Blog Post

Play Attention! A Joyful Response to the Digital Distraction Dirge (to Bauerlein)

In his marvelously insightful and useful new book Net Smart:  How to Thrive on Line, Howard Rheingold tells the story of what may be the world's first email interruption.  David Levy, formerly a researcher at the legendary PARC think tank in Palo Alto, was demonstrating how the very first email interface worked when a new email happened to come in.  He switch from demonstrating to answering the email, thus ushering in (if you believe some pundits) The End of Civilization As We Know It. 


This delightful story goes on.  Now a professor at the University of Washington, Levy teaches a class called "Information and Contemplation."   Like so many digital innovators I work with, Levy is concerned with deep breathing, mindfulness, and introspection.   Rather than that being in contradiction to email interruption or compensation for what Rheingold calls "our always-on lives," mindfulness, according to Levy, is a response to attention overload not just for a digital age but for a modern age in which just about everything we do, for the last two hundred or so years, has come time-stamped.   The Industrial Revolution required humans to act as much like machines as possible.   Yes, the digital interrupts our well-learned assembly line rhythms.   Yes, multimedia distract us.   But returning to the nostalgia of the "good old days"--meaning any time before April of 1993 when the Mosaic 1.0 browser went public--is a misplaced nostalgia for the most recent attempt to mechanize the human soul.   It is hardly a return (as Levy, Rheingold, and I would say) to an introspective, unregulated, mindful inner life that eludes not only the multimedia digital age but the regulated, machinic assembly line of industrialism too.  

If you've read Now You See It, or just about any blog I've written over the last few years, you know that I believe the key to a happy life (even for those who don't own a computer) is knowing what makes us happy.  I like to say that "distraction is our friend" because it is very difficult to see the patterns and habits that bind us and contain us.  If we feel distracted enough, we can use that sense of interruption and non-completion as a "cue," as a perceptual chink in our well-worn habits, to stop and think about what is or is not serving us.   If that sounds a tad bit Zen, it is partly because the original ending of Now You See It was all about the Zen concept of katsu, the interruption that turns a life around.   (I've blogged about katsu and the Zen art of distraction here:   The ancient Eastern traditions of mindfulness go back a long, long way before 1993, email, iPods, smart phones, or even the hoary pundits who like to trumpet and wag fingers at the "younger generation."

The whole point of "now you see it" is that we do not know our own habits until something intervenes to make us aware of all the things we focus out in order to pay attention to a singular task.   If your task is to count basketballs, you are likely missing the gal in the gorilla suit who saunters in among the players, the point of Ulrich Neisser's brilliant and much-reprized experiment that launched a lot of the modern subdiscipline of cognitive science in the 1970s.   We've spent the last 150 years "schooling" attention to task, a time-based and task-specific form of repetitive labor factories needed.   Humans had to be taught how to pay attention in this very unusual way where someone else set the agenda for your attention.   

The farmer and the shop keeper and the artisan--pre-industrial forms of labor--had to manage myriad priorities all at once in order to succeed.  On an assembly line, you have to switch off that ability to jumble and juggle and judge.   You had to do what you were told to do, to a production quota, on schedule. 

If everything about the Industrial Revolution, Taylorism ("scientific labor management") and mass compulsory education (what I call "scientific learning management") is designed to rejigger humanity's attention to the needs of mass production, there is no question that since 1993 or so we've had a huge spanner thrown into the industrial works.  But to return us to the industrial way of paying attention neither addresses the forms of attention we need to succeed in the digital age nor does it return us to a mindful, meditative state.   It simply reinforces an increasingly irrelevant form of learned attention.

For that is the deal:   attention is learned.  I won't go through all the research I survey in Now You See It, but the short form is that babies pay attention to everything:  fan blades, rattles, noises, smells, sounds, affection, touch, grandparents, black-and-white stripes, stuffed animals, blankie.    But they are constantly learning from those around them what to pay attention to, what matters, what counts, and why.   That learning becomes more and more efficient with time and neural pathways more streamlined.  That's called habits.  Babies actually have 40% more, not less, neural connections than adults because learning attention is learning habits.  We learn the habits that our immediate and our general culture (as we grow) honor.  A lot of the pundits are bothered because their habits are being disrupted.  Well, that's a darn good thing!   If something as momentous as the Information Age weren't disrupting our habits, we'd be in big trouble!   Pay attention when you can't pay attention!   Find better habits that work better for you, in this moment--not for some model of someone else's attention.

In the recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Mark Bauerlein writes:  "If we find that slow reading, slow seeing, slow thinking, and slow judging are deteriorating among the students, then we have a duty.  It is not to oppose the digital tools, but to insert into the curriculum exercises and experiences that cultivate a different habit, a slow-down of apprehension". Deteriorating?  What does that even mean?   From what to what?   I have a duty to help my students learn in a way that will contribute to a fulfilling life.  Not my fulfilling life.  Theirs.   That means reconceiving an education system that they (and I) inherited, one that was built for the Industrial Age, in a way that helps them thrive not in a world that does not exist any longer but in the world that is here, now.  


Part of existing in this world is seeing it as it is--in order that we can rebel against the parts we may not want for ourselves.   But you cannot rebel against what doesn't exist.   Clarity of vision--without the gauze of nostalgia, without a constant reference back to "the good old days" or a specious declension narrative about "attention deteriorating" --is essential to understand what we need for this world.


Here are some reassuring, common sensical basics (and apologies to readers of Now You See It or this blog who know this already):   (1)  We know from the Scholastic study of summer 2011 that a fifteen year old today reads more than his parents and more than his parents read when they were 15.   The whole category of "Young Adult" literature (lots and lots of long books!) that is saving publishing didn't exist before the Internet.   Kids are finding ways to slow their attention.   (2) Go to any high-tech company and the first thing you see is . . .  the bike rack.   People are finding all kinds of ways to unplug when they want to unplug.   Not to be like their parents or grandparents.   But in order to thrive now.


Be mindful.   Not nostalgic.   That is my hope for my students.  Stop worrying so much about what was and make sure you are taking advantage of the world that is and the world that can be.  What can you do today to make this day meaningful to you?   Breathe deeply.  Relax.  You are not deteriorating.  You have an opportunity, now, to pay attention in the ways you need because you are seeing beyond your habits.  That is a good thing.  It's an opportunity.  Seize it.  It can even be fun. What if we could all learn how to play attention?


Maybe that's the key.  If we stop obsessing about our ability to "pay attention," we can realize that we have myriad ways to see the world, and some of them are delightful.   I'm going to indulge in a few of those today.  Why don't you take a few moments too?  That's my invitation.  Sometime, in the course of your otherwise over-full work day, think about your distraction and consider it an opportunity.  PLAY ATTENTION.   What would that mean for you?    I don't have the answer but you do.  Enjoy.   And happy playing!



Cathy N. Davidson ("Cat in the Stack", @CathyNDavidson) is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and  Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.  She co-directs the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge at Duke University where she also holds two distinguished faculty chairs, in English and Interdisciplinary Studies.  NOTE:  The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, [NYSI cover]





1 comment

The image below is only viewable on some browsers.  If you cannot see my gorgeous Japanese garden, created in my tiny urban Durham backyard, then you'll have to imagine it or, better, go find something beautiful to make your attention play for a minute  . . . or a day . . . or a year!