Attentional Austerity

A couple of weeks ago I read Cheri Lucas’ “Instapaper and My Ideal Intellectual State” with a certain empathetic resignation. Lucas was finding that a new work situation made it increasingly difficult to keep up with the daily torrent of online information coming through all the usual channels — Twitter, RSS feeds, etc. She looked to Instapaper as a way of keeping up a semblance of keeping up, but to no avail. Instapaper quickly became a repository of what might have been read in some ideal world. A site of aspirational knowledge, a kind of Pinterest for the mind (without all the graphical flair).

I get it. This is where I now live too. I haven’t posted in over two weeks. For those of you who have recently started following The Frailest Thing thanks to the whole toilet paper thing — well, first of all, welcome and thank you. Secondly, I have ordinarily kept up a better clip. Right now it seems to me that the best I’ll be able to do is something like a post each week. Perhaps as things get a bit more routinized, I’ll be able to pick up the pace.

Or maybe not. I’m beginning to think that perhaps a post per week is a pretty good pace to aim for. I’ve been impressed again by the preciousness of attention. Because I have less time to devote to the Sisyphian task of keeping up with the daily digital deluge, I’m becoming increasingly draconian in deciding what deserves my attention. I’m ruthlessly ignoring whole swaths of Twitter-time and savagely gutting my RSS feed.

(As Nick Carr pointed out some time ago, the problem isn’t filter failure. My filters work wonderfully. Everyday they collect swaths of interesting, stimulating, entertaining material. It’s just too much.)

I told some students recently that the most important skill they may ever learn is that of wisely deploying their attention. For the most part we seem to do so carelessly, hearkening every call upon our attention with Pavlovian alacrity. It’s a ruinous habit, better to be misers with our attention.

In other words, we need to impose a regime of attentional austerity to counter continuous partial attention, the default mode arising out of our media environment.

It’s sometimes assumed that in the world the Internet created, those who excel at multi-tasking and endlessly partitioning their attention will have the advantage. I’m not so sure. It rather seems like we are turning our digital devices into horcruxes of the mind. Instead, I’m betting the advantage will go to the person who is able to cancel out the noise and focus with ferocity.

24 thoughts on “Attentional Austerity

  1. Hi Michael,

    As you might suspect, I’m highly sympathetic to this. We’re not machines, as much as the blogosphere wants us to be!


      1. Thanks, Michael. Tillich had lots of very penetrating things to say about technology — a big influence on me. He bent over backwards not to be a reactionary; he appreciated technology’s gifts as well as its dangers. Technology comes up periodically in his three volume Systematic Theology, but there’s also a collection of various writings he did on the subject edited by J. Mark Thomas, “The Spiritual Situation in Our Technical Society.” Highly recommended.

  2. Three cheers!!! Thank you, Michael. I would rather have you less, and sweetly, in your honesty which gives me life.

    Bless you, Arlene

  3. As a convert to Judaism the discipline of the Sabbath strengthens my ability to break away. I do a Friday blog reminder to parents to Take A Break and have pressed this to use sometime in the future. Just did one today about shutting off. Thank you and I am glad your got freshly pressed so I found you. Even if doing so made me a bit pea green with envy at your skilled way with words.

  4. “….turning our digital devices into horcruxes of the mind…” may be the best line I’ve seen all week in a week of skimming and clearing the digital excesses. Thank you!! I’m always grateful for the images that help me refrain from harming myself – and avoiding horcruxes has polish and shine. Regards!

  5. Hi Michael,
    I stumbled across your post via Cheri Lucas’s Twitter feed. I couldn’t agree more with your sentiments. As a high school teacher, I strive to teach students digital media and literacy skills, but I’m constantly aware of the distraction and overload factor. Overall, I think schools are foolish to give every student an iPad or mobile device, before they develop mindfulness as it relates to technology. I’ve written some about digital media and its effects on culture. Check it out if you get a chance:

  6. I never heard of horcruxes before, but it seems like a useful term:

    Pens Lost in Digital Snow

    Many digital articles on Eskimos
    laughing together
    transcribed from pen works, but
    not much left from
    writings in the snow.

    To return to the laughing igloo
    bring home food and fur.

    Spear and club are horcruxes,
    piercing the seal in blood
    opening the seals of soul
    to live, to eat, and return to
    the igloo condominium.

    The blessed child is the after-laugh.
    Oh such a giggle rainbow, colors that grow
    in many modal drawings of love,
    in crayons, in finger paints, in ink, in
    the paint of explosive jello
    and the wiggle of love with cosmic pen
    writing in the streak of laughing stars.
    Many articles about stars and ice
        –Douglas Gilbert

      1. Sometimes it’s hard to understand a word out of context even when it’s carefully defined in the dictionary, and I suppose a word like horcrux is doubly problematic. But when saying Ubemuwx as an answer to a proposed definition, one can run in circles which often happens when looking up a word and then looking up a secondary word in the definition which leads back to the original word. Sometimes non-native speakers can be inadvertently hilarious when they use a synonym that is technically correct but which has gained a connotation over several years that makes it inappropriate for casual use. I once bought a small cheap item at a small store and was called an esteemed customer. A great honor I suppose for a stick of gum. I’m glad I didn’t say, “Let’s chew the fat…”

  7. “…the most important skill they may ever learn is that of wisely deploying their attention.” Well said. I’m trying to imagine what kinds of assignments could develop and strengthen this skill.

    1. Interesting comment that got me to thinking. I teach public speaking at the college level so am constantly bringing their focus back (and disallowing technology browsing during class). I like what bluegrasspb above in comments has written on his blog. Some of which I’ll incorporate into class. So thanks to all for an interesting conversation.

  8. About someone with attention problems: Attending to the flock. Grass is austere. I could see how they might get his attention and goat alright. I imagine a far off shepherd living the pastoral ideal, hearing the beeping-cry of civilization, imagine him letting the village elders, who are living in the shadow of the wolf with newly installed solar panel fields and brand-spanking new Don Quixote turbines, cajol him into connecting to the internet without a staff but with a credit card.
        Putting aside a shearling, he begins to click on everything. He seems to know the provenance of fine paintings, rugs, and wine, but is a little confused by some intriguing items that he nevertheless orders. He spends most of his day reading, clicking, ordering while the Don Quixote spins, and the antique spinning wheel gathers spider webs. He becomes absorbed by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Celestial Railroad” and begins to be afraid.
        At the howl of a wolf, he looks up finally at his wife. She asks, “What have you done?”
        He fears she will announce he has become possessed by an evil force or at best by an obsession that neglects her. “What?” he says sheepishly.
        “Why are you dressing the sheep in dog sweaters and feeding them from cans?”
        “Uh, well, it was on sale, and why shouldn’t the sheep benefit from civilization even if they can’t read?”
        “Well,” she says, “apparently you can’t read.”
        “What do you mean?”
        “You’ve gotten cans of dog food and well… You’ve dressed the sheep in wool coats and fed them lamb stew.”
        From that day on, the shepherd focused his attention on shearing. But his wife didn’t mind the beautiful shearling coat he bought her with a click.

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