SALON 03: ATTENTION
What did you pay attention to this year?
If you’re anything like me, the honest answer isn’t what you’d like it to be. I wish I could get a pie chart dividing up the total minutes I spent paying attention to the various areas of my life - work, friends, reading, social media - this year, like the kind you get on a budgeting app. I’m sure the results would be just as horrifying. But would they stop me from wasting my attention on, say, Instagram (to use a random example!) any more than my monthly Uber tally deters me from calling cabs? Probably yes, for a week or two. And then I’d be right back to it.
We live in a time when our attention is no longer our own. In our ‘Attention Economy’ of views, downloads, and engagement, our attention assigns tangible and intangible value to that towards which we direct it. This would be OK if any of us still felt in full command of our most valuable resource. But as a society, we’re losing focus. Losing our ability to concentrate. Losing hours to the endless TikTok scroll. We are spending our attention with wild abandon – and we’re not even enjoying the spree.
At this stage, it feels redundant to point out the correlation between our dwindling attention spans and our ever-increasing device usage. How often have you resolved to limit your screen time by deleting apps and setting limits, and how often have you failed miserably? More pertinently: who can blame you? We know now that the addictiveness of phones, apps, and web browsers is an inbuilt feature of these technologies rather than an unfortunate side effect (much less an indicator of the user’s individual weakness). But until governments introduce more stringent regulations to limit the insidious tactics of our tech overlords, the problem remains ours to address personally.
So, where do we go from here? I find it helpful to remember that the battle to pay attention to the present moment had been part of the human struggle for many centuries before the invention of the iPhone: There’s a reason why attention is a central focus of Buddhism and why prayer is a vital aspect of all religions (as Simone Weil once said, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.”) I also find it deliciously ironic that long-form reading is at once the main thing most people now struggle to concentrate on, and also the best balm we have for the screen-triggered monkey mind. The symptom is also the antidote.
What initially felt strongly like a ‘me’ problem (my attention span seems like it’s worsening with every passing year, and I pick up my phone more times a day than I care to admit) has transpired to be very much a systemic ‘we’ problem – one that is affecting culture, relationships, politics, and our general sense of wellbeing more severely than most of us have adequately grasped.
I’m aware that I sound alarmist, but perhaps a dose of drama is what’s needed now. I write this not to scaremonger or to proclaim any intention to relinquish my devices/social media accounts entirely but rather to acknowledge what I’ve come to understand as a much bigger issue than me vs Instagram. There are all sorts of long and short-term implications to our collective inability to focus: none of them look good. It feels like time to talk about that.
Framed in a more positive light, thinking carefully about how we use our attention can be a valuable conduit to prioritising the things that matter most. As Jenny Odell puts it:
“It is with acts of attention that we decide who to hear, who to see, and who in our world has agency. In this way, attention forms the ground not just for love, but for ethics.”
What will you pay attention to in 2023?
Reading List & Prompts
BOOKSStolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention
The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember
How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy
This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life [Read Online HERE]
David Foster Wallace
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power
Professor Shoshana Zuboff
ARTICLES + AUDIOWhat It Takes to Put Your Phone Away
Jia Tolentino for The New Yorker
The Great Fracturing of American Attention
Megan Garber for The Atlantic
“I Got Saved By The Beauty of the World”
Mary Oliver interviewed by Krista Tippett for On Being
It’s Not Your Fault You Can’t Pay Attention. Here’s Why.
Johann Hari on The Ezra Klein Show
Attention and Will
How YouTube Invented the Attention Economy
Kevin Lozano for The New Yorker
Report 002: Refocus / Attn.Ltd
To Control Your Life, Control What You Pay Attention To
Maura Thomas For Harvard Business Review
The Truth About Distraction
“The truth is that you are living in a system that is pouring acid on your attention every day, and then you are being told to blame yourself and to fiddle with your own habits while the world’s attention burns.” - Johann Hari
How have you attempted to “fiddle with your own habits” in order to improve your attention span? How successful have these attempts proved to be?
“What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” - Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember
“When you read a novel, you are immersing yourself in what it’s like to be inside another person’s head. You are simulating a social situation. You are imagining other people and their experiences in a deep and complex way. So maybe if you read a lot of novels, you will become better at actually understanding other people off the page. Perhaps fiction is a kind of empathy gym, boosting your ability to empathise with other people—which is one of the most rich and precious forms of focus we have.” - Johann Hari, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention
Both Johann Hari and Nicholas Carr reference Marshall McLuhan’s semina theory “The Medium is the Message” to explore how the very nature of the Internet has impacted the way we think and act. Both posit that reading books - specifically fictional works - is a vital antidote to the superficiality of digital culture. In what ways has the internet changed how you read (or think)? How often do you turn to books as an antidote to screens?
“The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day... That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.” - David Foster Wallace, This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life
“It is with acts of attention that we decide who to hear, who to see, and who in our world has agency. In this way, attention forms the ground not just for love, but for ethics.” - Jenny Odell, How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy
Both Odell and Foster Wallace present attention as a matter of ethics. What do the things we pay attention to tell us about who we are?
“We are no longer the subjects of value realisation. Nor are we, as some have insisted, the ‘product’ of Google’s sales. Instead, we are the objects from which raw materials are extracted and expropriated for Google’s prediction factories. Predictions about our behaviour are Google’s products, and they are sold to its actual customers but not to us. We are the means to others’ ends.” - Professor Shoshana Zuboff,The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power
The rise of surveillance capitalism has been chronicled extensively in recent years. How, if at all, has this changed your digital habits?
“Recent years have seen the rise of a new mini-genre of literature: works arguing that one of the many emergencies Americans are living through right now is a widespread crisis of attention. The books vary widely in focus and tone, but share, at their foundations, an essential line of argument: Attention, that atomic unit of democracy, will shape our fate.” - Megan Garber, The Great Fracturing of American Attention, The Atlantic
Megan Garber argues that distraction is a “foundational challenge” of our time. Do you believe this to be true?
“We experience the externalities of the attention economy in little drips, so we tend to describe them with words of mild bemusement like “annoying” or “distracting.” But this is a grave misreading of their nature. In the short term, distractions can keep us from doing the things we want to do. In the longer term, however, they can accumulate and keep us from living the lives we want to live, or, even worse, undermine our capacities for reflection and self-regulation, making it harder, in the words of Harry Frankfurt, to “want what we want to want.” Thus there are deep ethical implications lurking here for freedom, wellbeing, and even the integrity of the self.” - Jenny Odell, How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy
Fast forward twenty years. If you maintain your current rate of distraction, what might be the implications for the “integrity of [your] self”?
“She believed she had uncovered a key truth about focus: To pay attention in normal ways, you need to feel safe.” - Johann Hari
“This is why most anti-distraction hacks – web-blocking apps, noise-cancelling headphones, personal rules – never seem to work very well. They involve denying yourself access to the places you usually go for relief from emotional unpleasantness. But they don’t address the unpleasantness itself... All of which points to a more fundamental solution to distraction, one that’s incredibly simple, but not at all easy: just stop expecting hard, important, meaningful things to feel constantly comfortable and pleasant. Consider the possibility that mild discomfort – butterflies in the stomach, a sense of difficulty, a moment of boredom – might simply be the price of doing things you care about.” - Oliver Burkeman, The Truth About Distraction
To what extent is our distractedness a reflection of our growing unwillingness to sit with our anxiety and/or to do “hard, important, meaningful things”?
“I now had a sense of what a movement to reclaim our attention might look like. I would start with three big, bold goals. One: ban surveillance capitalism, because people who are being hacked and deliberately hooked can't focus. Two: introduce a four-day week, because people who are chronically exhausted can't pay attention. Three: rebuild childhood around letting kids play freely--in their neighbourhoods and at school--because children who are imprisoned in their homes won't be able to develop a healthy ability to pay attention. If we achieve these goals, the ability of people to pay attention would, over time, dramatically improve. Then we will have a solid core of focus that we could use to take the fight further and deeper.” - Johann Hari
At the end of ‘Stolen Focus’, Johann Hari outlines his proposal for reclaiming our attention. What do you think is the likeliness of these measures being implemented? What can we do if they’re not?