Tag Archives: attention

Reclaiming Connections

Woman texting in coffee shop. The JH Photography via Flickr.

Sherry Turkle’s new book, Reclaiming Conversation, explores the damaging effect that our dependence on technology is having on face-to-face interactions. Joe Davis, the publisher of the Hedgehog Review, also recently wrote a piece on this same topic (you can read his insights here). As a “plugged-in” (or perpetually distracted) college kid, I found many of Turkle’s conclusions of special interest. Turkle reports a “40 percent decline in empathy among college students.” She links this decline to a growing fear of solitude. According to Turkle, my peers and I simply can’t stand sitting alone with our thoughts, and it’s hurting our capacity for intimacy.

Jonathan Franzen, back in the spotlight surrounding the release of his new novel Purity, has also taken note of Turkle’s findings. In his 2002 essay collection How To Be Alone, he wrote, “Technological consumerism is an infernal machine.”  Franzen echoes that line in his recent review of Turkle’s book, writing, “Digital technology is capitalism in hyperdrive, injecting its logic of consumption and promotion, of monetization and efficiency, into every waking minute.” Franzen has long embraced this extreme position as a technology naysayer. Here, he notes the negative impact of market pressures on our obsession with screens. We’ve already seen colleges shift their allotment of financial resources based on the trendy consumerism of their students, building up cafeterias and athletic facilities. Now, Turkle suggests, the entitlement to comfort and satisfaction has seeped into the gadgets we carry around, and is having a negative effect on how we treat each other. Texting, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and group-messaging apps compete for the time and emotional capital of students, at the expense of focused study and even basic conversational skills.

Most of the Hedgehog Review readership may feel that Turkle is addressing only college students. “But no, no, no,” say Turkle and Franzen: These are still areas of concern for everyone, especially in situations where we are struggling to listen attentively and to build the necessary foundations for interpersonal connection. For example, the failure of family conversation at mealtimes looks like this, according to Turkle:

Parents give their children phones. Children can’t get their parents’ attention away from their phones, so children take refuge in their own devices. Then, parents use their children’s absorption with phones as permission to have their own phones out as much as they wish.

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An Interview With Alan Jacobs

Poster for The Karate Kid (1984). Image from Snack to the Future.

Poster for The Karate Kid (1984). Image from Snack to the Future.

Over at The Infernal Machine, Chad Wellmon has been hosting a discussion of Dr. Alan Jacobs’s “79 Theses on Technology.” Jacobs also held a seminar here at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture to discuss his theses. We sent him some questions about his project, and he graciously took the time to answer them.

The Hedgehog Review: You’ve written seventy-nine aphorisms, or “theses for disputation,” on the Internet and technology more generally. Why this form? What does it open up about this particular topic?

Alan Jacobs: The form of the presentation—theses for disputation, as opposed to, say, an academic article—arises from a combination of humility and laziness. Humility because the disciplines relevant to the human experience of digital technology—psychology, sociology, theological anthropology, computer science, interaction design, neuroscience, behavioral economics, etc.—are so wildly varied that no one can possibly master (or even have an adequate familiarity with) them all, so that it makes sense to present one’s ideas as open to dispute or refutation. Laziness because I don’t have the time or energy to support all these ridiculous claims, and therefore will escape accountability by saying “I’m just interested in what you people think.”

THR: Thesis 1: “Everything begins with attention.” Every time I read this I go “hmmm…everything?” so I will ask: Everything?

AJ: Well…yes. If we’re thinking technology and personhood, and especially technologies of knowledge, in a context in which few if any technologies are definitively mandated—most of us could get jobs that did not involve the use of a computer if we really, really wanted to—then the best place to begin, I think, is by asking where my attention is going and why it’s going there.

THR: Thesis 26: “Digital textuality offers us the chance to restore commentary to its pre-modern place as the central scholarly genre.” A platform like Medium seems to be attempting to do just this, though on a popular level rather than a scholarly one. Is this representative of the direction you are hoping online publishing will go?

AJ: No. On Medium, commentary is definitely secondary. You don’t see the comments unless you specifically choose to click on them, and even then only the comments that are explicitly approved by the author. Medium is an extremely author-centered technology. (I understand why the designers took that direction, especially given that toxic wasteland that almost all comment threads have become. But still.) Continue reading

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Toward an Attentional Commons

Illustration © Lee Woodgate, The Hedgehog Review, Summer 2014.

Illustration © Lee Woodgate, The Hedgehog Review, Summer 2014.

Matthew Crawford, author of the bestselling Shop Class as Soulcraft and a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, touched on one of the key points of his forthcoming book, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), in a recent commentary for the New York Times:

Attention is a resource; a person has only so much of it. And yet we’ve auctioned off more and more of our public space to private commercial interests, with their constant demands on us to look at the products on display or simply absorb some bit of corporate messaging. Lately, our self-appointed disrupters have opened up a new frontier of capitalism, complete with its own frontier ethic: to boldly dig up and monetize every bit of private head space by appropriating our collective attention. In the process, we’ve sacrificed silence — the condition of not being addressed. And just as clean air makes it possible to breathe, silence makes it possible to think.

What if we saw attention in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource that we hold in common? Perhaps, if we could envision an “attentional commons,” then we could figure out how to protect it.

Crawford explored the intellectual genealogy of this crisis in his essay for our summer 2014 issue,  “How We Lost Our Attention.”

Crawford will discuss his book with media studies scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan on opening day (March 18) of the  Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, Virginia. Media.  The evening event is free and open to all, but advance registration is required.

Back issues of The Hedgehog Review‘s summer 2014 issue, Minding Our Minds, are available for $8.

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Are We Losing the Attention War?

“Like everyone else, I am losing the attention war,” writes columnist David Brooks in today’s New York Times. He goes on to cite a study reporting that 66 percent of American workers are unable to focus on one thing.

Is there any way to confront this growing epidemic of distraction and distractedness? Brooks points to the ideas of child psychologist Adam Phillips, who believes that we should encourage children to develop their innate capacity for obsession, in the best sense. And for that to happen, Phillips argues, children must feel they are in a safe environment:

“There’s something deeply important about the early experience of being in the presence of somebody without being impinged upon by their demands, and without them needing you to make a demand on them. And that this creates a space internally into which one can be absorbed. In order to be absorbed one has to feel sufficiently safe, as though there is some shield, or somebody guarding you against dangers such that you can ‘forget yourself’ and absorb yourself, in a book, say.”

16.2 cover FINAL_loPhillips’ ideas resonate strongly with the arguments that will be presented in the upcoming summer issue of The Hedgehog Review. The five essays that make up this issue’s theme—”Minding Our Minds”—take on many of the key questions associated with the current attention crisis: Have we lost our ability to focus? What do we mean by attention? Is there a breaking point in the seemingly ceaseless deluge of data, tweets, texts, and emails? Is there any connection between America’s epidemic of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and our deepest cultural assumptions and expectations, notably a relentless emphasis on performance in all aspects of life? How is this deeper deficit affecting our humanity? Are there antidotes, cures, solutions—or are we simply in the middle of adjusting to technological upgrades, a transition masquerading as a problem? If drowning in information overload is indeed a problem, as nefarious as pollution, should we consider regulating it—and how?

To grapple with these questions, we have invited several scholars, including Matthew Crawford, Mark Edmundson, and Thomas Pfau, to examine aspects of our attention disorder that seldom receive careful consideration. As they show in various ways, attention may be far less a technological or neurobiological problem than a cultural, ethical, and philosophical one, bound up with our deepest ideas about the human person and the goals or purposes of our lives.

The summer issue will arrive in subscribers’ mailboxes (or inboxes, for those who choose the digital version) in July. To subscribe or renew, click here. 

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Is the Distracted Life Worth Living?

Philosophy is something close to a national pastime in France, a fact reflected not just in the celebrity status of its big thinkers but also in the interest its media show in the subject.  So perhaps it’s not surprising that several French publications recently sent correspondents, interviewers, and even philosophers to the Richmond, Va. motorcycle repair shop of Matthew Crawford, mechanic, philosopher, and a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Matthew Crawford

Matthew Crawford

They  came not only to follow up on points raised in Crawford’s last and best-selling book, Shop Class As Soulcraft: An inquiry into the Value of Work, but also to draw him out on some of the themes of his forthcoming book on the subject of attention, and particularly the cultural dimensions of what might be called our universal Attention Deficit Disorders.  For Crawford,  the two books advance a common concern with mental ecology under the conditions of modernity, and how the challenges to that ecology might be countered by a restored regard for– and a renewed cultivation of– the discipines, practices, and rituals that once gave meaning to everyday life and work.

Jean-Baptiste Jacquin of Le Monde asked Crawford what he means when he says his next book will treat the political economy of attention.  Crawford’s reply (with apologies for my own translation):

Political economy concerns itself with the way certain resources are shared and distributed.   Now, attention is an extremely important resource, as important as the time we each have at our disposal.  Attention is a good, but it is rapidly depleted by a public space saturated with technologies that are dedicated to capturing it…The book I am writing is a warning against the massification of our spirit.  To have any intellectual originality, you must be able to extend a line of reasoning very far.  And to do that, you have to protect yourself against an array of external distractions.

Jacquin pressed Crawford on what specific things people might do to counter the endless demands being put on our attention.  Having a fuller cultural consciousness of the problem is one thing that may help, Crawford suggested.  And engaging in activities that structure our attention is another:

I think manual work, almost any form of manual work,  is a remedy.  Cooking, for example. To prepare a fine meal requires a high level of concentration.  Everything you do at each stage of preparation depends directly on the activity itself and on the objects, the ingredients.

In a dialogue between Crawford and French philosopher Cynthia Fleurry arranged by Madame Figaro , Crawford got into the question of autonomy and its connections with attention:

We have a vision of autonomy that is overly liberal,  almost a caricature of itself, in that we take it to imply a kind of self-enclosure.  Attention is precisely the faculty that pulls us out of our own head and joins us to the world.  Attention, perhaps, is the antidote to narcissism….

The ironic and toxic result of advertising and other information saturating the environment is, Crawford explained, to isolate the self, to flatter it with delusions of its autonomy and agency.  Children grow up pressing buttons and things happen, he elaborated, but they never acquire real mastery over the world of things.  They can only make things happen by clicking buttons. “And there you have it,”  said Crawford , “an autonomy that is autism. ”

An even more intensive discussion of manual work, contrasted with the abstract, symbol-manipulating work that employs more and more people,  appears in the November issue of Philosophie Magazine, with Crawford exchanging thoughts with philosopher Pascal Chabot, author of Global Burn-out (2013).   Crawford nicely summed up what might be lost to all those symbol-manipulators who think of themselves as master of the universe even as they lose a fundamental knowledge of their world:

What anthropology, neurobiology, and common sense teach us is that it’s difficult to penetrate to the sense of things without taking them in hand. …It is not through representations of things but by manipulating them that we know the world.  To say it another way, what is at the heart of human experience is our individual agency:  our capacity to act on the world and to judge the effects of our action….But the organization of work and our consumerist culture increasingly deprive us of this experience. American schools,  beginning in the 1990s, dismantled shop classes–which for me had been the most  intellectually stimulating classes—in favor of introductory computer classes, thus fostering the idea that the world had become a kind of scrim of information over which it was sufficient to glide. But in fact dealing with the world this way makes it opaque and mysterious, because the surface experience doesn’t require our intervention but instead cultivates our passivity and dependence.   That has political consequences.  If you don’t feel you can have a real effect on the world, then you don’t believe you have any real responsibility for it. I believe that the depoliticization we are witnessing in the modern world comes from this sense of a lack of agency. The financial crisis is another alarming symptom of the problem:  A trader makes a choice that will have an effect in three years and thousands of miles away.  The consequences of his action are a matter of indifference to him.  By contrast, repairing a motorcycle doesn’t allow you to have that kind of detachment.  If it doesn’t start, your failure jumps out at you and you know who is responsible.  In teaching you that it is not easy to ignore consequences, manual work provides a kind of moral education which also benefits intellectual activity.   

The Hedgehog Review will take up the subject of attention in its summer issue, and Crawford will be one of the featured contributors.

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