Tag Archives: distraction

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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Compared to What?

Rows of people at the movie on their phonts

(credit: iStock)

Rutgers University professor Keith Hampton, profiled in a recent New York Times Magazine article,  challenges the claims of fellow social scientists such as MIT’s Sherry Turkle that digital technologies are driving us apart:

Hampton found that, rather than isolating people, technology made them more connected. “It turns out the wired folk — they recognized like three times as many of their neighbors when asked,” Hampton said. Not only that, he said, they spoke with neighbors on the phone five times as often and attended more community events. Altogether, they were much more successful at addressing local problems, like speeding cars and a small spate of burglaries. They also used their Listserv to coordinate offline events, even sign-ups for a bowling league. Hampton was one of the first scholars to marshal evidence that the web might make people less atomized rather than more. Not only were people not opting out of bowling leagues — Robert Putnam’s famous metric for community engagement — for more screen time; they were also using their computers to opt in.

For Hampton, what debates and research about the effects of digital technologies on our lives so often lack is historical perspective.

We’re really bad at looking back in time,” Hampton said, speaking of his fellow sociologists. “You overly idealize the past. It happens today when we talk about technology. We say: ‘Oh, technology, making us isolated. We’re disengaged.’ Compared to what? You know, this kind of idealized notion of what community and social interactions were like.” He crudely summarized his former M.I.T. colleague Sherry Turkle’s book “Alone Together.” “She said: ‘You know, today, people standing at a train station, they’re all talking on their cellphones. Public spaces aren’t communal anymore. No one interacts in public spaces.’ I’m like: ‘How do you know that? We don’t know that. Compared to what? Like, three years ago?’

Although the merits of Hampton’s particular study can be debated, he makes an important point when he asks simply, “compared to what?” Those who make arguments about technology’s deleterious effects on our ability to converse with one another, to pay attention, or to read closely usually presume some way that we ought to talk to each other, that we ought to attend to a given object or event, or that we ought to read.

And maybe these critics are right; perhaps we ought carry on in the ways they presume we should. But appealing to history to make these normative claims is a much trickier move.  History is fraught and full of bad conversation, distraction, and poor readers.

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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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