Paying Attention

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.





Ivy Mix's 'Spirits of Latin America' Evokes the Ancestors

A common thread unites Ivy Mix's engaging Spirits of Latin America; "the chaotic intermixture between indigenous and European traditions" is still an inextricable facet of life for everyone who inhabits the "New World".


Contemporary Urbanity and Blackness in 'New Jack City'

Hood films are a jarring eviction notice for traditional Civil Rights rhetoric and, possibly, leadership -- in other words, "What has the Civil Rights movement done for me lately?"


'How to Handle a Crowd' Goes to the Moderators

Anika Gupta's How to Handle a Crowd casts a long-overdue spotlight on the work that goes into making online communities enjoyable and rewarding.


Regis' New LP Reaffirms His Gift for Grinding Industrial Terror

Regis' music often feels so distorted, so twisted out of shape, even the most human moments feel modular. Voices become indistinguishable from machines on Hidden in This Is the Light That You Miss.


DMA's Go for BritElectroPop on 'The Glow'

Aussie Britpoppers the DMA's enlist Stuart Price to try their hand at electropop on The Glow. It's not their best look.


On Infinity in Miranda July's 'Me and You and Everyone We Know'

In a strange kind of way, Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know is about two competing notions of "forever" in relation to love.


Considering the Legacy of Deerhoof with Greg Saunier

Working in different cities, recording parts as MP3s, and stitching them together, Deerhoof once again show total disregard for the very concept of genre with their latest, Future Teenage Cave Artists.


Joshua Ray Walker Is 'Glad You Made It'

Texas' Joshua Ray Walker creates songs on Glad You Made It that could have been on a rural roadhouse jukebox back in the 1950s. Their quotidian concerns sound as true now as they would have back then.


100 gecs Remix Debut with Help From Fall Out Boy, Charli XCX and More

100 gecs' follow up their debut with a "remix album" stuffed with features, remixes, covers, and a couple of new recordings. But don't worry, it's just as blissfully difficult as their debut.


What 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Taught Me About Unlearning Toxic Masculinity

When I first came out as trans, I desperately wanted acceptance and validation into the "male gender", and espoused negative beliefs toward my femininity. Avatar: The Last Airbender helped me transcend that.


Nu Deco Ensemble and Kishi Bashi Remake "I Am the Antichrist to You" (premiere + interview)

Nu Deco Ensemble and Kishi Bashi team up for a gorgeous live performance of "I Am the Antichrist to You", which has been given an orchestral renovation.


Rock 'n' Roll with Chinese Characteristics: Nirvana Behind the Great Wall

Like pretty much everywhere else in the pop music universe, China's developing rock scene changed after Nirvana. It's just that China's rockers didn't get the memo in 1991, nor would've known what to do with it, then.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.