By Madeleine Bunting
Source: Rise Up Times
“Are you paying attention?” The phrase still resonates with a particular sharpness in my mind. It takes me straight back to my boarding school, aged thirteen, when my eyes would drift out the window to the woods beyond the classroom. The voice was that of the math teacher, the very dedicated but dull Miss Ploughman, whose furrowed grimace I can still picture.
We’re taught early that attention is a currency—we “pay” attention—and much of the discipline of the classroom is aimed at marshaling the attention of children, with very mixed results. We all have a history here, of how we did or did not learn to pay attention and all the praise or blame that came with that. It used to be that such patterns of childhood experience faded into irrelevance. As we reached adulthood, how we paid attention, and to what, was a personal matter and akin to breathing—as if it were automatic.
Today, though, as we grapple with a pervasive new digital culture, attention has become an issue of pressing social concern. Technology provides us with new tools to grab people’s attention. These innovations are dismantling traditional boundaries of private and public, home and office, work and leisure. Emails and tweets can reach us almost anywhere, anytime. There are no cracks left in which the mind can idle, rest, and recuperate. A taxi ad offers free wifi so that you can remain “productive” on a cab journey.
Even those spare moments of time in our day—waiting for a bus, standing in a queue at the supermarket—can now be “harvested,” says the writer Tim Wu in his book The Attention Merchants. In this quest to pursue “those slivers of our unharvested awareness,” digital technology has provided consumer capitalism with its most powerful tools yet. And our attention fuels it. As Matthew Crawford notes in The World Beyond Your Head, “when some people treat the minds of other people as a resource, this is not ‘creating wealth,’ it is transferring it.”
There’s a whiff of panic around the subject: the story that our attention spans are now shorter than a goldfish’s attracted millions of readers on the web; it’s still frequently cited, despite its questionable veracity. Rates of diagnosis attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children have soared, creating an $11 billion global market for pharmaceutical companies. Every glance of our eyes is now tracked for commercial gain as ever more ingenious ways are devised to capture our attention, if only momentarily. Our eyeballs are now described as capitalism’s most valuable real estate. Both our attention and its deficits are turned into lucrative markets.
There is also a domestic economy of attention; within every family, some get it and some give it. We’re all born needing the attention of others—our parents’, especially—and from the outset, our social skills are honed to attract the attention we need for our care. Attention is woven into all forms of human encounter from the most brief and transitory to the most intimate. It also becomes deeply political: who pays attention to whom?
Social psychologists have researched how the powerful tend to tune out the less powerful. One study with college students showed that even in five minutes of friendly chat, wealthier students showed fewer signs of engagement when in conversation with their less wealthy counterparts: less eye contact, fewer nods, and more checking the time, doodling, and fidgeting. Discrimination of race and gender, too, plays out through attention. Anyone who’s spent any time in an organization will be aware of how attention is at the heart of office politics. A suggestion is ignored in a meeting, but is then seized upon as a brilliant solution when repeated by another person.
What is political is also ethical. Matthew Crawford argues that this is the essential characteristic of urban living: a basic recognition of others.
And then there’s an even more fundamental dimension to the politics of attention. At a primary level, all interactions in public space require a very minimal form of attention, an awareness of the presence and movement of others. Without it, we would bump into each other, frequently.
I had a vivid demonstration of this point on a recent commute: I live in East London and regularly use the narrow canal paths for cycling. It was the canal rush hour—lots of walkers with dogs, families with children, joggers as well as cyclists heading home. We were all sharing the towpath with the usual mixture of give and take, slowing to allow passing, swerving around and between each other. Only this time, a woman was walking down the center of the path with her eyes glued to her phone, impervious to all around her. This went well beyond a moment of distraction. Everyone had to duck and weave to avoid her. She’d abandoned the unspoken contract that avoiding collision is a mutual obligation.
This scene is now a daily occurrence for many of us, in shopping centers, station concourses, or on busy streets. Attention is the essential lubricant of urban life, and without it, we’re denying our co-existence in that moment and place. The novelist and philosopher, Iris Murdoch, writes that the most basic requirement for being good is that a person “must know certain things about his surroundings, most obviously the existence of other people and their claims.”
Attention is what draws us out of ourselves to experience and engage in the world. The word is often accompanied by a verb—attention needs to be grabbed, captured, mobilized, attracted, or galvanized. Reflected in such language is an acknowledgement of how attention is the essential precursor to action. The founding father of psychology William James provided what is still one of the best working definitions:
It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.
Attention is a limited resource and has to be allocated: to pay attention to one thing requires us to withdraw it from others. There are two well-known dimensions to attention, explains Willem Kuyken, a professor of psychology at Oxford. The first is “alerting”— an automatic form of attention, hardwired into our brains, that warns us of threats to our survival. Think of when you’re driving a car in a busy city: you’re aware of the movement of other cars, pedestrians, cyclists, and road signs, while advertising tries to grab any spare morsel of your attention. Notice how quickly you can swerve or brake when you spot a car suddenly emerging from a side street. There’s no time for a complicated cognitive process of decision making. This attention is beyond voluntary control.
The second form of attention is known as “executive”—the process by which our brain selects what to foreground and focus on, so that there can be other information in the background—such as music when you’re cooking—but one can still accomplish a complex task. Crucially, our capacity for executive attention is limited. Contrary to what some people claim, none of us can multitask complex activities effectively. The next time you write an email while talking on the phone, notice how many typing mistakes you make or how much you remember from the call. Executive attention can be trained, and needs to be for any complex activity. This was the point James made when he wrote: “there is no such thing as voluntary attention sustained for more than a few seconds at a time… what is called sustained voluntary attention is a repetition of successive efforts which bring back the topic to the mind.”
Attention is a complex interaction between memory and perception, in which we continually select what to notice, thus finding the material which correlates in some way with past experience. In this way, patterns develop in the mind. We are always making meaning from the overwhelming raw data. As James put it, “my experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind—without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos.”
And we are constantly engaged in organizing that chaos, as we interpret our experience. This is clear in the famous Gorilla Experiment in which viewers were told to watch a video of two teams of students passing a ball between them. They had to count the number of passes made by the team in white shirts and ignore those of the team in black shirts. The experiment is deceptively complex because it involves three forms of attention: first, scanning the whole group; second, ignoring the black T-shirt team to keep focus on the white T-shirt team (a form of inhibiting attention); and third, remembering to count. In the middle of the experiment, someone in a gorilla suit ambles through the group. Afterward, half the viewers when asked hadn’t spotted the gorilla and couldn’t even believe it had been there. We can be blind not only to the obvious, but to our blindness.
There is another point in this experiment which is less often emphasized. Ignoring something—such as the black T-shirt team in this experiment—requires a form of attention. It costs us attention to ignore something. Many of us live and work in environments that require us to ignore a huge amount of information—that flashing advert, a bouncing icon or pop-up.
In another famous psychology experiment, Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Test, four-year-olds had a choice of eating a marshmallow immediately or two in fifteen minutes. While filmed, each child was put in a room alone in front of the plate with a marshmallow. They squirmed and fidgeted, poked the marshmallow and stared at the ceiling. A third of the children couldn’t resist the marshmallow and gobbled it up, a third nibbled cautiously, but the last third figured out how to distract themselves. They looked under the table, sang… did anything but look at the sweet. It’s a demonstration of the capacity to reallocate attention. In a follow-up study some years later, those who’d been able to wait for the second marshmallow had better life outcomes, such as academic achievement and health. One New Zealand study of 1,000 children found that this form of self-regulation was a more reliable predictor of future success and wellbeing than even a good IQ or comfortable economic status.
What, then, are the implications of how digital technologies are transforming our patterns of attention? In the current political anxiety about social mobility and inequality, more weight needs to be put on this most crucial and basic skill: sustaining attention.
I learned to concentrate as a child. Being a bookworm helped. I’d be completely absorbed in my reading as the noise of my busy family swirled around me. It was good training for working in newsrooms; when I started as a journalist, they were very noisy places with the clatter of keyboards, telephones ringing and fascinating conversations on every side. What has proved much harder to block out is email and text messages.
The digital tech companies know a lot about this widespread habit; many of them have built a business model around it. They’ve drawn on the work of the psychologist B.F. Skinner who identified back in the Thirties how, in animal behavior, an action can be encouraged with a positive consequence and discouraged by a negative one. In one experiment, he gave a pigeon a food pellet whenever it pecked at a button and the result, as predicted, was that the pigeon kept pecking. Subsequent research established that the most effective way to keep the pigeon pecking was “variable-ratio reinforcement.” Give the pigeon a food pellet sometimes, and you have it well and truly hooked.
We’re just like the pigeon pecking at the button when we check our email or phone. It’s a humiliating thought. Variable reinforcement ensures that the customer will keep coming back. It’s the principle behind one of the most lucrative US industries: slot machines, which generate more profit than baseball, films, and theme parks combined. Gambling was once tightly restricted for its addictive potential, but most of us now have the attentional equivalent of a slot machine in our pocket, beside our plate at mealtimes, and by our pillow at night. Even during a meal out, a play at the theater, a film, or a tennis match. Almost nothing is now experienced uninterrupted.
Anxiety about the exponential rise of our gadget addiction and how it is fragmenting our attention is sometimes dismissed as a Luddite reaction to a technological revolution. But that misses the point. The problem is not the technology per se, but the commercial imperatives that drive the new technologies and, unrestrained, colonize our attention by fundamentally changing our experience of time and space, saturating both in information.
In much public space, wherever your eye lands—from the back of the toilet door, to the handrail on the escalator, or the hotel key card—an ad is trying to grab your attention, and does so by triggering the oldest instincts of the human mind: fear, sex, and food. Public places become dominated by people trying to sell you something. In his tirade against this commercialization, Crawford cites advertisements on the backs of school report cards and on debit machines where you swipe your card. Before you enter your PIN, that gap of a few seconds is now used to show adverts. He describes silence and ad-free experience as “luxury goods” that only the wealthy can afford. Crawford has invented the concept of the “attentional commons,” free public spaces that allow us to choose where to place our attention. He draws the analogy with environmental goods that belong to all of us, such as clean air or clean water.
Some legal theorists are beginning to conceive of our own attention as a human right. One former Google employee warned that “there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have.” They use the insights into human behavior derived from social psychology—the need for approval, the need to reciprocate others’ gestures, the fear of missing out. Your attention ceases to be your own, pulled and pushed by algorithms. Attention is referred to as the real currency of the future.
In 2013, I embarked on a risky experiment in attention: I left my job. In the previous two years, it had crept up on me. I could no longer read beyond a few paragraphs. My eyes would glaze over and, even more disastrously for someone who had spent their career writing, I seemed unable to string together my thoughts, let alone write anything longer than a few sentences. When I try to explain the impact, I can only offer a metaphor: it felt like my imagination and use of language were vacuum packed, like a slab of meat coated in plastic. I had lost the ability to turn ideas around, see them from different perspectives. I could no longer draw connections between disparate ideas.
At the time, I was working in media strategy. It was a culture of back-to-back meetings from 8:30 AM to 6 PM, and there were plenty of advantages to be gained from continuing late into the evening if you had the stamina. Commitment was measured by emails with a pertinent weblink. Meetings were sometimes as brief as thirty minutes and frequently ran through lunch. Meanwhile, everyone was sneaking time to battle with the constant emails, eyes flickering to their phone screens in every conversation. The result was a kind of crazy fog, a mishmash of inconclusive discussions.
At first, it was exhilarating, like being on those crazy rides in a theme park. By the end, the effect was disastrous. I was almost continuously ill, battling migraines and unidentifiable viruses. When I finally made the drastic decision to leave, my income collapsed to a fraction of its previous level and my family’s lifestyle had to change accordingly. I had no idea what I was going to do; I had lost all faith in my ability to write. I told friends I would have to return the advance I’d received to write a book. I had to try to get back to the skills of reflection and focus that had once been ingrained in me.
The first step was to teach myself to read again. I sometimes went to a café, leaving my phone and computer behind. I had to slow down the racing incoherence of my mind so that it could settle on the text and its gradual development of an argument or narrative thread. The turning point in my recovery was a five weeks’ research trip to the Scottish Outer Hebrides. On the journey north of Glasgow, my mobile phone lost its Internet connection. I had cut myself loose with only the occasional text or call to family back home. Somewhere on the long Atlantic beaches of these wild and dramatic islands, I rediscovered my ability to write.
I attribute that in part to a stunning exhibition I came across in the small harbor town of Lochboisdale, on the island of South Uist. Vija Celmins is an acclaimed Latvian-American artist whose work is famous for its astonishing patience. She can take a year or more to make a woodcut that portrays in minute detail the surface of the sea. A postcard of her work now sits above my desk, a reminder of the power of slow thinking.
Just as we’ve had a slow eating movement, we need a slow thinking campaign. Its manifesto could be the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s beautiful “Letters to a Young Poet”:
To let every impression and the germ of every feeling come to completion inside, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, in what is unattainable to one’s own intellect, and to wait with deep humility and patience for the hour when a new clarity is delivered.