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Paying Attention in Digital Times

12/21/2013 06:25 pm ET | Updated Feb 20, 2014

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Speaking with the superlative panache of a magician, Apollo Robbins shows in his December 20th Ted talk that human attention is a "limited resource," and this limited resource can be "directed" or "misdirected." The entirety of magic depends on this: as the audience focuses on the magician's hands, the magician focuses their attention to his face while stealing the rabbit from underneath his coattails and placing it in his hat. The magician then pulls the rabbit from his hat. People untrained in the magician's fine art do not notice what he has done even though it happens right before their eyes. They think it's happened "by magic."

Attention, that vital capacity shared by human and animal alike, is fickle, less reliable than one believes, and can be manipulated. Its range and focus change as the human or animal's environment alters, and can be stymied by environments too unfamiliar. When I brought my pet dachshund from Africa to America, returning home after a decade abroad, it wandered about in the blank white of the Michigan snow uncertain what to look at or how. Take a man from the Middle Ages and place him in front of a computer terminal and he will not know how to focus.

A couple of years back I found my child asleep in her bed, lying on her back. Her laptop was open on her stomach, screen saver flashing; her right hand clutched her cell phone to her ear. She had fallen asleep multi-tasking. -- Daniel Herwitz

That attention is a limited quantity has everything to do with the problems and prospects of digital culture today. A couple of years back I found my child asleep in her bed, lying on her back. Her laptop was open on her stomach, screen saver flashing; her right hand clutched her cell phone to her ear. She had fallen asleep multi-tasking. My generation is accustomed to thinking about attention as single-minded absorption and slow rumination focused on one thing, but this kind of attention has changed in the past twenty years. My child's habit of attention is to simultaneously watch a movie, google the actors and have a Skype conversation on her smart phone.

Given that attention is a limited human resource, is this shift from my generation to hers a misdirection, an enhancement, or simply a change? Nicholas Carr has argued (in his book "The Shallows") that the young generation suffers a digitally induced attention deficit disorder. Cathy Davidson (in her book "Now You See It") counters: there is intellectual gain from their multi-tasking form of attention, like enhanced cognitive skill at finding new pathways between disparate things, and an ability to attend to multiple events simultaneously. Both skills are, Davidson argues, important for the workplace and for negotiating the complexity and diversity of the twenty-first century. Carr and Davidson are probably both right. What is certain is that the quality and character of human attention has changed from my generation to my daughter's generation: who have grown up in the digital age.

But such re-direction, or misdirection of attention is not simply due to the new digital culture. Changes in the quality and character of attention today are the result of the wider culture in which the digital lives (in America and elsewhere). The shortening of attention spans and the shift of attention to multi-tasking is a result of the cross-cutting pressures of film, TV, and advertising culture, and an economy with the ever more rapid turn-over of products. It is not simply caused by new technologies. The well-known flattening of language today is due to the blog, the tweet and the text message (C U tomorrow babe, Can u meet later? U rock!), but this evaporation of vocabulary, prose quality, subjunctive mood, passive voice, even adjectives and adverbs, this diminishment of the ability to limn the world with articulateness and subtlety is not simply due to Internet culture. Also contributing are the one-dimensional idiot conversations between network hosts presenting the news, the stale one liners of the sitcom or reality TV show, the turning of life into a series of three letter logos or brands. Intelligence is being threatened by the over-consumption of digital culture, which trains people to devour websites like shoppers on Black Friday thinking the more you click the more you know and the faster you click the faster you know it. But America's website obesity epidemic is also part and parcel of a larger and well known obesity problem from binge eating to the insatiable purchase of goods.

To understand how digital culture is enhancing, diminishing or otherwise changing attention and intelligence in America, one must look beyond digital culture per se to the wider domain of American experience of which it is part. There is an obsession among writers on new technologies to assume that new technologies (i.e. digital technologies) are themselves the sole cause of these changes. The range of attention of these writers is not wide enough. It is really the society as a whole that demands critical scrutiny to understand what is happening to the human mind in digital times.

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