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?

Preserving the Person in the Emerging Kingdom of Technological Force

What does Iceland look like through Google Glass? Turns out it looks kind of like Iceland. Consider this stunning set of photographs showcasing a tool built by Silica Labs which allows users to post images from Glass directly onto their WordPress blog. If you click over to see the images, you’ll notice two things. First, you’ll see that Iceland is beautiful, something you may already have known. Secondly, you’ll see that pictures taken with Glass look, well, just like pictures not taken with Glass.

There’s one exception to that second observation. When the user’s hands appear in the frame, the POV perspective becomes evident. Apart from that, these great pictures look just like every other set of great pictures. This isn’t a knock on the tool developed by Silica Labs, by the way. I’m not really interested in that particular app. I’m interested in the appeal of Glass and how users understand their experience with Glass, and these pictures, not markedly different from what you could produce without Glass, suggested a thesis: perhaps the appeal of Glass has less to do with what it enables you to do than it does with the way you feel when you’re doing it. And, as it turns out, there is recurring theme in how many early adopters described their experience of Glass that seems to support this thesis.

As Glass started making its first public appearances, reviewers focused on user experience; and their criticism typically centered on the look of Glass, which was consistently described as geeky, nerdy, pretentious, or silly. Clearly, Glass had an image problem. But soon the conversation turned to the experience of those in the vicinity of a Glass user. Mark Hurst was one of the first to redirect our attention in this direction: “The most important Google Glass experience is not the user experience – it’s the experience of everyone else.” Hurst was especially troubled by the ease with which Glass can document others and the effects this would have on the conduct of public life.

Google was sensitive to these concerns, and it quickly assured the public that the power of Glass to record others surreptitiously had been greatly exaggerated. A light would indicate when Glass was activated so others would know if they were being recorded and the command to record would be audible. Of course, it didn’t take long to circumvent these efforts to mitigate Glass’s creep factor. Without much regard for Google’s directives, hackers created apps that allowed users to take pictures merely by winking. Worse yet, an app that equipped Glass with face-recognition capabilities soon followed.

Writing after the deployment of these hacks, David Pogue echoed Hurst’s earlier concerns: “the biggest obstacle [facing Glass] is the smugness of people who wear Glass—and the deep discomfort of everyone who doesn’t.” After laying out his tech-geek bona fides, even Nick Bilton confessed his unease around people wearing Glass: “I felt like a mere mortal among an entirely different class of super-connected humans.” The defining push back against this feeling Glass engenders in others came from Adrian Chen who proclaimed unequivocally, “By donning Google Glass, you, the Google Glass user, are volunteering to be a foot soldier in Google’s asshole army.”

Hurst was on to something. He was right to direct attention to the experience of those in the vicinity of a Glass user (or, Glassholes, as they have been affectionately called by some). But it’s worth pivoting back to the experience of the Glass user. Set aside ergonomics, graphic interfaces, and design questions for a moment, though, and consider what users report feeling when they use Google Glass.

Let’s start with Evernote CEO Phil Libin. In a Huffington Post interview late in 2012, he claimed that “in as little as three years” it will seem “barbaric” not to use Google Glass. That certainly has a consciously hyperbolic ring to it, but it’s the follow-up comment that’s telling: ”People think it looks kind of dorky right now but the experience is so powerful that you feel stupid as soon as you take the glasses off…”

“The experience is so powerful” – there it is. Glass lets you check the Internet, visualize information in some interesting ways, send messages, take pictures, and shoot video. I’m sure I’m missing something, but none of those are in themselves groundbreaking or revolutionary. Clearly, though, there’s something about having all of this represented for the user as part of their perceptual apparatus that conveys a peculiar sense of empowerment.

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google appearPhilbin was not the only one to report this feeling of power. Robert Scoble declared, “I will never live another day without wearing Google Glass or something like it. They have instantly become part of my life.” “The human body has a lot of limitations,” software developer Monica Wilkinson explained, “I see [Glass] as a way to enhance our bodies.” Writing about his Glass experience on The Verge, Joshua Topolsky was emphatic: “I won’t lie, it’s amazingly powerful (and more than a little scary) to be able to just start recording video or snapping pictures with a couple of flicks of your finger or simple voice commands.” A little further on he added, “In the city, Glass make you feel more powerful, better equipped, and definitely less diverted.” Then there’s Chris Barrett who captured the first arrest on Glass. Barrett witnessed a fight and came in close to film the action. He acknowledged that if he were not wearing Glass, he would not have approached the scene of the scuffle. Finally, there’s all that is implicit in the way Sergey Brin characterized the smartphone as he was introducing Glass: “It’s kind of emasculating.” Glass, we are to infer, addresses this emasculation by giving the user a sense of power. Pogue put it most succinctly: Glass puts its wearers in “a position of control.”

It is possible to make too much of these statements. Other have found that using Glass makes them feel self-conscious in public and awkward in interactions with others. But Glass has revealed to a few intrepid souls something of its potential power, and, if they’re to be trusted, the feeling has been intoxicating. But why is this?

Perhaps this is because the prosthetic effect is especially seamless, so that it feels as if you yourself are doing the things Glass enables rather than using a tool to accomplish them. When a tool works really well it doesn’t feel like your using a tool, it feels like you are acting through the tool. Glass seems to take it a step further. You are not just acting through Glass; you are simply acting. You, by your gestures or voice commands, are doing these things. Even the way audio is received from Glass contributes to the effect. Here’s how Gary Shteyngart described the way it feels to hear using Glass’s bone transducer: “The result is eerie, as if someone is whispering directly into a hole bored into your cranium, but also deeply futuristic.” That sounds to me as if you are hearing audio in the way that we might imagine “hearing” telepathy.

In other words, there is an alluring immediacy to the experience of interacting with the world through Google Glass. This seamlessness, this way that Glass has of feeling like a profound empowerment recalls nothing so much as the link between magic and technology so aptly captured in Arthur Clarke’s famous third law: ”Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Clarke’s pithy law recalls a fundamental, and historical, connection between magic and technology: they are both about power. As Lewis Mumford put it in Technic and Civilization, “magic was the bridge that united fantasy with technology: the dream of power with the engines of fulfillment.” Or consider how C. S. Lewis formulated the relationship: “For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.” Sociologist Richard Stivers has concluded, “Without magic, technology would have no fatal sway over us.”

So it turns out that the appeal of Glass, for all of its futuristic cyborg pretensions, may be anchored in an ancient desire that has long animated the technological project: the desire for the experience of power. And, privacy concerns aside, this may be the best reason to be wary of the device. Those who crave the feel of power—or who having tasted it, become too enamored of it—tend not to be the sort of people with whom you want to share a society.

It is also worth noting what we might call a pervasive cultural preparation for the coming of Glass. In another context, I’ve claimed that the closest analogy to the experience of the world through Google Glass may be the experience of playing a first-person video game. To generation that has grown up playing first person shooters and role-playing video games, Glass promises to make the experience of everyday life feel more like the experience of playing a game. In a comment on my initial observations, Nick Carr added, “You might argue that this reversal is already well under way in warfare. Video war games originally sought to replicate the look and feel of actual warfare, but now, as more warfare becomes automated via drones, robots, etc., the military is borrowing its interface technologies from the gaming world. War is becoming more gamelike.”

If you can’t quite get passed the notion that Google Glass is nothing more than a white-tech-boy-fantasy, consider that this is Glass 1.0. Wearable tech is barely out of the toddler stage. Project this technology just a little further down the line–when it is less obtrusive, more seamless in its operation–and it may appear instead that Philbin, Scoble, and Topolsky have seen the future clearly, and it works addictively. Consider as well how some future version of Glass may combine with Leap Motion-style technology to fully deploy the technology-as-magic aesthetic or, also, the potential of Glass to interact with the much touted Internet of Things. Wave your hand, speak your command and things happen, the world obeys.

But letting this stand as a critique of Glass risks missing a deeper point. Technology and power are inseparable. Not all technologies empower in the same way, but all technologies empower in some way. And we should be particularly careful about technologies that grant power in social contexts. Power tends to objectify, and we could do without further inducements to render others as objects in our field of action.

In her wise and moving essay on the Iliad, Simone Weil characterized power’s manifestation in human affairs, what she calls force, as “the ability to turn a human being into a thing while he is still alive.” Power or force, then, is the ability to objectify. Deadly force, Weil observes, literally turns a person into a thing, a corpse. All less lethal deployments of force are derivative of this ultimate power to render a person a thing.

It is telling that the most vocal, and sometimes violent, opposition to Glass has come in response to its ability to document others, possibly without their awareness, much less consent. To be documented in such a way is to be objectified, and the intuitive discomfort others have felt in the presence of those wearing Glass is a reflection of an innate resistance to the force that would render us an object. In his excellent write up of Glass late last year, Clive Thompson noted that while from his perspective he was wearing a computer that granted quick, easy access to information, “To everyone else, I was just a guy with a camera on his head.” “Cameras are everywhere in public,” Thompson observes, “but one fixed to your face sends a more menacing signal: I have the power to record you at a moment’s notice, it seems to declare — and maybe I already am.”

Later on in her reflections on the Iliad, Weil observed, “The man who is the possessor of force seems to walk through a non-resistant element; in the human substance that surrounds him nothing has the power to interpose, between the impulse and the act, the tiny interval that is reflection.” Curiously, Google researcher and wearable-computing pioneer, Thad Starner, has written, “Wearables empower the user by reducing the time between their intention to do a task and their ability to perform that task.”

Starner, I’m certain, has only the best of intentions. In the same piece he writes compellingly about the potential of Glass to empower individuals who suffer from a variety of physical impairments. But I also believe that he may have spoken more than he knew. The collapse of the space between intention or desire on the one hand and action or realization on the other may be the most basic reality constituting the promise and allure of technology. We should be mindful, though, of all that such a collapse may entail. Following Weil, we might consider, at least, that the space between impulse and act is also the space for reflection, and, further, the space in which we might appear to one another as fully human persons rather than objects to be manipulated or layers of data to be mined.