Attention Discourse

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L. M. Sacasas:

"Attention discourse is my term for the proliferation of articles, essays, books, and op-eds about attention and distraction in the age of digital media. I don’t mean the label pejoratively. I’ve made my own contributions to the genre, in this newsletter and elsewhere, and as recently as May of last year.1 In fact, I tend to think that attention discourse circles around immensely important issues we should all think about more deliberately. So, here then, is yet another entry for the attention files presented as a numbered list of loosely related observations for you consideration, a form in which I like to occasionally indulge and which I hope you find suggestive and generative.

1. I take Nick Carr’s 2008 piece in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, to be the ur-text of this most recent wave of attention discourse. If that’s fair, then attention and distraction have been the subject of intermittent public debate for nearly fifteen years, but this sustained focus appears to have yielded little by way of improving our situation. I say the “the most recent wave” because attention discourse has a history that pre-dates the digital age. The first wave of attention discourse can be dated back to the mid-nineteenth century, as historian Jonathan Crary has argued at length, especially in his 1999 book, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture. “For it is in the late nineteenth century,” Crary observed,

within the human sciences and particularly the nascent field of scientific psychology, that the problem of attention becomes a fundamental issue. It was a problem whose centrality was directly related to the emergence of a social, urban, psychic, and industrial field increasingly saturated with sensory input. Inattention, especially within the context of new forms of large-scale industrialized production, began to be treated as a danger and a serious problem, even though it was often the very modernized arrangements of labor that produced inattention. It is possible to see one crucial aspect of modernity as an ongoing crisis of attentiveness, in which the changing configurations of capitalism continually push attention and distraction to new limits and thresholds, with an endless sequence of new products, sources of stimulation, and streams of information, and then respond with new methods of managing and regulating perception […] But at the same time, attention, as a historical problem, is not reducible to the strategies of social discipline. As I shall argue, the articulation of a subject in terms of attentive capacities simultaneously disclosed a subject incapable of conforming to such disciplinary imperatives.”

Many of the lineaments of contemporary attention discourse are already evident in Crary’s description of its 19th century antecedents.2

2. One reaction to learning that modern day attention discourse has longstanding antecedents would be to dismiss contemporary criticisms of the digital attention economy. The logic of such dismissals is not unlike that of the tale of Chicken Little. Someone is always proclaiming that the sky is falling, but the sky never falls. This is, in fact, a recurring trope in the wider public debate about technology. The seeming absurdity of some 19th-century pundit decrying the allegedly demoralizing consequences of the novel is somehow enough to ward off modern day critiques of emerging technologies. Interestingly, however, it’s often the case that the antecedents don’t take us back indefinitely into the human past. Rather, they often have a curiously consistent point of origin: somewhere in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. It’s almost as if some radical techno-economic re-ordering of society had occurred, generating for the first time a techno-social environment which was, in some respects at least, inhospitable to the embodied human person. That the consequences linger and remain largely unresolved, or that new and intensified iterations of the older disruptions yield similar expressions of distress should not be surprising.

3. Simone Weil, writing in Oppression and Liberty (published posthumously in 1955):

“Never has the individual been so completely delivered up to a blind collectivity, and never have men been less capable, not only of subordinating their actions to their thoughts, but even of thinking. Such terms as oppressors and oppressed, the idea of classes—all that sort of thing is near to losing all meaning, so obvious are the impotence and distress of all men in the face of the social machine, which has become a machine for breaking hearts and crushing spirits, a machine for manufacturing irresponsibility, stupidity, corruption, slackness and, above all, dizziness. The reason for this painful state of affairs is perfectly clear. We are living in a world in which nothing is made to man’s measure; there exists a monstrous discrepancy between man’s body, man’s mind and the things which at present time constitute the elements of human existence; everything is in disequilibrium […] This disequilibrium is essentially a matter of quantity. Quantity is changed into quality, as Hegel said, and in particular a mere difference in quantity is sufficient to change what is human in to what is inhuman. From the abstract point of view quantities are immaterial, since you can arbitrarily change the unit of measurement; but from the concrete point of view certain units of measurement are given and have hitherto remained invariable, such as the human body, human life, the year, the day, the average quickness of human thought. Present-day life is not organized on the scale of all these things; it has been transported into an altogether different order of magnitude, as though men were trying to raise it to the level of the forces outside of nature while neglecting to take his own nature into account.”

4. Nicholas Carr began his 2008 article with a bit of self-disclosure, which I suspect now sounds pretty familiar to most of us if it didn’t already then. Here’s what he reported:

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. 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. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

At the time, it certainly resonated with me, and what may be most worth noting about this today is that Carr, and those who are roughly his contemporaries in age, were in the position of living before and after the rise of the commercial internet and thus had a point of experiential contrast to emerging digital culture."