The crisis of attention
It’s not smartphones and Facebook that are making us permanently distracted.
Sociologist and social commentator
Since the 18th century, the human capacity for attention has been a source of public concern. Time and again, moralists have warned of the risk of becoming distracted and forgetting to pay attention to what really matters. In the 18th and 19th centuries, inattention was frequently condemned as a sign of moral failure.
Children, in particular, who fail to pay attention to their elders, have been a perpetual source of adult worry, prompting countless interventions from parenting experts and pedagogues. And with every innovation in media technology, from commercial printing and publishing to radio and television, worries about inattention have acquired an increasingly dramatic tone.
The emergence of digital technology over the past couple of decades has only ramped up the alarmism about inattentive and distracted minds. Such arguments are based on an inflated perception of the changes faced by society due to the powerful impact of digital technology. Hence commentators frequently assert that digital technology has transformed the way we talk, read and imagine. It’s in this vein that Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age, by Sven Birkerts, asserts that the the emergence of digital technology has been ‘dramatically more accelerated and more psychologically formative than any previous technological transformation we have gone through as a species’.
There is a growing consensus that the main casualty of the digital age is the human capacity for attention. ‘These days attention is in short supply’, contends Sherry Turkle in Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Frequent references to the ‘age of distraction’ suggest that the act of paying attention is now incredibly difficult. Some commentators even argue that attention has altered its character, which, in the words of Birkerts, our attention is now ‘distributed or fragmented’. Others describe our fractured, multitasking state of mind as ‘hyper attention’. Turkle, who is worried about the fate of ‘deep attention’, urges us to cultivate our power to concentrate and embrace unitasking and deep reading.
Indeed, many now contend that, thanks to the internet, we risk losing our ability to reflect and concentrate on texts. This is the main theme of Birkerts’ stimulating Changing the Subject. Others, such as Turkle, worry that our distractedness is affecting our interpersonal relationships. But for both Turkle and Birkerts, inattentiveness is a serious problem.
A sense of loss
The idea of attention has long served as a medium through which a variety of moral anxieties are expressed. Turkle recognises this, writing that ‘a lot is at stake in attention’ because ‘where we put it’ is ‘how we show what we value’.
For instance, competing claims for attention often express a demand to be recognised as the source of moral authority. That is why the alleged distraction posed by new media technology is invariably experienced as a challenge to prevailing forms of authority. Children texting in classrooms are not just distracted from their studies; they’re failing to pay attention to their teacher. In other words, smartphones and other digital devices are calling into question pedagogic authority. Hence Birkerts associates digital technology with the loss of adult authority. He asks, pointedly, ‘has any population in history had a bigger gulf between its youngest and oldest members?’.
Anxiety over levels of attention, which is frequently expressed in terms of the media’s effect on people, draws on a deeper anxiety about society’s capacity to endow human experience with meaning. Talk of technology causing attention spans to diminish expresses a wider sense of existential loss. Birkerts falls prey to this technological determinism when he blames the ‘much diminished sense of human presence’ on the ‘transformative power of new information’.
Birkerts is rightly concerned with the diminished status of subjectivity – and his discussion of the crisis of human agency eloquently captures the spirit of our time. Changing the Subject addresses, then, a loss of agency and the devaluation of individual autonomy. ‘The realisation of autonomous selfhood is no longer our primary beckoning’, he notes. He compellingly argues that the ideal of self-determination faces a powerful challenge from the ascendancy of group identity, and is critical of the anti-humanist and anti-individual impulses that prevail today.
Unfortunately, Birkerts’ insights about the challenge facing humanist cultural ideas are overwhelmed by a technological determinism. Birkerts follows David Lochhead, an adherent to Marshall McLuhan’s deterministic theory of the role of the media, observing that ‘we take our technology into the deepest recesses of our souls’. Paradoxically, Changing the Subject, which is concerned with the workings of the human imagination and the exercise of subjectivity, ends up embracing the passive doctrine of technological determinism. This is not a surprise: fetishising the power of technology invariably leads to a form of fatalism, regardless of the inclinations of the thinker.
The reification of attention
Laments about our supposed loss of attention are based on a reified idea of our capacity to focus and concentrate. Society has often sought to conceptualise attention as a distinct quasi-biological or physical phenomenon. In the 19th century, the invention of the metaphor ‘attention span’ gave the phenomenon a sense of independent, physical existence, meaning it could therefore be measured. Today, advocates of neuroscience are at the forefront of this continued reification of attention. Birkerts himself may have come late to neuro-determinism, but, in Changing the Subject, he adheres to Nicholas Carr’s thesis that ‘we become, neurologically, what we think’. ‘We are being neurally modified’, Birkerts warns. And, in this, he is able to express his anxiety about the future.
Turkle also draws on neuroscience and echoes Carr’s thesis. But, thankfully, neuro-determinism remains marginal in her work. Her study sets out to explore the disruptive impact of digital technology, especially smartphones, on interpersonal communication and conversation. Her analysis of the flight from conversation is well observed, and her discussion of the apparent decline of real-time conversation and communication between family members and friends provides important insights into a culture that is increasingly dominated by technology.
Turkle’s main focus is the rise of inattention. She provides numerous examples of students in schools and universities being distracted by texts to the detriment of one another and their teachers. On one level, Turkle clearly recognises that the problem of attention today now involves the constant competition to gain attention. She recounts numerous instances where people ‘want attention’ and are ‘taken aback that they have to compete for it’.
Reclaiming Conversation provides an important account of the way that attention has become a permanent focus for competing claims. Turkle’s discussion of the segmentation of family life, and the way that digital technology amplifies the distancing of family members from each other, offers a genuine ethnography of the workings of inattention. Turkle believes that the corollary of inattention is the competition for attention. The main culprit in this family drama is the mobile phone at the dinner table. ‘Once a phone is there, you are, like everyone else, in competition with everything else’, she claims. Yet pointing the finger of blame at the phone overlooks the fact that the aspiration for attention is logically prior to the use of a phone. In other words, people may opt to use technology precisely because they want to be recognised and attended to. Turkle provides some rich examples of the way that people’s obsessive use of digital technology is motivated by the impulse to gain recognition and attention.
At times, Turkle also appears to be caught in the trap of technological determinism. ‘I see mobile phones as having a distinct quality that makes them stand out’, she writes. But her critical imagination transcends the fatalistic attitudes that dominate the usual discussion of attention. ‘Reclaiming conversation begins with reclaiming our attention’, she writes, showing she is not prepared to acquiesce to the existing state of affairs.
Turkle’s take on the corrosive trends in education is vital reading. Institutions of education are in ‘attentional disarray’, she argues, because they accommodate themselves to the spirit of low expectations. Often schools and universities have themselves acquiesced to the idea that students have lost the capacity to pay attention or read deeply. Far from seeing a refusal to read deeply as a problem, too many educational practitioners see it as an opportunity to use technologically enhanced pedagogy to motivate and stimulate students. This sensibility is apparent in the advocacy of MOOCs (massive open online courses) and the wider displacement of academic relationships with a technologically driven idea of training. Turkle’s counterblast, that the best ‘intellectual engine’ is conversation, is well made.
Admittedly, it is tempting to blame the current crisis of attention on the workings of digital technology. But it’s important to remember that the capacity for attention has not diminished. Young people fixated on their text messages have no problem attending to their mobile phones. Attention is a cultural accomplishment and the decision to pay attention to some, but not other, phenomena is not the direct consequence of the effects of media technology. If people find it difficult to pay attention to serious texts, it is not because they have become slaves to their mobile phones. What’s really at issue is society’s failure to cultivate a love of reading and create an intellectually inspiring educational setting. The best way to gain the attention of people is to take their education seriously. Blaming mobile phones and the internet simply distracts us from confronting the central problem in our midst: the erosion of cultural authority.
Frank Furedi is a sociologist and commentator. His latest book, Power of Reading: From Socrates to Twitter, is published by Bloomsbury Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon UK.)
Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age, by Sven Birkerts, is published by Graywolf Press. (Order this book from Amazon UK.)
Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, by Sherry Turkle, is published by Penguin. (Order this book from Amazon UK.)