[4 May 2009]
At Salon, Laura Miller reviews Winifred Gallagher’s Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, a book about why we find it difficult to concentrate. Miller points out how technology has made it easy for us to distract ourselves with a continual flow of mini-activities, which constantly rewards the novelty-craving part of our brain at the expense of the part of our consciousness that likes to be absorbed in things, achieve flow. We find ourselves becoming the functional equivalent of that guy who is always scanning the room looking for someone more important to talk to and who never has a real conversation or listens to anything anyone is saying. We are always made aware of the alternatives that are slipping away, of the imperative to consume as much as possible within the limits of the time we have to devote to entertaining ourselves. The pressure of what we are passing up becomes intolerable, clouding over the activities we would like to wholeheartedly choose. Miller laments, “In many cases, the thing we wish we would do is not only more interesting but ultimately more fun than the things we do instead, and yet it seems to require a Herculean effort to make ourselves do it.”
Rather than make this effort, it seems we try to compensate by indulging alternative ideals: convenience for its own sake; quantity of experience over nebulous qualitative experience; competitive consumption and early adopterhood—various measurable efficiencies that allow us to belief we are prospering in the attention economy, regardless of harried we may feel by the pace. Or, as Miller notes, we can attempt to use technology against itself, as a filter to block out options, to restrict our freedom, to limit the range of our responsiveness. This is one way to understand the success of Twitter, which synthesizes both approaches—it’s a binge-purge technology whose arbitrary restrictions seem to be simplifying the media onslaught while actually authorizing it accelerating our gluttonous information intake.
Gallagher’s book endorses the idea that we are what we pay attention to, so it offers methods for us to seize control over our attention span. But the implication that something other than our own will directs our attention, that it is some wayward entity with prerogatives of its own, is a bit troubling metaphysically. It leaves us subject to “the machinations of late capitalism,” as Miller puts it (and I probably would have put it that way if she hadn’t), the firms that know how to exploit weakness in how our brain works to grab our attention and fix it on things we would have been perfectly happy ignoring. It also negates for us the possibility of what Wordsworth in “Tintern Abbey” calls “unremembered pleasures”:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps,
As may have had no trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life;
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love.
Those lines are open to all sorts of interpretations, but I’ve always understood them to suggest that we are more than the sum of our sensory impressions, of the stuff we have paid attention to and collected in the treasure house of our memory. Instead it’s what we do, and the unself-conscious grace with which we do it that fills our contemplative moments—the moments we are systematically banishing from our lives now—with the spirit of self-satisfaction. The anxiety of identity gets suspended, and there isn’t room for the feeling of missing out on something. Rather there is a sense of completeness that comes with giving up on keeping score—a recognition that our souls are too immeasurable for that.