Tag Archives: attention

79 Theses on Technology:
The Spectrum of Attention

“We should evaluate our investments of attention,” Jacobs urges in Thesis #7, “at least as carefully and critically as our investments of money.” But we will be in a better position to undertake such an evaluation when we understand exactly what we are talking about when we talk about attention, which is a word that—despite its importance—is never defined by Jacobs in the 79 Theses.

It’s easy to assume that “attention” is experienced in the same way by everyone. But as Matthew Crawford’s recent work has argued, attention has been imagined, and thus experienced, differently over time. Attention names various states or activities that we might do well to distinguish.

We can define attention first as “intently focusing on one object or task.” Reading a long, demanding text is a one example of this kind of attention. This sort of attention is the subject of Nicholas Carr’s Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”: “Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy,” Carr notes, but now “my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text.”

I suspect many of us share Carr’s experience. Not unlike the Apostle Paul, we lament, “What I want to pay attention to, I cannot. What I do not want to pay attention to, to that I do.” This failure to direct our attention presents itself as a failure of the will, and it assumes at some level that I am, as an autonomous subject, responsible for this failure (for more on this point, I suggest Chad Wellmon’s exchange with Jacobs).

But sometimes we talk about attention in a slightly different way; we speak of it as openness to the world, without any particular focal point. Sometimes the language of presence is used to articulate this kind of attention: Are we living in the moment? It is also the sort of attention that is advocated by proponents of “mindfulness,” to which Jacobs devoted two theses:

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.

13. The only mindfulness worth cultivating will be teleological through and through.

On the surface, the two ways of talking about attention that I’ve outlined attention contradict each other. Directed attention is inconceivable without an object (mental or material) to sustain it, but no object would appear apart from an already existing form of attention.

Much depends on what exactly is meant by “mindfulness,” but I think we might be able to preserve a valuable distinction while still heeding Jacobs’s critique. If “mindfulness” functions, for instance, as a clearing of mental space in order to make directed attention possible, then the telos of mindfulness would be directed attention itself.

Attention as Dance

We can think of attention as a dance whereby we both lead and are led. This image suggests that receptivity and directedness do indeed work together. The proficient dancer knows when to lead and when to be led, and she also knows that such knowledge emerges out of the dance itself. This analogy reminds us, as well, that attention is the unity of body and mind making its way in a world that can be solicitous of its attention. The analogy also raises a critical question: How ought we conceive of attention given that we are  embodied creatures?

Maurice Merleau-Ponty can help us here. In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty discusses the shortcomings of both empiricist and intellectualist (rationalist) approaches to attention and makes the following observation: “Empiricism does not see that we need to know what we are looking for, otherwise we would not go looking for it; intellectualism does not see that we need to be ignorant of what we are looking for, or, again, we would not go looking for it.”

This simultaneous knowing and not-knowing seems to me another way of talking about attention as both openness to the world and as a directed work of the mind. It is a work of both receptivity, of perceiving the world as a gift, and care, of willfully and lovingly attending to particular aspects of the world. And, as Merleau-Ponty goes on to argue, attention is also a form of embodied perception that construes the world as much as it registers it. In this sense, our attention is never merely picking out items in the world (see Crawford on this idea); rather, attention is always interpreting the world in keeping with the desires and demands of an embodied being at a particular moment.

To a hiker on a long walk, for example, a stone is a thing to step around and is registered as such without conscious mental effort. It is attended to by the body in motion more than by the cogitating mind. To a geologist on a walk, on the other hand, a stone may become an object of urgent intellectual inquiry.

Both of these instances of perceiving-as result from subjective prior experience. The expert hiker moves along at a steady pace making countless adjustments and course corrections as a matter of bodily habit. The geologist, likewise, has trained his perception through hours of intellectual labor. In either situation, a novice might fail to hike as adroitly or notice the geologically interesting stone. Merleau-Ponty calls this repertoire of possible perceptions the “intentional arc,” which subtends “the life of consciousness—cognitive life, the life of desire or perceptual life.”

This example suggests two poles of attention, bodily and mental. But these are not mutually exclusive binaries. Rather, they constitute a spectrum of possibilities from the dominance of conscious mental activity on one end to the other end where non-conscious bodily activity is paramount. Consider the person lost deep in thought or a daydream. This person is deeply attentive, but not to his surroundings or to sensory information. Such a person would have to be called back to an awareness of their body and their surroundings.

By contrast, we may imagine the athlete, musician, or dancer who is, to borrow Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s formulation, “in the flow.” Like the thinker or daydreamer, they, too, are in a state of deep attention, but in a different mode. Conscious thought would, in fact, disrupt their state of attention. We may complicate this picture even further by observing how the hiker “in the flow” might be lost in thought and remain an expert navigator of the terrain.

Attention Mediated Through Technology

But where does technology fit into our model? That is, after all, where we began and where Jacobs directs our attention. Perhaps there’s another spectrum intersecting with the one running from the bodily to the mental: one that runs from mediated to unmediated forms of attention.

Consider our hiker one more time. Imagine that she is now equipped with a walking stick. Aspects of her attending to the world through which she makes her way are now mediated by the walking stick. Of course, the walking stick is an adept tool for this particular context and extends the hiker’s perceptions in useful ways. (It would be very different, for instance, if the hiker were walking about with a garden hose.)

Imagine, however, giving the hiker a different tool: a smartphone. The smartphone mediates perception as well. In the act of taking a picture, for example, the landscape is seen through the lens. But a subtler act of mediation is at work even when the smartphone’s camera is not in use. Smartphone in hand, the hiker might now perceive the world as field of possible images. This may, for example, direct attention up from the path toward the horizon, causing even our experienced hiker to stumble.

We may be tempted to say that the hiker is no longer paying attention, that the device has distracted her. But this is, at best, only partly true. The hiker is still paying attention. But her attention is of a very different sort than the “in the flow” attention of a hiker on the move. Without the smartphone in hand, the hiker might not stumble—but she might not notice a particularly striking vista either.

So along one axis, we range from bodily to mental forms of attention. Along the other, we range from mediated to unmediated forms of attention. (Granted that our attention is never, strictly speaking, absolutely unmediated.) This yields a range of possibilities among the following categories: “bodily mediated,” “bodily unmediated,” “mental mediated,” and “mental unmediated.” (Consider the following as ideal types in each case: the musician, the dancer, the scientist, and the philosopher.)

sacasas graph

How does conceiving of attention in this way help us?

This schema yields a series of questions we may ask as we seek to evaluate our investments of attention. What kind of attention is required in this context? To what aspects of the world does a device invite me to pay attention? Does a device or tool encourage mental forms of attention when the context is better suited to bodily forms of attention? Is a device or tool encouraging me to direct my attention, when attentive openness would be more useful? What device or tool would best help me deploy the kind of attention required by the task before me?

The result of this exploration has been to break up the opposition of device to attention. An opposition, I should say, I don’t think Jacobs himself advocates. Instead, my hope is to expand our conceptual tool kit so that we might make better judgments regarding our devices and our attention to the world.

L.M. Sacasas is a doctoral candidate in the Texts and Technology program at the University of Central Florida. Follow him on Twitter @frailestthing.

Photo: Heinrich Vogeler, Sehnsucht (Träumerei), c.1900, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

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79 Theses on Technology: Jacobs Responds to Wellmon

 La transverbération de Sainte Thérèse, 1672, by Josefa de Óbidos, Eglise (Igreja Matriz) de Cascais Josefa de Óbidos [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Let me zero in on what I think is the key paragraph in my friend Chad Wellmon’s response to some of my theses:

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.

I want to begin by responding to that last sentence by saying: Yes, and it is an opportunity you can take only by ceding the sovereignty of self, by choosing (“willfully”) to allow someone else to occupy your attention, rather than insisting on setting your own course. This is something most of us find it hard to do, which is why Simone Weil says “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” And yet it is our choice whether or not to practice that generosity.

I would further argue that, in most cases, we manage to cede the “right” to our attention to others—when we manage to do that—only because we have disciplined and habituated ourselves to such generosity. Chad’s example of St. Teresa is instructive in this regard, because by her own account her ecstatic union with God followed upon her long practice of rigorous spiritual exercises, especially those prescribed by Francisco de Osuna in his Tercer abecedario espiritual (Third Spiritual Alphabet) and by Saint Peter of Alcantara in his Tractatus de oratione et meditatione (Treatise on Prayer and Meditation). Those ecstatic experiences were a free gift of God, Teresa thought, but through an extended discipline of paying attention to God she had laid the groundwork for receptivity to them.

(I’m also reminded here of the little experiment the violinist Joshua Bell tried in 2007, when he pretended to be a busker playing in a D.C. Metro station. Hardly anyone noticed, but those who did were able to do so because of long experience in listening to challenging music played beautifully.)

In my theses I am somewhat insistent on employing economic metaphors to describe the challenges and rewards of attentiveness, and in so doing I always had in mind the root of that word, oikonomos (οἰκονόμος), meaning the steward of a household. The steward does not own his household, any more than we own our lifeworld, but rather is accountable to it and answerable for the decisions he makes within it. The resources of the household are indeed limited, and the steward does indeed have to make decisions about how to distribute them, but such matters do not mark him as a “sovereign self” but rather the opposite: a person embedded in a social and familial context within which he has serious responsibilities. But he has to decide how and when (and whether) to meet those responsibilities. So, too, the person embedded in an “attention economy.”

In this light I want to question Weil’s notion of attention as a form of generosity. It can be that, of course. In their recent biography Becoming Steve Jobs, Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli tell a lovely story about a memorial service for Jobs during which Bill Gates ignored the high-powered crowd and spent the entire time in a corner talking with Jobs’s daughter about horses. That, surely, is attention as generosity. But in other circumstances attention may not be a free gift but a just rendering—as can happen when my son wants my attention while I am reading or watching sports on TV. This is often a theme in the religious life, as when the Psalmist says “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name,” or in a liturgical exchange: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” “It is meet and right so to do.”

There is, then, such a thing as the attention that is proper and adequate to its object. Such attention can only be paid if attention is withheld from other potential objects of our notice or contemplation: The economy of our attentional lifeworld is a strict one. But I would not agree with Chad that this model “levies an impossible burden of self mastery”; rather, it imposes the difficult burden of wisely and discerningly distributing my attention in ways that are appropriate not to myself qua self but to the “household” in which I am embedded and to which I am responsible.

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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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