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A Better Way of Talking About Attention Loss

Economic models for contemporary attention-loss are cynical—and incomplete. It's time to talk about an "ecology of attention."
caldwell child

Caleb's two-year-old son, in a moment of candid introspection. (Photo: Sashanna Caldwell)

 "We are ... nothing but oscillation and inconsistency." —Montaigne

A few months ago, I ordered The Way Things Work, a classic from my own childhood—complete with illustrations of woolly mammoths sitting on levers and cogs—from Amazon. The book arrived, swaddled in its gray packaging. I called my two-year-old son into my office and sat down on the floor with him, pulling him into my lap. It's a book, I told him. A new book for us to read together.

No, he said. Play cars.

I was annoyed. But look at this woolly mammoth! I told him.

Play cars, he said.

So he sat on the floor and pushed wooden and metal and plastic vehicles around my carpet while I, ignored, leafed rather aimlessly through the volume looking at diagrams of steam engines.

How easy to envy from a distance my son's rapt experience, the complete imaginative immersion within a blooming sensory reality, his fuller possession of the wooden train engine, its stained oak grain, his optical experience of the wiry carpet fiber on my office floor.

Who was this little stranger who yielded his attention so completely to his toy train?


"We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will." —Simone Weil

Near the end of his 2015 collection, Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age, essayist Sven Birkerts writes that "It's all about attention." And just so he knows that we are paying the proper amount, he repeats it: "Attention." He's reflecting on Simone Weil's famous declaration that absolutely un-diverted attention becomes prayer. Birkerts' own analysis of attention—and our attention culture—results in something closer to a plea.

These days, talk of an attention crisis is almost as prevalent as talk of economic or environmental crises; here, "crisis" doesn't indicate a singular moment as much as it does a condition, a constant state of affairs with no visible end. Technology, so the story goes, has brought about a seismic shift in the way we pay attention to things: We are now unable to deal with the (primarily digital) demands on our attention, and as a result we are losing our ability to concentrate—especially on things that matter. Attention, at least in its role as a faculty for filtering personal information, shrinks to Lilliputian dimensions. Digital information is essentially endless: Google claims to have over 30 trillion Web pages indexed, a number that grows in incomprehensibility daily. This is what Birkerts calls the "infloglut," his coinage invoking the Deadly Sin of gluttony to sharpen the moral bite of his critique. How we deal with infoglut, with its constant alerts, shares, and other notices, ranges from constant multi-tasking (also called hyper-attention) to complete disconnection.

Much of the popular writing on attention—such as Nicholas Carr's well-read essay "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"—turns on anecdotes, observations, and studies on cognition and perception: the effect of technology on an individual's attention performance. Carr, for instance, mourns his lost ability to read long works of literature with sustained attention and wonders how the Internet is contributing to the degradation of his mind. And apparently the Internet has been doing something to his brain.

A new study by Microsoft, conducted in Canada and aimed at increasing the operational efficacy of advertising, confirms some of Carr's intuitions: The attention spans of constant users of technology have shrunk measurably, from 12 seconds to nine seconds. The study concludes that the main factor behind our growing inability to remain focused on single tasks is a "digital lifestyle," particularly the frequent use of multi-screens and social media. (The study also suggests that such consumers are becoming more efficient at sorting and remembering relevant information.)

Regardless, behind the concern over individual performance—and the irritation at people drifting into you on the sidewalk while texting—is a much deeper concern about the social, anthropological, and political ramifications of what we might call the "new attention." It's not actually a lack of attention that Carr, Birkerts, and others are bemoaning, but rather an improper application of that attention.

Human attention is a valuable resource, and it's being positively strip-mined by Google, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other sites. 

Along with Weil, we might prize an "un-diverted" and undivided attention; for Birkerts, that rare focus is seen most clearly in full aesthetic immersion. He writes that "book and author are one of the last bulwarks we have against infoglut." The Internet, his argument goes, produces a horizontal, shallow, and spastic attention; literature, one that is vertical and capable—like the torch on a miner's cap—of lighting shafts into the self. Likewise, for Carr, long novels like War and Peace represent the apogee of attention, both personal and cultural.

Carr contrasts the deep focus demanded by long canonical books with the "new" attention born of computers, the Internet, and smartphones; like a water beetle on a pond, the new attention can do no more than skate, darting hither and thither with no serious object in mind, tacking endlessly. And the Internet, God knows, is full of improper things: seamy pornography and obscurely traded pirated goods and brutal YouTube comments and the reams of news and gossip and trivia via statuses and posts and tweets and Instagrams and Vines—and where should my attention go, and whence will focus come? Surely to give our attention to these things—a process made so much easier when moving through digital space—is to sully that attention, to waste it. Surely we are burning the currency of our attention (which is to say time, which is to say life) and suffocating in the smoke, all the while protesting that we've never looked better?

I want to agree. But what of those things that lie outside of our attention? The anamorphic, for example: the thing glimpsed, flickering, from the corner of our eye, that can never be brought squarely to the center of our perception; or the fragment or pun or witticism, which is meant to hold us only for the briefest of moments; or of those things, unassimilable waste like Styrofoam, that have outstripped our attention and our control altogether?

In that Call of Duty, kitsch art, and War and Peace all welcome the experience of immersion, what emerges in Birkerts' and Carr's philosophy of attention is a master-slave binary. Either we are enslaved by our attention, or else we manage to yoke and master our own limited attention resources—wrenching focus from the sweaty or greasy clasp of those things that don't deserve our attention and yet demand it, and re-dedicating focus to those rare, precious, and pure things that do deserve it: nature, children, long books, hard poems.

Carr and Birkerts shift between individualism—in their calls to preserve the self through preserving one's attention-resources—and moralizing nostalgia: a desire to re-access nature and the world, what Birkerts refers to frequently as the "unmediated Real." These writers draw two worlds and ask us to choose between them: The first one immanent and full (the "real world"); the other, carved out of digital space, meta-natural and mostly empty but for echoing representations and images (primarily of cats). I sympathize with and share many of Carr's and Birkerts' worries. But the choice with which they leave us is actually one between hypocrisy and cynicism, which is no choice at all.

If there is a solution to our so-called attention crisis, it's not in a mere rejection of the digital flood and a nostalgic return to nature. Start with the bad new things, not the good old things, Bertolt Brecht once said. The smell of a green fir or the shock of cold water isn't enough to reboot our attention. At the moment we realize that we've destroyed our capacity for attention, we must also realize that it was never fully ours at all.


"Attention without feeling is only a report." —Mary Oliver

We place the noun "attention" as the object after a whole school of transitive verbs: pay,  gather,  invest, attract,  draw,  call. In the way of words, the verbs impose their own corrupted connotations onto the noun. Pay attention. Invest your attention. These are economic words, vulgar words.

One fear for attention is that exchange has stripped it of its value. Capitalism has harnessed our attention so that attention generates revenue, at least for advertisers, in the form of countable views and clicks. Through our attention, we are constantly manipulated, bought and sold on a digital market, and, far from reaping the proceeds, it's starting to look like we exchange our gold (brains and time) for trash (digital distractions and goods).

This isn't a new complaint, really. In the early 1970s, psychologist and economist Herbert Simon described our economy as one of attention, the chief characteristic of which was scarcity: "The wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients." In other words, human attention is a valuable resource, and it's being positively strip-mined by Google, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other sites, on behalf of corporations.

I don't deny that this is a frightening description of the way things are. But as much as Birkerts, Carr, and others repudiate this state in spirit, they actually perpetuate it in their language.

I would like to suggest, instead of an economics of attention, that we think about an ecology of attention. We've already discussed "attention-as-resource," an ecological framing of attention as a natural resource to husband and defend, rather like the rainforest, clean water, or breathable air. But to think of attention as a depletable resource is actually to think of it as a particular kind of private property, one that can be stolen from us, or be dealt out or cruelly withheld at will. It is to align attention almost completely with consumption.

What I give my attention to helps define my existence, but attention can't get off the ground without running into other things and groups of things that aren't me—from macro-scale groupings such as nations and religious groups to smaller-scale communities: fan bases, families, classrooms. Attention is intimate, the kaleidoscopic point at which the self twines with a panoply of strange others, both human and non-human. Like the self, attention can do very well without an off-the-shelf concept of what it is and should be. Attention is about redistribution of action, and so can never be a final and stabilized state. It can't be hoarded. Its strength is not always in unity, purity, and concentration.

Instead of flagellating ourselves over the less sterling consequences of our attention practices, we should do what we have done before, at the gallery, the printing press, the bar, the hearth, the forest: act, desire, care, curate, intervene. The ways we acknowledge each other's humanity include long books and poems, but also, and increasingly, they include our Twitter and Facebook feeds, by shares and likes and comments—in other words, the attention of others. Perhaps what Birkerts and Carr find vaguely threatening about digital practices is that they reveal that our attention—and so our selves—are not fully self-contained. To say that I would not exist quite as I do without my smartphone is not an overstatement; the key is to treat and acknowledge the smartphone with the respect and caution one would afford an ally, instead of treating it as if it were a parasite.

I'm not offering a fully formed solution so much as a brief endorsement of a different way of describing and discussing attention: a lexicon that neither worships technology nor romanticizes nature. I want to move past a vocabulary of emancipation vs. enslavement. To think about attention through the language of ecology is to see it as a sound-wave that a bow draws from a violin: in constant flux, not just existing in its surroundings, but actually unable to be abstracted from the constituting conditions of the resin on the bow, the quality of the horsehair, the density of the wood, the moisture in the room's air. Attention is contingent on shifting attachments between individuals, collectivities, histories, technological and material conditions. To husband our attention requires a commitment to digital and analog life at once because, in so many ways, we are each other's attention.

And when we recognize this fully, we must feel the responsibility that comes from being sutured together through common acts of attention. Our neighbor, like our smartphone, is now always with us.