our world has become an attention battleground
August 21, 2019 5:03 AM   Subscribe

20 ways to pay attention (sl medium)
posted by Cozybee (45 comments total) 86 users marked this as a favorite
 
That was very inspiring. Thanks for posting.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:46 AM on August 21


I'm making note of about six of these as inspiration for hobby photo shoots.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:16 AM on August 21


Fun post, thank you to the OP. I've engaged with some of these (the book on walking with experts, Slow Art Day) and really enjoy them. Flickr has a great assortment of groups devoted to photos of specific small details, such as ventilation grills, scarves, tracks without trains, green plants in containers, water droplets, and a personal favorite: postal label graffiti.
posted by wicked_sassy at 6:21 AM on August 21 [2 favorites]


18. Look at anything besides your phone

Ironically, you will never guess where I read this.

A week ago my septuagenarian mother, who grudgingly allows herself to carry a cell phone for emergencies, was meeting me in a quieter part of downtown. She parked in a city lot and passed the ten or fifteen minutes waiting for me by watching passersby. In that time, she told me, exactly one person had walked by who was not enraptured by a phone: an older guy on a bicycle. She wondered aloud to me how these people had experienced their day downtown.

I am surprised that sketching is not in here (although I suppose “Look really, really slowly” gets close to the idea). John Ruskin, born 200 years ago last February, taught people how to sketch. He did this not because he wanted to make them artists but because he wanted to teach them to see things differently. His words:
Let two persons go out for a walk; the one a good sketcher, the other having no taste of the kind. Let them go down a green lane. There will be a great difference in the scene as perceived by the two individuals. The one will see a lane and trees; he will perceive the trees to be green, though he will think nothing about it; he will see that the sun shines, and that it has a cheerful effect; and that’s all! But what will the sketcher see? His eye is accustomed to search into the cause of beauty, and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness. He looks up, and observes how the showery and subdivided sunshine comes sprinkled down among the gleaming leaves overhead, till the air is filled with the emerald light. He will see here and there a bough emerging from the veil of leaves, he will see the jewel brightness of the emerald moss and the variegated and fantastic lichens, white and blue, purple and red, all mellowed and mingled into a single garment of beauty. Then come the cavernous trunks and the twisted roots that grasp with their snake-like coils at the steep bank, whose turfy slope is inlaid with flowers of a thousand dyes. Is not this worth seeing? Yet if you are not a sketcher you will pass along the green lane and when you come home again, have nothing to say or to think about it, but that you went down such and such a lane.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:21 AM on August 21 [22 favorites]


Radio producer Aaron Henkin once conducted a more elaborate, and structured, version of engaging with strangers. His goal: “to meet and interview everybody who lived and worked on one city block in Baltimore.”


Talking to Strangers:

"When you can convince people that you really just want to listen to what they have to say, that person will open their heart to you every time. When you listen to people you’re giving them a very rare and special gift.

"When people tell you a story, it’s like they’re singing you a song. Every voice has its own musicality, its own tone and timbre. And even just a little half-sentence fragment can go in through your ear and tell you something profound about a person’s soul....

"[I]t might make you nervous. It might feel awkward. It might be very counter-intuitive, the last thing you’re inclined to do, but if you talk to strangers, it’s a guaranteed way to improve your day and theirs."

Good share, Cozybee. Thank you.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:23 AM on August 21 [6 favorites]


too short; read repeatedly.

First, I read only the first paragraph
Secondly, read the first paragraph and the second paragraph.
Thirdly, the first, second, and third...

Some readings, the sentences inspired me to set aside time on the calendar to try the techniques, other readings skimmed by like a buzzfeed listicle. During one reading, I started clicking outbound links and am now in these comments on my way back to the article.
posted by otherchaz at 6:24 AM on August 21 [3 favorites]


I read this slowly & carefully and discovered the author has a time machine.

It was posted on: Dec 19, 2014
But thanks the classes of 2014 & 2015.
posted by chavenet at 6:35 AM on August 21 [4 favorites]


Let a stranger lead you
Thinking about strangers reminds me of Vito Acconci’s well-known “Following Piece,” performed over a period of weeks in 1969: Daily, he would pick a random person, and follow her or him around New York. This would continue until his subject entered some space Acconci could not (a residence, for instance, or a car that promptly departs).


Yea nothing could go wrong with this
posted by ShawnString at 6:50 AM on August 21 [10 favorites]


The cohort of people comprising the "class of 2015" existed prior to grauduation, and would have been on or about halfway through their senior year at the time of posting - certainly enough time for the author to get to know them well enough to include them in the thanks.
posted by Earthtopus at 6:53 AM on August 21 [4 favorites]


I ask students to “practice paying attention” before our next meeting. There are no other parameters for this assignment, which students have a week to complete.

I miss school. These are the kind of assignments that get roasted as meaningless, but being pushed to consciously evaluate the subconscious ways you go about 95% of your day is valuable. Thanks for sharing.
posted by sallybrown at 7:06 AM on August 21 [17 favorites]


Good stuff. Keep your eyes open, watch the sky, observe observe observe. And seconding: draw, sketch.
posted by pilot pirx at 7:49 AM on August 21 [2 favorites]


Look really, really slowly
Educator Jennifer L. Roberts has described an assignment she’s used in art history classes as making students regard a single work for “a painfully long time.”
It's often eye-opening to talk to the guards working art museum galleries. They've stared at the same works for hours and also heard a lot of other people talking about them. Their observations are almost always interesting and nuanced.
posted by carmicha at 8:03 AM on August 21 [19 favorites]


This sounds like a surefire way to alienate and exclude the autistic and otherwise neuroatypical students who need a clearly defined task and guidance for what is expected of them. I'd find it hard to think of a more hostile and painful assignment than one in which the parameters are intentionally "overtly vague" with no other parameters, and conducted for what seems to be solely the entertainment of the teacher's hobbyhorse.

If a student feels they have to apologise for misunderstanding the task, then the teacher has failed at their job.
posted by talitha_kumi at 8:12 AM on August 21 [10 favorites]


I'm not at all the sort of person who will initiate a conversation with a stranger, but I'm going to try being friendlier and more engaging with the next stranger who initiates one with me.
posted by Etrigan at 8:14 AM on August 21 [3 favorites]


In teaching biology, I sometimes have the opportunity to ask students to practise paying attention. Marking off one section of grass (I ask them to find a "very boring") area and then just watching and making notes for as long as they can stand.

Nearly everyone pulls out their phone or starts chatting, but one or two always come back with excited stories of insect drama or a count of how many different plants they found in a small patch of what they thought was all one thing.

We talk about it the next day, and I have a spiel about the virtues of noticing small details, but it's mainly a way for me to spot and encourage folks who might be well suited to field work.

I'm making a note to ask everyone whether they sketch/paint/do photography/etc.
That's interesting to me, and probably meshes will with another talk about how artists, poets, mathematicians, and scientists all are first required to notice something interesting before they can do their thing.
posted by Acari at 8:15 AM on August 21 [26 favorites]


Good article with excellent suggestions. Paying attention is a favorite hobby of mine.

A few years back I had access to a remote camp where I’d stay alone for weeks at a time. The building was a partly subterranean concrete dome whose extensive windows admitted direct sunlight and views of the forest. Totally off-grid.

One lovely late summer day, I rose early to watch the sunlight from dawn to dusk. Other than eating, I permitted no other distractions, watching closely as subtly changing light slid across the stone floor, illuminating artwork, ceramics and blown glass objects donated by visitors. Birdsong evolved with time of day in the forest, as did the cycling of insects, the wind stirring leaves, and aromas of damp earth, wood, growing things, clean air and an odd whiff of distant decay. Deer wandered by and looked in, curious. As the light failed, an owl called.

It was one of the most entertaining and satisfying days I’ve ever spent.
posted by kinnakeet at 8:19 AM on August 21 [18 favorites]


In teaching biology, I sometimes have the opportunity to ask students to practise paying attention.

One of my favorite essays: Take This Fish and Look at It.
posted by sallybrown at 8:20 AM on August 21 [10 favorites]


Nearly everyone pulls out their phone or starts chatting, but one or two always come back with excited stories of insect drama or a count of how many different plants they found in a small patch of what they thought was all one thing.

One of my favorite moments with me and my ex came during a day we were wandering around one of the zoos. I think it was the Central Park Zoo, which has a small section devoted to "tropical life" or something like that; the path lead you through a few different rooms/areas, and there were various critters in each section, some birds and some not. People were usually separated from the critters by simple elevation (a walkway built about 4 feet up from where the animals' enclosures were) or glass (if they were good climbers), but birds were just zipping around free inside the various rooms.

Most people just wandered through each room glancing at things, spending no more than five minutes in each room, and at first so were we. But at one point my ex spotted an unusually active bird and suggested we stop and watch it a minute. (He was always doing that kind of thing - we'd be out wandering around and he'd often say "ooh, let's stop and check out that bird over there, and see what it's doing." He'd say this about things like PIGEONS.) Quickly we figured out it was trying to build a nest, and then noticed another bird competing with it for nesting material - one would drop something it was carrying and the other would swoop down and claim it, and the first would chase it a while. Then we noticed a third bird in on the action. Then a fourth.

We spent about 20 minutes standing in a corner watching this all-out drama unfolding, giggling and pointing things out to each other. "There's a lot going on in this room!" he kept saying, delighted. And meanwhile loads of other people were just walking by at their usual five-minutes-in-the-room pace, and all of them missed all of what we were seeing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:33 AM on August 21 [24 favorites]



If a student feels they have to apologise for misunderstanding the task, then the teacher has failed at their job.

Tolerance of ambiguity and negotiation of meaning are valuable skills to develop (at least from the perspective of language teaching).
posted by Meatbomb at 9:07 AM on August 21 [16 favorites]


Taiichi Ohno, the developer of what would one day be called "Lean maufacturing", would have you stand in one spot on the shop floor, noticing everything you could:

Taiichi Ohno's Chalk Circle
posted by springo at 9:07 AM on August 21 [5 favorites]


Tolerance of ambiguity and negotiation of meaning are valuable skills to develop (at least from the perspective of language teaching).

And accommodation for neurodiversity and the realisation that different people need different approaches are valuable skills for a teacher to learn from the perspective of doing their job and not needlessly traumatising their students.
posted by talitha_kumi at 9:21 AM on August 21 [9 favorites]


Traumatizing the students? That seems like a leap. A teacher also must prepare a student for actual life. Not all of life has clearly defined and rigid tasks. People are all different and growth occurs when challenges are met. Removing any potential for challenges sounds like an unlived life to me (I am only speaking for myself on that last part).
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:53 AM on August 21 [6 favorites]


Radio producer Aaron Henkin once conducted a more elaborate, and structured, version of engaging with strangers. His goal: “to meet and interview everybody who lived and worked on one city block in Baltimore.”

That article didn’t even have to include a photo, it was already obvious that it was a white dude who felt privileged enough to barge into the lives of everyone on one city block and demand their time and attention for his project.

Maybe if people want to improve their ways of paying attention, consider that nobody owes you a conversation and that women, especially, are really tired of having to weigh the danger of your potential reaction if they reject your advances.
posted by corey flood at 9:59 AM on August 21 [12 favorites]


Some autistic people might have trouble with this assignment. I'm autistic and think it sounds interesting and worthwhile.
posted by Lexica at 11:04 AM on August 21 [5 favorites]


Different students appreciate different types of tasks. Sometimes one and the same student may appreciate different types of tasks at different times, depending on mood, subject matter, relationship to the teacher, group dynamics, perceived costs of failure etc. Thinking back on my own school days, I can definitely remember instances when I was frustrated by overly vague instructions and instances when I was frustrated by overly specific ones - vagues ones leave you kinda hanging and make it difficult to get even started (I'm fairly neurotypical for all I know but I can have issues with procrastination, so that's not great), overly specific ones with a clearly predetermined outcome can stiffle creativity/curiosity and sometimes make me feel like a trained seal jumping through hoops. Where's the fun in investigation when you're so carefully prevented from reaching a different conclusion than the one set out from the start? What's left to explore on your own, when the way is littered with signposts? (A path you had to make for yourself is more likely to stick in the memory too).

Of course the "overly" in the "overly vague"/"overly specific" used above is nothing but subjective - no teacher can get it right for all students all the time. There's danger in overwhelming students with vagueness as well as in boring them by guiding them too closely. In my experience, overwhelmed and bored students are pretty equally likely to disengage.

For what it's worth, as a teacher my plan is usually to err more on the side of risking boredom - learning to cope with ambiguity is a valueable life skill, but so is learning to cope with boredom/making your own fun. When I was bored as a student, I would sometimes invent little extra requirements for myself to make the task more interesting - eg. I'm supposed to use the new vocabulary words for this lesson in a sentence each, why not make all the sentences into a narrative, and maybe into a poem? Also, even if the teacher clearly wants you to reach a specific conclusion, what's to stop you from thinking about things that would lead you to a different one? There's no reason at all to ever limit your ambition to just meeting a teacher's requirements. Yes, real life tends to come with clear instructions maddeningly rarely, so not even trying to prepare students for ambiguity will definitely lead to some complaining school was too theoretical to be of much use. But then again, most of them are pretty much guaranteed to do that anyway. School is no preparation for life, school is a part of life, and one where you could at least try not to set these kids up for failure.

That said, since there are so many pros and cons to both narrowly guided and more open-ended tasks, the general wisdom in teachers' education is to just switch it up once in a while. If I were to set a task such as the one inspiring this little digression, I would probably do it a)as an alternate option, in combination with a more clearly defined one, leaving students the choice to pick either one or the other b) only for extra-credit, so that students can just skip it, and will still get the best grade if they do well on the regular assignements.
posted by sohalt at 11:48 AM on August 21 [6 favorites]


It's interesting that their conclusion is to pay more attention. I generally work harder to tune more things out.
posted by Margalo Epps at 11:53 AM on August 21 [1 favorite]


I've found the best way of tuning something out is to pay intense attention to something else. Sometimes what I want to tune out is my own interior monologue, sometimes it's my environment, but the beauty is, it really works in equally well in both directions.
posted by sohalt at 11:56 AM on August 21 [2 favorites]


Two things that I do, were not specifically mentioned.

The first is to verbally describe what I am seeing, or to write down what I am perceiving in the form of a list. Eg. seven red cars, twelve white and two grey cars, the concrete parking lot dividers are painted in yellow stripes, the shadow of the tree is slanting at about twenty five degrees different than the parking lines painted on the asphalt, all the garbage is on the eastern edge of the lot, probably blown there by the wind, most of it is coffee cups, say roughly eighty percent...

Another thing I do is switch primary senses. I might start by listening harder than I am seeing or anything else. The traffic noises are a steady hum broken with bump and rumble noises. There is a faint sound of hissing, probably the wind, and a steady rhythmic rattle that might be machinery in one of the buildings. Then switch to smells - the after rain city dirt smell, very distant ketchup, walk a few steps and there is the less than a week old smell of city garbage, but there are faint notes of earth. Then switch to physical sensations: the concrete sidewalk is harder under my shoes than the asphalt, inside me is a sensation of being too full and my left hip aches just perceptible and my feet feel like they are being squeezed to tightly...

A game I play is to look at people and make random judgements about them. My standard go-to is to decide what historical period they would look most attractive in, or would suit them best: Italian features and wiry build - Italian renaissance. Soft round cheeks, a lot of belly, Gothic era, probably the Netherlands. Very tall, very dark, almost no hair - Ancient Eygpt. No figure, short hair in a bob - 1920's and probably put her in a man's suit. This can also be played with what character they would play in a movie, or a novel, if they had a speaking part.

I've tried going with noticing brand names and once spent three days learning to identify cars by their brands, if not their models. But then I overloaded on that information and simply looking at moving cars in traffic became exhausting and I had to stop. There was just too much information coming in.

Another way of noticing is to try to describe the colours precisely. What shade of grey is that concrete building? Light dove grey? What about the part in the shadow? How much blue is there in that grey, or does it have more mauve tones? When doing colours things you see are different colors at different times of day, or even at different angles.

Or; What is pretty in this environment? Sounds? Colours? Movement? Living things?
posted by Jane the Brown at 12:27 PM on August 21 [11 favorites]


That article didn’t even have to include a photo, it was already obvious that it was a white dude who felt privileged enough to barge into the lives of everyone on one city block and demand their time and attention for his project.

Out of the Blocks is also produced by Wendel Patrick who made some pretty amazing music / soundscapes and got some great photos out of it. There was a recent episode that took place in North Lawndale here in Chicago. His talk on it was pretty nifty. So perhaps the project is bit more nuanced than what you might be supposing?

Here's Wendel Patrick's website.
posted by Wink Ricketts at 12:37 PM on August 21


A game I play is to look at people and make random judgements about them. My standard go-to is to decide what historical period they would look most attractive in....

Me too! Can also recommend, tends to provide minutes of entertainment. I make an exercise of (inconspicuously*, hopefully) looking at people in public transport until I find them beautiful (ie. by rotating through historical periods as you described until I hit on one that suits them) and then looking at them until I don't find them beautiful anymore (it works in the same way as repeating a word until it loses its meaning).

*eg. by not looking at them directly, but at their reflection in the window
posted by sohalt at 12:51 PM on August 21 [3 favorites]


excited stories of insect drama

I tried to get a story of insect drama, but they turned around and looked at me with their many many eyes and said "excuse us, but mind your own business!" so I stepped back and turned around but still listened and I heard "she may be leader of the hive but she is no queen." Oh snap!
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:49 PM on August 21 [5 favorites]


My paying attention game is to try to move through whatever space I'm in as silently as possible. This requires me to pay close attention to the unconscious sounds I make, to the rhythm and sound of my breath, to the way I move any given part of my body, to the different sounds different fabrics and materials make when they move against each other, to the way I interact with objects, to the surfaces I'm moving over and how they interact with different kinds of shoes. This is, perhaps, a more inward focused means of paying attention, but even given how much I'm concentrating on my body, it inevitably teaches me something new about the space I'm in.
posted by darchildre at 2:09 PM on August 21 [4 favorites]


My standard go-to is to decide what historical period they would look most attractive in, or would suit them best

My partner and I like to play a similar game called "spot the time traveler." In any given crowd, there's definitely a person who's trying really hard but not performing the current period correctly. This is especially fun, but more challenging, at dress-up events like the Edwardian Ball.
posted by Phobos the Space Potato at 2:20 PM on August 21 [10 favorites]


One of my favorite essays: Take This Fish and Look at It.

Thanks! I've been looking for that.
posted by sneebler at 3:01 PM on August 21 [1 favorite]


One lovely late summer day, I rose early to watch the sunlight from dawn to dusk. Other than eating, I permitted no other distractions, watching closely as subtly changing light slid across the stone floor, illuminating artwork, ceramics and blown glass objects donated by visitors.

I've had a couple of days like that. Once I stayed behind with the canoe while my brother went to get the car, which ended up taking all day. Hanging around a bridge in the middle of nowhere near the Alberta-Montana border turned out to be a fantastic day, and still a source of inspiration 40 years later. Also, if you do meditation retreats, one where the light moves around the room over the day seems like a legit Nice Thing.
posted by sneebler at 3:08 PM on August 21 [3 favorites]


Take This Fish and Look at It.
hello new supplemental reading!
Thanks! I love it!
posted by Acari at 5:19 PM on August 21 [1 favorite]


For more supplemental reading in this vein: J. Odell’s How to do nothing develops the premises and implications of the contention of attention into a delightfully profound activist manifesto.
posted by progosk at 12:10 AM on August 22 [3 favorites]


I have a lifelong interest in birds and natural history more generally, and honestly this is one of the biggest reasons I would recommend it to people: there is always a reason to consciously engage with your surroundings. In a properly biologically rich environment like a wildflower meadow it can take a couple of hours to walk a few hundred metres, but I’ve had lots of pretty good records of moths and other insects in suburban London. I’ve had 520 moth species in the garden in four years, and 567 in the local area, so that’s nearly 50 species I’ve found while just walking around the neighbourhood, whether as adult moths, caterpillars or leaf mines.

But the point isn’t really the numbers, it’s that it trains you to always be looking. You don’t always find anything interesting, but you definitely won’t find anything if you’re not looking.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 1:25 AM on August 22 [1 favorite]


The cohort of people comprising the "class of 2015" existed prior to graduation

Cultural difference. The university I attended considered the "class of 1995" to be the student cohort matriculating in October 1995, not the cohort graduating in June of that year. I don't know if that's standard for all British universities, let alone all non-American ones, but my initial reaction would have been the same as chavenet's.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 8:27 AM on August 22 [1 favorite]


This brings back some memories! In high school, I was in a music class which was specifically for students who already had some degree of musicmanship either through private lessons or membership in the band program. It was a small class (~15 people) and most kids in it were also in senior band, so I think it was mostly an excuse for us to hang out and do cool music stuff for a couple extra hours every week.

It is my absolute favourite course I have ever taken. The class curriculum was fuller and more vibrant than anything I took even later in university or adult learning courses. It covered a bit of everything: history and theory, performance, composition, and improvisation, and it was all blended together in a way where each part supported each other part.

One thing the teacher did was impress on us the importance of active listening. There were a few exercises she did related to this, but my favourite was when she took us on an impromptu field trip (which she said we should not tell too many people about - hopefully it's OK fifteen years on, Mrs. K!) to one of the many walking trails in the city for a group soundwalk as described in the article. We were not allowed to speak, and at any point you were allowed to drop out of the walk and sit in place if you heard something that interested you in particular. I dropped out early, sat on the middle of a bridge, and just listened to to baby seagulls, creaking wood, and a lapping river for a half-hour.

The energy of the class when we reunited and allowed to speak again was both energized and peaceful in a way that I am finding hard to describe. It was almost like we had all come out of a sermon. I think on it very fondly and I would suggest it to anyone.
posted by one of these days at 8:41 AM on August 22 [2 favorites]


I love this! I went on some walks with the I’m Just Walkin’ guy and they were great. More generally I have...noticed myself noticing a lot of things lately and it really makes my life better. I think it’s probably since I have a relatively new friend who recently moved to my city and is so super enthusiastic about it that he’s inspired me to see things afresh. I kinda bemuse my other friends when we’re out walking and I make them stop and admire a cornice or something.
posted by ferret branca at 9:24 AM on August 22


Cultural difference. The university I attended considered the "class of 1995" to be the student cohort matriculating in October 1995, not the cohort graduating in June of that year.

Fascinating; the college I work for is welcoming its class of 2023 as we speak.
posted by Earthtopus at 11:49 AM on August 22 [1 favorite]


Just existing outside in the world or in a new space without a piece of technology is wonderful. I am always a better and more peaceful person after. My extremely scattered brain briefly will quiet down.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 2:48 PM on August 22


If you enjoy oblique exercises in perception and creativity like this, you should absolutely read Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment. It's great!
posted by oulipian at 5:21 PM on August 30


If you enjoy oblique exercises in perception and creativity like this...

...also try Lynda Barry's Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:15 PM on August 31


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