Spectrum of Attention

In March of 2015, I was invited to attend a seminar at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture led by Alan Jacobs, which focused on his 79 Theses on Technology. The these dwelt chiefly on the theme of attention. My response, and that of others in attendance, was published on one of the Institute’s blogs, which has recently been mothballed. Consequently, I’m publishing the essay here, lightly edited. I still rather like it. The link to Jacobs’s theses is to an expanded version published by The New Atlantis. I encourage you to read them, if you missed them a couple of years ago. My response can be read on its own terms, however.


Attention has become a problem, but, because of this, we have an opportunity of sorts. We may now think about attention as if for the first time; we may see it in a new, more revealing light. And this is exactly what Alan Jacobs 79 Theses on Technology helps us to do. While ranging over impressively varied terrain, Jacobs’ propositions provoke us to consider again the question of attention in digital culture. I offer the following as a response that seeks not so much to dispute as to pursue certain paths suggested by Jacobs’ theses, hopefully to fruitful ends.

“We should evaluate our investments of attention,” Jacobs urges, “at least as carefully and critically as our investments of money.” This is undoubtedly true, and we will be in a better position to undertake such an evaluation when we understand what exactly we are talking about when we talk about attention. Attention, after all, is one of those words we never bother to define because we assume everyone knows exactly what is meant by it. We assume this, in part, because we conceive of attention as a natural faculty, which is experienced in the same way by everyone. But as Matthew Crawford’s recent work has shown, attention has a history. It has been imagined, and thus experienced, differently over time. My sense, too, is that attention names various states or activities that we might do well to distinguish.

More often than not, we speak of attention as the work of intently focusing on one object or task. Reading a long, demanding text is a frequent example of attention in this sense. This is the kind of attention that is sometimes described metaphorically as a searchlight. Out of the whole environment, it singles out one narrow aspect for the mind to consider; everything else darkens around it. It is with this sort of attention that Nicholas Carr opened his well-known Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”: “Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy,” Carr noted, but now “my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text.”

I suspect that most of us can sympathize with Carr’s plight. If so, then what we are experiencing feels like an inability to direct our attention at will. Echoing the apostle, we might lament, “What I want to pay attention to, I cannot. What I do not want to pay attention to, to that I do.” This failure to direct our attention presents itself as a failure of the will, and it assumes at some level that I am, as an autonomous subject, responsible for this failure.

But sometimes we talk about attention in a slightly different way; we speak of it as openness to the world, without any particular focal point. Sometimes the language of presence is used to articulate this kind of attention: are we living in the moment? It is also the sort of attention that is advocated by proponents of “mindfulness,” to which Jacobs devoted two theses:

11. “Mindfulness” seems to many a valid response to the perils of incessant connectivity because it confines its recommendation to the cultivation of a mental stance without objects.

13. The only mindfulness worth cultivating will be teleological through and through.

On the surface, we appear to have a contradiction between these two ways of talking about attention. Directed attention is inconceivable without an object (mental or material) to sustain it, but no object would appear apart from an already existing form of attention. Much depends on what exactly is meant by “mindfulness,” but I think we might be able to preserve a valuable distinction while still heeding Jacobs’ critique.

It is helpful to understand “mindfulness” as a clearing of mental space that makes possible the deployment of the directed, teleological form of attention. It is attention as openness to the world, attention that is ready to be elicited by the world. The telos of mindfulness in this sense, then, is the empowering of directed or teleological attention. Consider again the distinction between the diversions/distractions that we seek and those that seek us. In our present digital environment, we must parry the diversions that seek us out in order to deploy sustained, directed attention. It is at this point, of course, that we may inject, as Jacobs does, a discussion of an attentional commons.

We may think of attention, then, as a dance whereby we both lead and are led. To speak of it as a dance usefully suggests that receptivity and directedness may work in harmony. 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 work of a unity of body and mind making its way in a world that is solicitous of its attention. It raises what I take to be a critical question, What difference does it make when we talk about attention to remember that we are embodied creatures? We may go a little further down this path if we take a few cues from Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty discussed the shortcomings of both empiricist and intellectualist (rationalist) approaches to attention. In the course of that discussion, he made the following observation: “Empiricism does not see that we need to know what we are looking for, otherwise we would not go looking for it; intellectualism does not see that we need to be ignorant of what we are looking for, or again we would not go looking for it.”

This simultaneous knowing and not-knowing seems to me another way of talking about attention as both openness to the world and as a directed work of the mind. It is a work of both receptivity, of perceiving the world as a gift, and care, of willfully and lovingly attending to particular aspects of the world. And, as Merleau-Ponty goes on to argue, attention is also a form of embodied perception, perception that construes the world as much as it registers it. In this sense, our attention is never merely a searchlight spotting items out in the world as they are; rather, attention is always interpreting the world in keeping with the desires and demands of the moment.

attention
Heinrich Vogeler, Sehnsucht

To a hiker on a long walk, for example, a stone is a thing to step on and is registered as such without conscious mental effort. It is attended to by the body in motion more than by the cogitating mind. To a geologist on a walk, on the other hand, a stone may suddenly become an object of conscious intellectual inquiry. Reflecting a little further on this example, we can note that both of these instances of perceiving-as are the product of prior experience. The expert hiker moves along at a steady pace making countless adjustments and course corrections as a matter of bodily habit. The geologist, likewise, has trained his perception through hours of intellectual labor. Both the hiker and the geologist have, by their prior experience, built up a repertoire of possible perceptions, of multiple ways of seeing-as. Merleau-Ponty called this repertoire of possible perceptions the “intentional arc,” which subtends “the life of consciousness – cognitive life, the life of desire or perceptual life.” In either situation, a novice would not be able to hike as adroitly or perceive the geologically interesting stone; their intentional arc sustains a less robust perceptual repertoire.

This example suggests two poles of attention—bodily and mental. It is important that we don’t conceive of these as mutually exclusive binaries. Rather, they constitute a spectrum of possibilities. Toward one end, conscious mental activity dominates; toward the other end, non-conscious bodily activity is paramount. Consider these ideal types as examples of each case. The person lost deep in thought, or lost in a daydream, is deeply attentive but not to their surroundings. It is as if they have ceased to perceive the world about them through their sensory apparatus. They are lost in their own world, but it is not the world perceived by their bodies. They have to be called back to an awareness of their body and their surroundings.

By contrast, we may imagine the athlete, musician, or dancer who is, to borrow Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s formulation, “in the flow.” They, too, like the thinker or daydreamer, are in a state of deep attention, but in a different mode. Conscious thought would, in fact, disrupt their state of attention. We may complicate this picture even further by noting how the hiker in the flow, precisely because their conscious, mental attention is disengaged, may soon find themselves lost in thought, even as they expertly navigate the terrain.

But where do our technologies come into the picture we are painting? That is, after all, where we began and where Jacobs directs our attention. I would suggest that we think of another spectrum intersecting the one running from the bodily to the mental: one that runs from mediated to unmediated forms of attention. Consider our hiker one more time. Imagine that they are now equipped with a walking stick. Aspects of their attending to the world about which they make their way are now mediated through the walking stick, which enters into the circuit of mind, body, and world. Of course, the walking stick is an adept tool for this particular context. It enters rather seamlessly into the world and extends the hiker’s perceptions in useful ways. It would be very different, for instance, if the hiker where walking about with a hose. The walking stick extends the perceptive reach of the hiker rather than attenuating or interrupting it. It provides the hiker with a firmer grip on the world given the task they are undertaking. It strengthens and extends the intentional arc.

Imagine, however, giving the hiker a different tool in hand—a smartphone. The smartphone mediates perception as well. In the act of taking a picture, for example, we have an obvious act of mediation: the landscape is seen through the lens. But a subtler act of mediation is at work as well, even when the smartphone’s camera is not in use. The ability to take photographs expands (and limits) the hiker’s perceptive repertoire—it creates new possibilities, the landscape now appears differently to our hiker. Smartphone in hand, the hiker might now perceive the world as field of possible images. This may, for example, direct attention up from the path toward the horizon, causing even our experienced hiker to stumble. We may be tempted to say, consequently, that the hiker is no longer paying attention, that the device has distracted him. But this is, at best, only partly true. The hiker is still paying attention. In fact, he may be paying very close, directed attention, hunting for that perfect image. But his attention is of a very different sort than the “in the flow” attention of a hiker on the move. They are now missing some aspects of the surroundings, but picking up on others. Without the smartphone in hand, the hiker may not stumble, but they may not notice a particularly striking vista either.

So where does all of this leave us? I’d suggest that it might be helpful to think of attention in light of the range of possibilities created by our two spectrums. Along one axis, we range from bodily to mental forms of attention. Along the other, we range from mediated to unmediated forms of attention. (Granted that our attention is never, strictly speaking, absolutely unmediated.) This yields a range of possibilities among the following categories: bodily, mediated attention; bodily, unmediated attention; mental, mediated attention; and mental, unmediated attention. Consider the following as ideal types in each case: the musician, the dancer, the scientist, and the philosopher. This schema yields a series of questions we may ask as we seek to evaluate our investments of attention. What kind of attention is required in this context? To what aspects of the world does a device invite me to pay attention? Does a device or tool encourage mental forms of attention when the context is better suited to bodily forms of attention? Is a device or tool encouraging me to direct my attention, when attentive openness would be more useful? What device or tool would best help me deploy the kind of attention required by the task before me?

The result of this exploration has been to break up the opposition of device to attention. An opposition, I should say, I don’t think Jacobs himself advocates. Instead, my hope is to expand our conceptual tool kit so that we might make better judgments regarding our devices and our attention to the world.

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