reasonably say that the medium in which it survives is commentary.”—Frank Kermode
    35. We should seek technologies that support the maximally beautiful readerly sequence of submission, recovery, comment.
    36. If our textual technologies promote commentary but we resist it, we will achieve a Pyrrhic victory over our technologies.

    37. “Western literature may have more or less begun, in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, with a lengthy account of a signal crossing space, and of the beacon network through whose nodes the signal’s message (that of Troy’s downfall) is relayed—but now, two and a half millennia later, that network, that regime of signals, is so omnipresent and insistent, so undeniably inserted or installed at every stratum of existence, that the notion that we might need some person, some skilled craftsman, to compose any messages, let alone incisive or ‘epiphanic’ ones, seems hopelessly quaint.”—Tom McCarthy
    38. To work against the grain of a technology is painful to us and perhaps destructive to the technology, but occasionally necessary to our humanity.
    39. “Technology wants to be loved,” says Kevin Kelly, wrongly: But we want to invest our technologies with human traits to justify our love for them.
    40. Kelly tells us “What Technology Wants,” but it doesn’t: We want, with technology as our instrument.
    41. The agency that in the 1970s philosophers & theorists ascribed to language is now being ascribed to technology. These are evasions of the human.
    42. Our current electronic technologies make competent servants, annoyingly capricious masters, and tragically incompetent gods.
    43. Therefore when Kelly says, “I think technology is something that can give meaning to our lives,” he seeks to promote what technology does worst.
    44. We try to give power to our idols so as to be absolved of the responsibilities of human agency. The more they have, the less we have.
    45. “In a sense there is no God as yet achieved, but there is that force at work making God, struggling through us to become an actual organized existence, enjoying what to many of us is the greatest conceivable ecstasy, the ecstasy of a brain, an intelligence, actually conscious of the whole, and with executive force capable of guiding it to a perfectly benevolent and harmonious end.”—George Bernard Shaw in 1907, or Kevin Kelly last week
    46. The cyborg dream is the ultimate extension of this idolatry: to erase the boundaries between our selves and our tools.
    47. Cyborgs lack humor, because the fusion of person and tool disables self-irony. The requisite distance from environment is missing.
    48. To project our desires onto our technologies is to court permanent psychic infancy.
    49. Though this does not seem to be widely recognized, the “what technology wants” model is fundamentally at odds with the “hacker” model.
    50. The “hacker” model is better: Given imagination and determination, we can bend technologies to our will.
    51. Thus we should stop thinking about “what technology wants” and start thinking about how to cultivate imagination and determination.
    52. Speaking of “what technology wants” is an unerring symptom of akrasia.
    53. The physical world is not infinitely redescribable, but if you had to you could use a screwdriver to clean your ears.
    54. The contemporary version of the pathetic fallacy is to attribute agency not to nature but to algorithms—as though humans don’t write algorithms. But they do.
    55. This epidemic of forgetting where algorithms come from is the newest version of “I for one welcome our new insect overlords.”
    56. It seems not enough for some people to attribute consciousness to algorithms; they must also grant them dominion.
    57. Perhaps Loki was right—and C. S. Lewis too: “I was not born to be free—I was born to adore and obey.”

    58. Any sufficiently advanced logic is indistinguishable from stupidity.—Alex Tabarrok
    59. Jaron Lanier: “The Turing test cuts both ways. You can’t tell if a machine has gotten smarter or if you’ve just lowered your own standards of intelligence to such a degree that the machine seems smart.”
    60. What does it say about our understanding of human intelligence that we think it is something that can be assessed by a one-off “test”—and one that is no test at all, but an impression of the moment?
    61. To attribute intelligence to something is to disclaim responsibility for its use.
    62. The chief purpose of technology under capitalism is to make commonplace actions one had long done painlessly seem intolerable.
    63. Embrace the now intolerable.
    64. Everyone should sometimes write by hand, to recall what it’s like to have second thoughts before the first ones are completely recorded.
    65. Everyone should sometimes write by hand, to revisit and refresh certain synaptic connections between mind and body.
    66. To shift from typing to (hand)writing to speaking is to be instructed in the relations among minds, bodies, and technologies.
    67. It’s fine to say “use the simplest technology that will do the job,” but in fact you’ll use the one you most enjoy using.
    68. A modern school of psychoanalysis should be created that focuses on interpreting personality on the basis of the tools that one finds enjoyable to use.
    69. Thinking of a technology as a means of pleasure may be ethically limited, but it’s much healthier than turning it into an idol.
    70. The always-connected forget the pleasures of disconnection, then become impervious to them.
    71. The Dunning-Kruger effect grows more pronounced when online and offline life are functionally unrelated.
    72. A more useful term than “Dunning-Kruger effect” is “digitally-amplified anosognosia.”
    73. More striking even than the anger of online commentary is its humorlessness. Too many people have offloaded their senses of humor to YouTube clips.
    74. A healthy comment thread is a (more often than not) funny comment thread.
    75. The protection of anonymity one reason why people write more extreme comments online than they would speak in person—but not the only one.
    76. The digital environment disembodies language in this sense: It prevents me from discerning the incongruity between my anger and my person.
    77. Consistent pseudonymity creates one degree of disembodiment; varying pseudonymity and anonymity create infinite disembodiment.
    78. On the internet nothing disappears; on the internet anything can disappear.
    79. “To apply a categorical imperative to knowing, so that, instead of asking, ‘What can I know?’ we ask, ‘What, at this moment, am I meant to know?’—to entertain the possibility that the only knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge we can live up to—that seems to all of us crazy and almost immoral.”—Auden

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