Attention and the Moral Life

I’ve continued to think about a question raised by Frank Furedi in an otherwise lackluster essay about distraction and digital devices. Furedi set out to debunk the claim that digital devices are undermining our attention and our memory. I don’t think he succeeded, but he left us with a question worth considering: “The question that is rarely posed by advocates of the distraction thesis is: what are people distracted from?”

In an earlier post, I suggested that this question can be usefully set alongside a mid-20th century observation by Hannah Arendt. Considering the advent of automation, Arendt feared “the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them.” “Surely, nothing could be worse,” she added.

The connection might not have been as clear as I imagined it, so let me explain. Arendt believed that labor is the “only activity left” to the laborer because the glorification of labor in modern society had eclipsed the older ends and goods to which labor had been subordinated and for the sake of which we might have sought freedom from labor.

To put it as directly as I can, Arendt believed that if we indeed found ourselves liberated from the need to labor, we would not know what to do with ourselves. We would not know what to do with ourselves because, in the modern world, laboring had become the ordering principle of our lives.

Recalling Arendt’s fear, I wondered whether we were not in a similar situation with regards to attention. If we were able to successfully challenge the regime of digital distraction, to what would we give the attention that we would have fought so hard to achieve? Would we be like the laborers in Arendt’s analysis, finally free but without anything to do with our freedom? I wondered, as well, if it were not harder to combat distraction, if we were inclined to do so, precisely because we had no telos for the sake of which we might undertake the struggle.

Interestingly, then, while the link between Arendt’s comments about labor and the question about the purpose of attention was initially only suggestive, I soon realized the two were more closely connected. They were connected by the idea of leisure.

We tend to think of leisure merely as an occasional break from work. That is not, however, how leisure was understood in either classical or medieval culture. Josef Pieper, a Catholic philosopher and theologian, was thinking about the cultural ascendency of labor or work and the eclipse of leisure around the same time that Arendt was articulating her fears of a society of laborers without labor. In many respects, their analysis overlaps. (I should note, though, that Arendt distinguishes between labor and work in way that Pieper does not. Work for Pieper is roughly analogous to labor in Arendt’s taxonomy.)

For her part, Arendt believed nothing could be worse than liberating laborers from labor at this stage in our cultural evolution, and this is why:

“The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society.  The fulfillment of the wish, therefore, like the fulfillment of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a moment when it can only be self-defeating. It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won. Within this society, which is egalitarian because this is labor’s way of making men live together, there is no class left, no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature from which a restoration of the other capacities of man could start anew.”

To say that there is “no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature” is another way of saying that there is no leisured class in the older sense of the word. This older ideal of leisure did not entail freedom from labor for the sake of endless poolside lounging while sipping Coronas. It was freedom from labor for the sake of intellectual, political, moral, or spiritual aims, the achievement of which may very well require arduous discipline. We might say that it was freedom from the work of the body that made it possible for someone to take up the work of the soul or the mind. Thus Pieper can claim that leisure is “a condition of the soul.” But, we should also note, it was not necessarily a solitary endeavor, or, better, it was not an endeavor that had only the good of the individual in mind. It often involved service to the political or spiritual community.

Pieper further defines leisure as “a form of that stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still cannot hear.” He makes clear, though, that the stillness he has in mind “is not mere soundlessness or a dead muteness; it means, rather, that the soul’s power, as real, of responding to the real – a co-respondence, eternally established in nature – has not yet descended into words.” Thus, leisure “is the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion – in the real.”

Pieper also claims that leisure “is only possible on the assumption that man is not only in harmony with himself, whereas idleness is rooted in the denial of this harmony, but also that he is in agreement with the world and its meaning. Leisure lives on affirmation.” The passing comment on idleness is especially useful to us.

In our view, leisure and idleness are nearly indistinguishable. But on the older view, idleness is not leisure; indeed, it is the enemy of leisure. Idleness, on the older view, may even take the shape of frenzied activity undertaken for the sake of, yes, distracting us from the absence of harmony or agreement with ourselves and the world.

We are now inevitably within the orbit of Blaise Pascal’s analysis of the restlessness of the human condition. Because we are not at peace with ourselves or our world, we crave distraction or what he called diversions. “What people want,” Pascal insists, “is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the burdens of office, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us.” “Nothing could be more wretched,” Pascal added, “than to be intolerably depressed as soon as one is reduced to introspection with no means of diversion.”

The novelist Walker Percy, a younger contemporary of both Arendt and Pieper, described what we called the “diverted self” as follows: “In a free and affluent society, the self is free to divert itself endlessly from itself.  It works in order to enjoy the diversions that the fruit of one’s labor can purchase.”  For the diverted self, Percy concluded, “The pursuit of happiness becomes the pursuit of diversion.”

If leisure is a condition of the soul as Pieper would have it, then might we also say the same of distraction? Discreet instances of being distracted, of failing to meaningfully direct our attention, would then be symptoms of a deeper disorder. Our digital devices, in this framing of distraction, are both a material cause and an effect. The absence of digital devices would not cure us of the underlying distractedness or aimlessness, but their presence preys upon, exacerbates, and amplifies this inner distractedness.

It is hard, at this point, for me not to feel that I have been speaking in another language or at least another dialect, one whose cadences and lexical peculiarities are foreign to our own idiom and, consequently, to our way of making sense of our experience. Leisure, idleness, contemplative beholding, spiritual and political aristocracies–all of this recalls to mind Alasdair MacIntyre’s observation that we use such words in much the same way that a post-apocalyptic society, picking up the scattered pieces of the modern scientific enterprise would use “neutrino,” “mass,” and “specific gravity”: not entirely without meaning, perhaps, but certainly not as scientists. The language I’ve employed, likewise, is the language of an older moral vision, a moral vision that we have lost.

I’m not suggesting that we ought to seek to recover the fullness of the language or the world that gave it meaning. That would not be possible, of course. But what if we, nonetheless, desired to bring a measure of order to the condition of distraction that we might experience as an affliction? What if we sought some telos to direct and sustain our attention, to at least buffer us from the forces of distraction?

If such is the case, I commend to you Simone Weil’s reflections on attention and will. Believing that the skill of paying attention cultivated in one domain was transferable to another, Weil went so far as to claim that the cultivation of attention was the real goal of education: “Although people seem to be unaware of it today, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies.”

It was Weil who wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” A beautiful sentiment grounded in a deeply moral understanding of attention. Attention, for Weil, was not merely an intellectual asset, what we require for the sake of reading long, dense novels. Rather, for Weil, attention appears to be something foundational to the moral life:

“There is something in our soul that loathes true attention much more violently than flesh loathes fatigue. That something is much closer to evil than flesh is. That is why, every time we truly give our attention, we destroy some evil in ourselves.”

Ultimately, Weil understood attention to be a critical component of the religious life as well. “Attention, taken to its highest degree,” Weil wrote, “is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.” “If we turn our mind toward the good,” she added, “it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.” And this is because, in her view, “We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.”

So here we have, if we wanted it, something to animate our desire to discipline the distracted self, something at which to direct our attention. Weil’s counsel was echoed closer to our own time by David Foster Wallace, who also located the goal of education in the cultivation of attention.

“Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think,” Wallace explained in his now famous commencement address at Kenyon College. “It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

“The really important kind of freedom,” Wallace added, “involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think.” Each day the truth of this claim impresses itself more and more deeply upon my mind and heart.

Finally, and briefly, we should be wary of imagining the work of cultivating attention as merely a matter of learning how to consciously choose what we will attend to at any given moment. That is part of it to be sure, but Weil and Pieper both knew that attention also involved an openness to what is, a capacity to experience the world as gift. Cultivating our attention in this sense is not a matter of focusing upon an object of attention for our own reasons, however noble those may be. It is also a matter of setting to one side our projects and aspirations that we might be surprised by what is there. “We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them,” Weil wrote, “but by waiting for them.” In this way, we prepare for “some dim dazzling trick of grace,” to borrow a felicitous phrase from Walker Percy, that may illumine our minds and enliven our hearts.

It is these considerations, then, that I would offer in response to Furedi’s question, What are we distracted from?

Digital Devices and Learning to Grow Up

Last week the NY Times ran the sort of op-ed on digital culture that the cultured despisers love to ridicule. In it, Jane Brody made a host of claims about the detrimental consequences of digital media consumption on children, especially the very young. She had the temerity, for example, to call texting the “next national epidemic.” Consider as well the following paragraphs:

“Two of my grandsons, ages 10 and 13, seem destined to suffer some of the negative effects of video-game overuse. The 10-year-old gets up half an hour earlier on school days to play computer games, and he and his brother stay plugged into their hand-held devices on the ride to and from school. ‘There’s no conversation anymore,’ said their grandfather, who often picks them up. When the family dines out, the boys use their devices before the meal arrives and as soon as they finish eating.

‘If kids are allowed to play ‘Candy Crush’ on the way to school, the car ride will be quiet, but that’s not what kids need,’ Dr. Steiner-Adair said in an interview. ‘They need time to daydream, deal with anxieties, process their thoughts and share them with parents, who can provide reassurance.’

Technology is a poor substitute for personal interaction.”

Poor lady, I thought, and a grandmother no less. She was in for the kind of thrashing from the digital sophisticates that is usually reserved for Sherry Turkle.

In truth, I didn’t catch too many reactions to the piece, but one did stand out. At The Awl, John Hermann summed up the critical responses with admirable brevity:

“But the argument presented in the first installment is also proudly unsophisticated, and doesn’t attempt to preempt obvious criticism. Lines like ‘technology is a poor substitute for personal interaction,’ and non-sequitur quotes from a grab-bag of experts, tee up the most common and effective response to fears of Screen Addiction: that what’s happening on all these screens is not, as the writer suggests, an endless braindead Candy Crush session, but a rich social experience of its own. That screen is full of friends, and its distraction is no less valuable or valid than the distraction of a room full of buddies or a playground full of fellow students. Screen Addiction is, in this view, nonsensical: you can no more be addicted to a screen than to windows, sounds, or the written word.”

But Hermann does not quite leave it at that: “This is an argument worth making, probably. But tell it to an anxious parent or an alienated grandparent and you will sense that it is inadequate.” The argument may be correct, but, Hermann explains, “Screen Addiction is a generational complaint, and generational complaints, taken individually, are rarely what they claim to be. They are fresh expressions of horrible and timeless anxieties.”

Hermann goes on to make the following poignant observations:

“The grandparent who is persuaded that screens are not destroying human interaction, but are instead new tools for enabling fresh and flawed and modes of human interaction, is left facing a grimmer reality. Your grandchildren don’t look up from their phones because the experiences and friendships they enjoy there seem more interesting than what’s in front of them (you). Those experiences, from the outside, seem insultingly lame: text notifications, Emoji, selfies of other bratty little kids you’ve never met. But they’re urgent and real. What’s different is that they’re also right here, always, even when you thought you had an attentional claim. The moments of social captivity that gave parents power, or that gave grandparents precious access, are now compromised. The TV doesn’t turn off. The friends never go home. The grandkids can do the things they really want to be doing whenever they want, even while they’re sitting five feet away from grandma, alone, in a moving soundproof pod.

To see a more celebratory presentation of these dynamics, recall this Facebook ad from 2013:

Hermann, of course, is less sanguine.

Screen Addiction is a new way for kids to be blithe and oblivious; in this sense, it is empowering to the children, who have been terrible all along. The new grandparent’s dilemma, then, is both real and horribly modern. How, without coming out and saying it, do you tell that kid that you have things you want to say to them, or to give them, and that you’re going to die someday, and that they’re going to wish they’d gotten to know you better? Is there some kind of curiosity gap trick for adults who have become suddenly conscious of their mortality?”

“A new technology can be enriching and exciting for one group of people and create alienation for another;” Hermann concludes, “you don’t have to think the world is doomed to recognize that the present can be a little cruel.”

Well put.

I’m tempted to leave it at that, but I’m left wondering about the whole “generational complaint” business.

To say that something is a generational complaint suggests that we are dealing with old men yelling, “Get off my lawn!” It conjures up the image of hapless adults hopelessly out of sync with the brilliant exuberance of the young. It is, in other words, to dismiss whatever claim is being made. Granted, Hermann has given us a more sensitive and nuanced discussion of the matter, but even in his account too much ground is ceded to this kind of framing.

If we are dealing with a generational complaint, what exactly do we mean by that? Ostensibly that the old are lodging a predictable kind of complaint against the young, a complaint that amounts to little more than an unwillingness to comprehend the new or a desperate clinging to the familiar. Looked at this way, the framing implies that the old, by virtue of their age, are the ones out of step with reality.

But what if the generational complaint is framed rather as a function of coming into responsible adulthood. Hermann approaches this perspective when he writes, “Screen Addiction is a new way for kids to be blithe and oblivious; in this sense, it is empowering to the children, who have been terrible all along.” So when a person complains that they are being ignored by someone enthralled by their device, are they showing their age or merely demanding a basic degree of decency?

Yes, children are wont to be blithe and oblivious, often cruelly indifferent to the needs of others. Traditionally, we have sought to remedy that obliviousness and self-centeredness. Indeed, coming into adulthood more or less entails gaining some measure of control over our naturally self-centered impulses for our own good and for the sake of others. In this light, asking a child–whether age seven or thirty-seven–to lay their device aside long enough to acknowledge the presence of another human being is simply to ask them to grow up.

Others have taken a different tack in response to Brody and Hermann. Jason Kottke arrives at this conclusion:

“People on smartphones are not anti-social. They’re super-social. Phones allow people to be with the people they love the most all the time, which is the way humans probably used to be, until technology allowed for greater freedom of movement around the globe. People spending time on their phones in the presence of others aren’t necessarily rude because rudeness is a social contract about appropriate behavior and, as Hermann points out, social norms can vary widely between age groups. Playing Minecraft all day isn’t necessarily a waste of time. The real world and the virtual world each have their own strengths and weaknesses, so it’s wise to spend time in both.”

Of course. But how do we allocate the time we spend in each–that’s the question. Also, I’m not quite sure what to make of his claim about rudeness and the social contract except that it seems to suggest that it’s not rudeness if you decide you don’t like the terms of the social contract that renders it so. Sorry Grandma, I don’t recognize the social contract by which I’m supposed to acknowledge your presence and render to you a modicum of my attention and affection.

Yes, digital devices have given us the power to decide who is worthy of our attention minute by minute. Advocates of this constant connectivity–many of them, like Facebook, acting out of obvious self-interest–want us to believe this is an unmitigated good and that we should exercise this power with impunity. But–how to say this without sounding alarmist–encouraging people to habitually render other human beings unworthy of their attention seems like a poor way to build a just and equitable society.

Do Things Want?

Alan Jacobs’ 79 Theses on Technology were offered in the spirit of a medieval disputation, and they succeeded in spurring a number of stimulating responses in a series of essays posted to the Infernal Machine over the last two weeks. Along with my response to Jacobs’ provocations, I wanted to engage a debate between Jacobs and Ned O’Gorman about whether or not we may meaningfully speak of what technologies want. Here’s a synopsis of the exchange with my own commentary along the way.

O’Gorman’s initial response focused on the following theses from Jacobs:

40. Kelly tells us “What Technology Wants,” but it doesn’t: We want, with technology as our instrument.
41. The agency that in the 1970s philosophers & theorists ascribed to language is now being ascribed to technology. These are evasions of the human.
42. Our current electronic technologies make competent servants, annoyingly capricious masters, and tragically incompetent gods.
43. Therefore when Kelly says, “I think technology is something that can give meaning to our lives,” he seeks to promote what technology does worst.
44. We try to give power to our idols so as to be absolved of the responsibilities of human agency. The more they have, the less we have.

46. The cyborg dream is the ultimate extension of this idolatry: to erase the boundaries between our selves and our tools.

O’Gorman framed these theses by saying that he found it “perplexing” that Jacobs “is so seemingly unsympathetic to the meaningfulness of things, the class to which technologies belong.” I’m not sure, however, that Jacobs was denying the meaningfulness of things; rather, as I read him, he is contesting the claim that it is from technology that our lives derive their meaning. That may seem a fine distinction, but I think it is an important one. In any case, a little clarification about what exactly “meaning” entails, may go a long way in clarifying that aspect of the discussion.

A little further on, O’Gorman shifts to the question of agency: “Our technological artifacts aren’t wholly distinct from human agency; they are bound up with it.” It is on this ground that the debate mostly unfolds, although there is more than a little slippage between the question of meaning and the question of agency.

O’Gorman appealed to Mary Carruthers’ fascinating study of the place of memory in medieval culture, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, to support his claim, but I’m not sure the passage he cites supports his claim. He is seeking to establish, as I read him, two claims. First, that technologies are things and things are meaningful. Second, that we may properly attribute agency to technology/things. Now here’s the passage he cites from Carruthers’ work (brackets and ellipses are O’Gorman’s):

“[In the middle ages] interpretation is not attributed to any intention of the man [the author]…but rather to something understood to reside in the text itself.… [T]he important “intention” is within the work itself, as its res, a cluster of meanings which are only partially revealed in its original statement…. What keeps such a view of interpretation from being mere readerly solipsism is precisely the notion of res—the text has a sense within it which is independent of the reader, and which must be amplified, dilated, and broken-out from its words….”

“Things, in this instance manuscripts,” O’Gorman adds, “are indeed meaningful and powerful.” But in this instance, the thing (res) in view is not, in fact, the manuscripts. As Carruthers explains at various other points in The Book of Memory, the res in this context is not a material thing, but something closer to the pre-linguistic essence or idea or concept that the written words convey. It is an immaterial thing.

That said, there are interesting studies that do point to the significance of materiality in medieval context. Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text, for example, dwells at length on medieval reading as a bodily experience, an “ascetic discipline focused by a technical object.” Then there’s Caroline Bynum’s fascinating Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe, which explores the multifarious ways matter was experienced and theorized in the late middle ages.

Bynum concludes that “current theories that have mostly been used to understand medieval objects are right to attribute agency to objects, but it is an agency that is, in the final analysis, both too metaphorical and too literal.” She adds that insofar as modern theorizing “takes as self-evident the boundary between human and thing, part and whole, mimesis and material, animate and inanimate,” it may be usefully unsettled by an encounter with medieval theories and praxis, which “operated not from a modern need to break down such boundaries but from a sense that they were porous in some cases, nonexistent in others.”

Of course, taking up Bynum’s suggestion does not entail a re-imagining of our smartphone as a medieval relic, although one suspects that there is but a marginal difference in the degree of reverence granted to both objects. The question is still how we might best understand and articulate the complex relationship between our selves and our tools.

In his reply to O’Gorman, Jacobs focused on O’Gorman’s penultimate paragraph:

“Of course technologies want. The button wants to be pushed; the trigger wants to be pulled; the text wants to be read—each of these want as much as I want to go to bed, get a drink, or get up out of my chair and walk around, though they may want in a different way than I want. To reserve ‘wanting’ for will-bearing creatures is to commit oneself to the philosophical voluntarianism that undergirds technological instrumentalism.”

It’s an interesting feature of the exchange from this point forward that O’Gorman and Jacobs at once emphatically disagree, and yet share very similar concerns. The disagreement is centered chiefly on the question of whether or not it is helpful or even meaningful to speak of technologies “wanting.” Their broad agreement, as I read their exchange, is about the inadequacy of what O’Gorman calls “philosophical volunatarianism” and “technological instrumentalism.”

In other words, if you begin by assuming that the most important thing about us is our ability to make rational and unencumbered choices, then you’ll also assume that technologies are neutral tools over which we can achieve complete mastery.

If O’Gorman means what I think he means by this–and what Jacobs takes him to mean–then I share his concerns as well. We cannot think well about technology if we think about technology as mere tools that we use for good or evil. This is the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” approach to the ethics of technology, and it is, indeed, inadequate as a way of thinking about the ethical status of artifacts, as I’ve argued repeatedly.

Jacobs grants these concerns, but, with a nod to the Borg Complex, he also thinks that we do not help ourselves in facing them if we talk about technologies “wanting.” Here’s Jacobs’ conclusion:

“It seems that [O’Gorman] thinks the dangers of voluntarism are so great that they must be contested by attributing what can only be a purely fictional agency to tools, whereas I believe that the conceptual confusion this creates leads to a loss of a necessary focus on human responsibility, and an inability to confront the political dimensions of technological modernity.”

This seems basically right to me, but it prompted a second reply from O’Gorman that brought some further clarity to the debate. O’Gorman identified three distinct “directions” his disagreement with Jacobs takes: rhetorical, ontological, and ethical.

He frames his discussion of these three differences by insisting that technologies are meaningful by virtue of their “structure of intention,” which entails a technology’s affordances and the web of practices and discourse in which the technology is embedded. So far, so good, although I don’t think intention is the best choice of word. From here O’Gorman goes on to show why he thinks it is “rhetorically legitimate, ontologically plausible, and ethically justified to say that technologies can want.”

Rhetorically, O’Gorman appears to be advocating a Wittgenstein-ian, “look and see” approach. Let’s see how people are using language before we rush to delimit a word’s semantic range. To a certain degree, I can get behind this. I’ve advocated as much when it comes to the way we use the word “technology,” itself a term that abstracts and obfuscates. But I’m not sure that once we look we will find much. While our language may animate or personify our technology, I’m less sure that we typically speak about technology “wanting” anything.  We do not ordinarily say things like “my iPhone wants to be charged,” “the car wants to go out for a drive,” “the computer wants to play.” Although, I can think of an exception or two. I have heard, for example, someone explain to an anxious passenger that the airplane “wants” to stay in the air. The phrase, “what technology wants,” owes much of its currency, such as it is, to the title of Kevin Kelly’s book, and I’m pretty sure Kelly means more by it than what O’Gorman might be prepared to endorse.

Ontologically, O’Gorman is “skeptical of attempts to tie wanting to will because willfulness is only one kind of wanting.” “What do we do with instinct, bodily desires, sensations, affections, and the numerous other forms of ‘wanting’ that do not seem to be a product of our will?” he wonders. Fair enough, but all of the examples he cites are connected with beings that are, in a literal sense, alive. Of course I can’t attribute all of my desires to my conscious will, sure my dog wants to eat, and maybe in some sense my plant wants water. But there’s still a leap involved in saying that my clock wants to tell time. Wanting may not be neatly tied to willing, but I don’t see how it is not tied to sentience.

There’s one other point worth making at this juncture. I’m quite sympathetic to what is basically a phenomenological account of how our tools quietly slip into our subjective, embodied experience of the world. This is why I can embrace so much of O’Gorman’s case. Thinking back many years, I can distinctly remember a moment when I held a baseball in my hand and reflected on how powerfully I felt the urge to throw it, even though I was standing inside my home. This feeling is, I think, what O’Gorman wants us to recognize. The baseball wanted to be thrown! But how far does this kind of phenomenological account take us?

I think it runs into limits when we talk about technologies that do not enter quite so easily into the circuit of mind, body, and world. The case for the language of wanting is strongest the closer I am to my body; it weakens the further away we get from it. Even if we grant that the baseball in hand feels like it wants to be thrown, what exactly does the weather satellite in orbit want? I think this strongly suggests the degree to which the wanting is properly ours, even while acknowledging the degree to which it is activated by objects in our experience.

Finally, O’Gorman thinks that it is “perfectly legitimate and indeed ethically good and right to speak of technologies as ‘wanting.'” He believes this to be so because “wanting” is not only a matter of willing, it is “more broadly to embody a structure of intention within a given context or set of contexts.” Further, “Will-bearing and non-will-bearing things, animate and inanimate things, can embody such a structure of intention.”

“It is good and right,” O’Gorman insists, “to call this ‘wanting’ because ‘wanting’ suggests that things, even machine things, have an active presence in our life—they are intentional” and, what’s more, their “active presence cannot be neatly traced back to their design and, ultimately, some intending human.”

I agree with O’Gorman that the ethical considerations are paramount, but I’m finally unpersuaded that we are on firmer ground when we speak of technologies wanting, even though I recognize the undeniable importance of the dynamics that O’Gorman wants to acknowledge by speaking so.

Consider what O’Gorman calls the “structure of intention.” I’m not sure intention is the best word to use here. Intentionality resides in the subjective experience of the “I,” but it is true, as phenomenologists have always recognized, that intentionality is not unilaterally directed by the self-consciously willing “I.” It has conscious and non-conscious dimensions, and it may be beckoned and solicited by the world that it simultaneously construes through the workings of perception.

I think we can get at what O’Gorman rightly wants us to acknowledge without attributing “wanting” to objects. We may say, for instance, that objects activate our wanting as they are intended to do by design and also in ways that are unintended by any person. But it’s best to think of this latter wanting as an unpredictable surplus of human intentionality rather than inject a non-human source of wanting. The wanting is always mine, but it may be prompted, solicited, activated, encouraged, fostered, etc. by aspects of the non-human world. So, we may correctly talk about a structure of desire that incorporates non-human aspects of the world and thereby acknowledge the situated nature of our own wanting. Within certain contexts, if we were so inclined, we may even call it a structure of temptation.

To fight the good fight, as it were, we must acknowledge how technology’s consequences exceed and slip loose of our cost/benefit analysis and our rational planning and our best intentions. We must take seriously how their use shapes our perception of the world and both enable and constrain our thinking and acting. But talk about what technology wants will ultimately obscure moral responsibility. “What the machine/algorithm wanted” too easily becomes the new “I was just following orders.” I believe this to be true because I believe that we have a proclivity to evade responsibility. Best, then, not to allow our language to abet our evasions.

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.

Mindfulness Is Not Merely Subtraction

Mindfulness is not merely negation, subtraction, or reduction.

This was the thought that occurred to me as I read Miranda Ward’s reflections on her inadvertent break from the Internet, which concluded with the following observation:

“Why can’t we at least acknowledge that, with or without the internet, we still have to work hard, fight distraction, fight depression, and succumb, every once in awhile, to paralysing self-doubt? So it was nice, while I was on holiday, not to have any mobile phone reception. It’s also nice to be able to video chat with my 86-year-old grandmother in California. Disconnected, connected, whatever: I’m still fallible.”

Indeed, we are all fallible. If we assume that merely withdrawing from certain facets of digital life will by itself render us supremely attentive and mindful individuals, then we are certainly in for a rather disheartening disappointment.

That said, I do think the little word merely is essential. Mindfulness is more, not less than what I’ve called attentional austerity. To put it otherwise, attentional austerity is a necessary, but not sufficient cause of mindfulness. It’s not a matter of starving attention, but training and directing it.

Ordinarily, mindfulness is a habituated response, not a spontaneous reaction. Habituated responses arise out of our practices. If our online practices undermine mindfulness, then moderating these practices becomes part of the solution.

Learning to establish and abide by certain limits is, after all, an indispensable discipline. But imposing limits for their own sake is at best unhelpful and at worst destructive. Limits, as Wendell Berry has written, are best understood as “inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning.” They are for something. 

Mindfulness must be for something. It is about fostering a certain kind of attention and learning to deploy it toward certain ends and not others. 

While doing whatever we call the Twitter equivalent of eavesdropping on an exchange centered on David Foster Wallace and the idea of mindfulness, I was reminded of Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address in which he makes the following observation:

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the ‘rat race’ — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

Mindfulness, in Wallace’s view, is about redirecting our attention toward others; and not only toward others, but toward others as ends in themselves (to put a Kantian spin on it). This latter qualification is necessary because we very often direct our attention upon others, but only for the sake of having ourselves reflected back to us.

There are, of course, other legitimate ends toward which mindfulness may aspire. The point is this: We ought not to be for or against the Internet in itself. We ought to be for the kind of loving mindfulness Wallace advocates — to take one example — and then we ought to measure our practices, all of them, online or off, by how well they support such loving mindfulness.