Your attention: please?
April 4, 2016 10:57 AM   Subscribe

Blaming technology for the rise in inattention is misplaced. History shows that the disquiet is fuelled not by the next new thing but by the threat this thing – whatever it might be – poses to the moral authority of the day--Frank Furedi, The Ages of Distraction

More from the article:
The recent decades have seen a dramatic reversal in the conceptualisation of inattention. Unlike in the 18th century when it was perceived as abnormal, today inattention is often presented as the normal state. The current era is frequently characterised as the Age of Distraction, and inattention is no longer depicted as a condition that afflicts a few. Nowadays, the erosion of humanity’s capacity for attention is portrayed as an existential problem, linked with the allegedly corrosive effects of digitally driven streams of information relentlessly flowing our way. ‘The net seizes our attention only to scatter it,’ contends Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Read, Think and Remember (2010). According to the US neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, the distractions of the modern world can literally damage our brains.

Yet the moral concerns that have always underpinned society’s preoccupation with inattention still lurk in the background. As the US literary critic Sven Birkerts recently acknowledged: ‘What I do know is that the words attention and moral came together for me with an electric immediacy.’
Jenny Hendrix, Ghost in the Machine (reviewing Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Digital Age, by Sven Birkerts:
There is little doubt that technology alters our thinking: studies have shown a decreased ability to concentrate for sustained lengths of time, and, conversely, an increased tendency to multitask, with physical effects on the brain. That technology has an effect on our being is not a revolutionary claim. As David Lochhead, a theologian interested in media, wrote, we “take our technology into the deepest recesses of our souls. Our view of reality, our structures of meaning, our sense of identity—all are touched and transformed by the technologies which we have allowed to mediate between ourselves and the world.” This is true of any technology, from spades to books and telescopes. But the pace of change—and level of mediation—is inarguably greater today. So great that it may constitute a difference in kind.
The Guardian, also reviewing Birkerts:
We get to talking about essays and their relationship to attention. “I always think of the essay form as a mode of meditation in a way,” he tells me, speaking in his slowly but perfectly constructed sentences. “You go toward whatever is your chosen subject and you find a way to most interestingly and truly meditate about it.” He says he doesn’t want to be bound to the meditation metaphor, not exactly, but he’s got himself going. “You have to be able to sink into your material,” Birkerts continues, “you have to be able to take hold of it at a level which requires, and is, a kind of paying attention.”

And with digital culture, he argues, “That particular quality of mind is under threat.” Then he pauses. “I don’t mean to sound ominous or dire.” And he also doesn’t mean to sound like he is judging the behaviour of others from some superior perch. “If I watch myself through the course of the day and see all the ways in which I am pulled away from that – and I don’t just mean things going on in the screen, the intensity and fragmentation of what it takes to conduct a life – an essay or anything else, any kind of attempt at expression, is a rebuttal to that.”
Paying Attention in the Digital Age, in the Chronicle of Higher Education

Timothy Egan, the Eight Second Attention Span
posted by MoonOrb (11 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
posted by sotonohito at 11:03 AM on April 4, 2016 [13 favorites]

posted by Gyan at 11:19 AM on April 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

He prescribed sour milk, steel powder and horseback riding.

What... uh... what was the steel powder for?
posted by clawsoon at 11:27 AM on April 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

To fortify the milk, obviously.
posted by leotrotsky at 2:23 PM on April 4, 2016

Here's a related argument in convenient comic form

It wouldn't surprise me if the industrial age really did change the culture. I wonder, WERE there similar sentiments going around in the 1600s and 1700s?

The Patrick O'Brian book series talks a lot about the generation gap between the people who grew up in the 1700s vs the ones who grew up during the transition, versus the ones who grew up entirely in the midle of the Industrial revolution, and its emphasis on efficiency and profitability. (At least, that's a lot of what *I* got out of those books.)
posted by small_ruminant at 2:24 PM on April 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

All this technology is making us antisocial.

Y'know what? Maybe it is. Any maybe the periodic rushes of new technology since the Industrial Revolution all have, and that's what you're looking at in that picture.

Any maybe over time, as we figure out how to build new relationships to replace the relationships that the new technology has disrupted (disrupted jobs, disrupted communities, new ways of communicating), we gradually get more social again.

(And then we're hit by the next new relationship-transforming technology.)
posted by clawsoon at 3:11 PM on April 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Anti-social? What? No. The most secluded and solitary of settings: a bathroom, big mirror just to get the point across even, that this space is for you to contemplate you, yet even words alluding to this solitary mode of being strikes most casual users of technology with anxiety because they just can't do it anymore. They have to read other peoples thoughts on their phone while they do their business. Water-proof phones for the shower soon. How can anyone ever think what they're doing is anti-social? It must start somewhere, a premonition of having lost... "I know! We stopped being social!" What a perfect inverse of the truth.
posted by Taft at 2:15 AM on April 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

Jokes to the side, those are truly excellent articles that go into a lot more detail than Randal Monroe did, and I find some of their conclusions interesting. I hadn't realized that characterizing childhood inattention as a mental disorder was a thing long before ADHD was invented.
posted by sotonohito at 1:36 PM on April 5, 2016

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