The Spectrum of Attention

Late last month, Alan Jacobs presented 79 Theses on Technology at a seminar hosted by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. The theses, dealing chiefly with the problem of attention in digital culture, were posted to the Infernal Machine, a terrific blog hosted by the Institute and edited by Chad Wellmon, devoted to reflection on technology, ethics, and the human person. I’ve long thought very highly of both Jacobs and the Institute, so when Wellmon kindly extended an invitation to attend the seminar, I gladly and gratefully accepted.

Wellmon has also arranged for a series of responses to Jacobs’ theses, which have appeared on The Infernal Machine. Each of these is worth considering. In my response, “The Spectrum of Attention,” I took the opportunity to work out a provisional taxonomy of attention that considers the difference our bodies and our tools make to what we generally call attention.

Here’s a quick excerpt:

We can think of attention as a dance whereby we both lead and are led. This image suggests that receptivity and directedness do indeed work together. The proficient dancer knows when to lead and when to be led, and she also knows that such knowledge emerges out of the dance itself. This analogy reminds us, as well, that attention is the unity of body and mind making its way in a world that can be solicitous of its attention. The analogy also raises a critical question: How ought we conceive of attention given that we are  embodied creatures?

Click through to read the rest.

5 thoughts on “The Spectrum of Attention

  1. Michael, thanks for the links to this interesting discussion, and congrats on your contribution considering the inter-being of body and mind mediations.

    I found also the exchange between Wellman and Jacobs on the sovereign self interesting. I think this issue precedes that of attention. The appearance of the sovereign self is, to me, the exaggerated sense of agency necessary to fuel the whole heuristic enterprise of consciousness.

    I’ve been pursuing a related line of inquiry, albeit in a less measured and reasonable way. My most recent effort is here:

    1. Thanks, and, yes, I’ve been following your series of posts. I think related issues arise also in Jacobs’ exchange with O’Gorman. The post after this one is my own two cents on their exchange regarding the agency of objects, etc. It’s my RC take! But, at the same time, I hope it’s clear that I don’t think our relationship to tech can be understood on strictly instrumental grounds.

  2. Michael, I like your perception of “attention” as a dance, and the blend of two partitioning schemes (bodily mental; unmediated mediated) into one. Given the quadrant depiction, a next step would be to place some example forms into locations on that quadrant. However we might also want to consider two kinds of body (human; robotic), along with the many potential sources of technology objects that can affect the majority of human beings. Among the minority are the designers of robotic systems, and those interested in “friendly” human-robot interaction (HRI) between humans and the many kinds of robots (some of which might be called “drones” ( So we might wonder how a flying robot should participate in a dance, when it should lead, when it should follow, and the range of capabilities it should have been given for attention to a purpose. Then there are the presumed capabilities of the human participants.

    Two other, related terms of continuing debate are “autonomy” and “autonomous”. For example, if you use Google or Bing to search with ‘Sheridan autonomy levels’, you can find this writing about autonomy: Note this comment: “One operational characterization of autonomy that applies to mobile robots is the amount of time that a robot can be neglected, or the neglect tolerance of the robot.” So I guess we need to consider how long some bodies can function without dancing. In general, the writings that I have seen about those two terms reflect the context and needs of the authors in their times, leading to development of new partitioning schemes. Yours should have some influence on future authors.

    Whereas “our attention is never, strictly speaking, absolutely unmediated”, we might also say that a robot’s attention is absolutely mediated, “bodily” and “mentally”, for now. Keep up the great writing.

    1. Scott, Just checked that out. It seems to be a problem with The Infernal Machine. The site appears to be down at the moment. In any case, thanks for letting me know.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s