The Convivial Society: Vol. 3, No. 2
A wonderful essay. I would add that our attention is also attenuated by the time-sense we currently experience. When time is viewed as a finite resource ("spent", "wasted", "lost", "saved", etc.) giving our attention to something or someone often feels carved out of the limited time we believe we have available.
The difference between the words "attention" and "attending" resonated deeply with me. Perhaps it has less to do with the definitions themselves than with the cultural context. In my personal context, "paying attention" is associated with passive (though intentional) intake of information. "Attending to" implies action, specifically a move toward the subject. When I spend time with my children, am I paying them my attention or attending to them? Am I engaging with them or am I observing them? It is a stark difference. To traffic in attention implies a helplessness to the intake of the information: "It was in front of me; I could not look away". To engage in attending implies agency. I intend to choose agency.
I love the essay. I find myself resisting the phrase (and the act) of “actively engaging the world.” I’d like to instead think of experiences in the world that are playable - that is, experiences I freely consent to having - that aren’t required for either my survival or are merely tasks related to the maintenance of my lifestyle as it exists. This is different from seeking to “game” or “gameify” experiences. The playable experience is best understood at its narrowest: for example, instead of just building a table, I am building a table to host a dinner party with 6 close friends. I won’t merely be engaged in the building, I will be designing the table as an integral part of the dinner party experience I am crafting. The boundaries of the experience are knowable; the experience is elastic (similar to the “stretching toward” something metaphor of giving/paying attention); the experience includes narrative, sensory, cognitive, and communicative stimulations.
All of this is to say that I think “engagement” is as much a theoretical trap as “attention.” Engagement as I understand it across disciplines is perhaps a keen form of attention, but it doesn’t account for consent to the extent it should.
As usual, another astonishing essay and a resource that will be revisited multiple times over.
I wanted to chime in on Pascal and technology-independent reasons for craving distraction, because this was a lesson I learned quite viscerally several years ago during a very deep and severe bout of depression - which happened to overlap an extended period where I was *not* on social media.
The reasons/context for that depression are way too complex for me to detail here, but the area that depression played out in was during my job as a pest control technician in rural Texas, a job where I spent 95% of my time working in isolation by myself. I worked in the industry for nearly 8 years, and in seasons where life was great and I was doing well, it was a wonderful job. In the handful of seasons where life was hard and I was miserable, being sent out on a route where I would by alone for the whole day felt like a death sentence, because I knew I would "be reduced to introspection with no means of diversion" for the whole day.
While listening to podcasts/audiobooks had always been a huge perk of the job, these distractions soon became a lifeline for me, as being alone with my thoughts rendered me unable to work at all. It is such a bizarre feeling to be in the Texan countryside and surrounded by beautiful and glorious creation and, rather than be able to enjoy it, actively fight off intrusive thoughts of suicidal ideation (and, just to be clear, they never became worse than that). I didn't crave distraction because of technology, I craved distraction because I could not stand to be alone with my thoughts, because my thoughts were severe, harmful, and made my situation worse because it impeded my ability to do my job.
But, as you mentioned in the preceding section, "We desire to be seen and acknowledged. To exercise meaningful degrees of agency and judgment. In short, to belong and to matter." The source my depression arose from some situations were I was not being seen/acknowledged/belonged/mattered, and I felt emotionally and spiritually "alone" - combined with the physically isolating nature of my job, that reality felt inescapable. Eventually, those situations did change and my mental state improved drastically, but when faced with the choice on "to distract myself or not to distract myself", I reached a point where I felt as though distraction was my only option, because something worse may happen if I didn't.
I'm not really sure I have a point or an application here, because I wholeheartedly agree with everything you've written here and on this subject in general (Jeffrey Bilbro has a great section on this exact subject in his short but wonderful book "Reading the Times"). But, my own experiences serve as an asterisk to my confidence in how I discuss this topic with people in my own life, because there was a season of my own life where I would not have received this kind of discourse well. Unjustifiably so, I would've walked away with "it would be better for me to be tormented by my depression and intrusive thoughts than it would be for me to say 'I am not distracting myself with technology'" - and gone back to the fields where, in my isolation, nobody could challenge my conclusions and offer a better interpretation.
I think a lot about attention, but not in any sustained way. (That's a joke.) As I was reading - struggling to read, admittedly, in a sustained way, because I'm here at work, and work emails are popping in, and I have a couple of dozen unread emails - I was thinking about devices, the internet, and being at work. I love the college I work for - I graduated from it, after all, with both my undergraduate and my master's degree - but the work I do is not particular engaging when the workload is steady. I'm an administrative assistant, so I'm basically pushing information around and trying to keep track of it. It's not something I'm particularly suited for, but I'm good enough at it, and I'm addicted to being responsible. I am, however, a dedicated film photographer, and I've had the opportunity to get better at home developing, so I have an interest in that. I love the Grand Canyon, so I have an interest there as well. The list of things I am more interested in than pushing information around and trying to keep track of it is lengthy, if not exhaustive, and includes, naturally, The Convivial Society newsletter. Since I am standing here at this computer all day, I can check the Grand Canyon webcams, review how to use color filters with black and white photography, find out if other people feel that the light meters on old Olympus cameras tend toward overexposure, etc. In the past, (I'm 55, and I didn't get a computer until I was 30, and even then, the internet was young), I would have walked down to the library and checked out a book on photography, or the Grand Canyon, etc., etc. I would like to say that I would have learned more. I'm not entirely sure that's true. I do retain the snippets of information I root out over the course of a day, and I tend to be mindful enough not to go down too many rabbit holes. But I do like the image of myself learning the intricacies of my interests through books rather than the internet. I wonder, given my own tendency to stand here at my desk and appear busy - well I am busy, but not continually busy with the work that I am paid to accomplish - how work has changed with the advent of the internet. I cannot help but wonder what I would do here in the office, when the work days were slow. How does knowing the answer to a question, or input on a debate - say purely mechanical cameras versus those, like the Nikon FA, that pretty much require a battery - are at my fingertips influence my thinking throughout the day? Would my usual "wondering mind" wonder differently if I still had to walk down to the library to answer a question?
Two things came to mind reading this…
1) it’s interesting that we’re also in an age of hyper fixation (also framed as “autism”)— this seems at odds with a lot of the claims about attention. A low hanging fruit example of this is the sheer amount of time people spend on video games, but there are less flashy examples of this, too, that do require the types of engagement many mention, like reading long or challenging texts. And then there are other forms of hyper fixation we don’t even clock as such: on exercise, work, binge watching Netflix.
2) I’ve observed, at least in my own life, that the “diminished capacity” to be present in any moment is exaggerated. I was at a wedding this weekend, not a phone in sight unless to take photos. Same experience while going out to eat with friends, even just gossiping over a cup of coffee. So the point about loneliness seems like a salient one— maybe there’s also something here about enjoyment/satisfaction. Why read if so many intellectual scenes are about making money or gaining celebrity or advancing a petty agenda?
Hi, everyone. Sacasas writes, "From this perspective, attention is bound up with forms of literacy."
I think there's much to be said about image-based advertising and visual non-literacy-based persuasive forces. Sometimes an image or a non-word symbol is enough to persuade someone to act in a desired way. Our brains react to these symbols even faster than the written word.
L.M., I just found this quote from Oliver Burkeman's "Time Management for Mortals" that you and others might enjoy. It makes a very similar observation to your "point 9," with lovely wit:
"In truth, you’re eager for the slightest excuse to turn away from what you’re doing, in order to escape how disagreeable it feels to be doing it; you slide away to the Twitter pile-on or the celebrity gossip site with a feeling not of reluctance but of relief. We’re told that there’s a 'war for our attention,' with Silicon Valley as the invading force. But if that’s true, our role on the battlefield is often that of collaborators with the enemy. Mary Oliver calls this inner urge toward distraction 'the intimate interrupter'—that 'self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels,' promising an easier life if only you’d redirect your attention away from the meaningful but challenging task at hand, to whatever’s unfolding one browser tab away. 'One of the puzzling lessons I have learned,' observes the author Gregg Krech, describing his own experience of the same urge, 'is that, more often than not, I do not feel like doing most of the things that need doing. I’m not just speaking about cleaning the toilet bowl or doing my tax returns. I’m referring to those things I genuinely desire to accomplish.'"
To your third footnote, the expansion of the “literacy” metaphor to every possible activity and medium bugged me enough to co-author an editorial on the topic… I would love to hear other folks take on it: https://citejournal.org/volume-21/issue-3-21/social-studies/editorial-the-metaphor-is-the-message-limitations-of-the-media-literacy-metaphor-for-social-studies/
Great essay. I actually just finished reading Hari's book, so this was an excellent post-script. The thing I most appreciated about Hari's book (and you acknowledge this) is how he frames the "attention crisis" as one far predating tech: the constant stream and speed of news, lack of sleep, stress (especially caused by financial insecurity), processed foods, polluted air, the elimination of boredom, our decline in long-form reading, the decline in children's play: they all make an appearance. Hari's main contribution to my understanding of attention was that larger narrative, and I'd throw in a plug for the book: I'm glad I read it.
That said, I'm glad to read this analysis. Hari talks about our proclivities being exploited in his chapter on Big Tech, but not it doesn't come up much again, and I don't know that he has a robust answer to "Why attention" (beyond climate change and meaningful relationships, which, I mean, are good! But.). So this was good and challenging. And point 10 resonated with me: I've never thought of the idea that nature IS a high-information environment and how it has parity with our capacity to attend. I love that. Thank you.
Klein’s remark about how little attention is paid to attention in education is spot-on. All of this discussion about where we allocate our attention, to what we attend to, etc. is meaningless if we are not aware of our attention as something over which, occasionally, we can exert control. Attending to our attention seems to be a meaningful first step.
A question: In regards to a discussion of attention for societies now and in previous times. What, if anything, can we make of the fact that humans, if allowing agency, often choose to diminish there attention by use of mind altering substances?