Paying Attention

by Rob Horning

22 November 2010


Nicholas Carr is not happy about this NYT Magazine column by Virginia Heffernan about the “attention-span myth.” Heffernan contends that technology critics like Carr err in imagining that something like an attention span exists.

The problem with the attention-span discourse is that it’s founded on the phantom idea of an attention span. A healthy “attention span” becomes just another ineffable quality to remember having, to believe you’ve lost, to worry about your kids lacking, to blame the culture for destroying. Who needs it?

Apparently Heffernan regards the pathologizing of short-attention spans as a disciplinary ruse to stifle children’s creativity and discourage the artistic temperament. There should be no normative correction of the ability to pay attention; distraction is only a different form of attention, or attention paid to things society disapproves of. Distraction is a refusal to pay attention to things you are supposed to in order to be conformed. The inability to concentrate, then, is the triumph of the human spirit and its refusal to submit. If you feel like you have a hard time concentrating, it’s just a lame excuse for procrastinating, a disguised form of nostalgia for a personal epoch of total focus that never really existed. Technology has nothing to do with it, because there is no “it”.
Carr responds by insisting that attentiveness in fact exists and takes different forms (not merely “long” or “short”), and these forms and their prevalence are affected by technological context.

One can, for instance, be attentive to rapid-paced changes in the environment, a form of attentiveness characterized by quick, deliberate shifts in focus…. There is a very different form of attentiveness that involves filtering out, or ignoring, environmental stimuli in order to focus steadily on one thing - reading a long book, say, or repairing a watch. Our capacity for this kind of sustained attention is being eroded, I argue, by the streams of enticing info-bits pouring out of our networked gadgets. There are also differing degrees of control that we wield over our attention.

I agree with that; perhpas the way to split the difference and avoid the semantic arguments is to say that technology has certainly changed the sorts of things we want to give our attention to. I would add that built into consumerism is an incentive to make sure people scatter their attention as wide as possible on the greatest number of things and experiences, all of which have now been successfully packaged (often thanks to technological change) as exchangeable commodities. When a person’s attention is fixed on a certain specific activity, it registers as lost opportunities to make sales—one for each infinitely divisible moment that passed in which the person could have been distracted, could have consciously shifted attention, but didn’t. That’s why unlike Heffernan, I see concentration rather than distraction as an act of cultural resistance.

The problem with reckoning with attention problems is not that it is ineffable but that it doesn’t correspond with an economic model that has us spending and replenishing some quantifiable supply of it. But the metaphors built into an “attention span” or “paying attention” or the “attention economy” imagine a scarce resource rather than a quality of consciousness, a mindfulness. It may be that the notion of an attention economy is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, bringing into being the problems its posits through the way it frames experience. It may not be constructive to regard attention as scarce or something that can be wasted and let those conceptions govern our relation to our consciousness. The metaphor of how we exert control over our focus may be more applicable, more politically useful in imagining an alternative to the utility-maximizing neoliberal self. The goal would then be not to maximize the amount of stuff we can pay attention to but instead an awareness that much of what nips at us is beneath our attention. 


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