By Bob Cole, DLINQ Director of Exploratory Initiatives & Partnerships
In what ways has the modern attention economy taken for granted richly human forms of attention? What systems do we replicate through our uncritical participation, and what human capacities do we devalue when we offload our attention to the digital?
One afternoon this past December as we were walking among small ferns, stands of bay laurel, moss-covered oak trees and leafless buckeyes, I looked to my left noticing a plant. “Hey, I wonder what could these be?” I asked my eight-year-old daughter. We were taking a much needed break from the house to explore trails that traverse Garland Ranch Regional Park on the northern edge of the Santa Lucia range in Carmel Valley, Ca.
“They look like little spittle bugs. Or marshmallows,” she replied.
“Oh yeah, the kind you put in your hot chocolate,” I played along. She was the only one of my three kids to take me up on an invitation to go for a hike up Snively’s Ridge, a trail with about 1,900 ft in elevation gain that leads to incredible views of the central coast and Monterey Bay. I hadn’t walked it in years. Admittedly, I was also seeking a bit of refuge from the Web, so I’d packed up some sandwiches, water, and snacks for a hike that I knew was going to test us.
“Can we pick one?” she asked. It was early in our walk. We were soaking up the greenery of the Buckeye Nature Trail that would connect us with Mesa Trail and then Snively’s to the summit.
“Well, if we picked one, then there wouldn’t be any left for others to see. Let’s take a closer look,” I said, still also wondering what the strange little blobs of white could be. As we paused, I took a photo with my phone for later identification. We continued up the trail, my daughter wondering aloud at each turn how steep it might get. I responded with hopeful reassurances that I thought we’d make it. Ascending, we spotted ‘tree spirits’ (gnarls in trees that look like faces), debated super powers, and when it got tough we stopped in the shade to catch breath and rehydrate. By mid-afternoon we arrived at the summit to take in the panoramic views. It was a perfect day–one where we tuned our attention to the wonders of the natural world, and more importantly, to one other.
Michael Goldhaber, often cited as the originator of the “attention economy” concept, imagined in the 1997 Wired article Attention Shoppers! that “attention can ground an economy because it is a fundamental human desire and is intrinsically, unavoidably scarce. It can be a rich and complex economy because attention comes in many forms: love, recognition, heeding, obedience, thoughtfulness, caring, praising, watching over, attending to one’s desires, aiding, advising, critical appraisal, assistance in developing new skills, et cetera…There are also many ways to capture attention: via your thoughts, inventions, self-revelations, expressions, performances, artistic creations, achievements, pleas, and arresting appearances.” Fast forward to 2020 and the idea of the attention economy that Goldhaber envisioned over twenty years ago has taken on a life of its own, and we are grappling with the rich and complex toxicity of the Web.
Reflecting on experiences like the hike with my daughter, I’m reminded that public places like regional parks serve as a kind of physical and mental “third space” where more diverse forms of attention and care might be practiced and expressed. In How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell suggests that standing apart in “third spaces” within the attention economy at a time of diminishing margins on our attention is important because it is a building block for reflection, creativity, and meaningful change. “A real withdrawal of attention happens first and foremost in the mind. What is needed, then, is not a ‘once-and-for-all” type of quitting but ongoing training: the ability not just to withdraw attention, but to invest it somewhere else, to enlarge and proliferate it, to improve its acuity.” (p.93) While the push and pull of the virtual and the physical has taken us to new and worrisome places, the future of the attention economy isn’t inevitable. Odell reminds us that “if it’s attention (deciding what to pay attention to) that makes our reality, regaining control of it can also mean the discovery of new worlds and new ways of moving through them.” (p.94) We can practice directing our attention in new ways by creating our own third spaces, not unlike this detox.
Rob Walker, author of The Art of Noticing, builds on this idea with over a hundred provocations to guide the practice of deep attention; a creative response to what he dubs our modern “attention panic”. In the attention economy, noticing is about understanding how the digital and the physical alone is insufficient for human thriving. We can reflect on the extent we may be offloading our cognition and human experience at the expense of engaging more meaningfully with the world around us; how a habitual reliance on the digital affects our care and attention for self and others; or if memory is a form of attention, how our sensory perception may be enhanced or compromised when everything is mediated by technology (e.g., replacing what we can take in with our eyes with what our phone’s camera lens takes in).
So, as more and more of our attention becomes subject to the forces of the attention economy, I propose we spend more time re-investing our attention and inhabiting the “third spaces” around us. What if we devoted just fifteen to thirty minutes a week to consciously direct our attention in ways that allow us to reveal hidden patterns of the attention economy? As Odell and Walker suggest, training our attention through acts of reflective noticing could help us individually and collectively re-tune our perceptual abilities, cultivate curiosity, and imagine a rich and complex attention ecology.
Here are a few ideas for ways you might experiment with the art of noticing in the attention economy.
- Pay attention to the visibility and presence of mobile devices during conversations, meetings, or other spaces. Researchers have suggested that the mere presence of a mobile device can have an influence on the quality and depth of our attention, placing us in a fluid state of “poly-consciousness”: a mindset where the physical and digital worlds blend to the degree that our presence and interactions in the here-and-now are degraded.
- Go on a scavenger hunt to establish what Andrew Horowitz terms a mental “search image.” This is one of Rob Walker’s first noticing exercises in “looking.”(p.7) He suggests tuning attention to the presence of security cameras in a given area. There are some interesting community projects that build on this idea like the surveillance map by The Yale Privacy Lab and the Coveillance.org Project
- Don’t photograph. Take a long exposure with your senses. Walker suggests instead of taking a photograph we pick up a notebook and draw what we see as a means of slowing down to observe. (p. 41) Why not remix this idea by honing your visual and listening attention on the subject of the scene that you would have taken a photo of instead?
- Ok, take a photograph, but wait a day or more to share it. Annalee Newitz, in A Better Internet is Waiting for Us, imagines a future driven by “slow media” where time serves as a buffer to help us verify, fact check, and curate. She suggests “the key to slow media is that it puts humans back in control of the information they share.”
- Get there the hard way. According to GPS.gov, “GPS is a constellation of 24 or more satellites flying 20,350 km above the surface of the Earth…signals travel through space at the speed of light (c), more than 299,792 km/second.” Walker invites us to turn off location services every now and then, study a map, orient ourselves, ask for directions and play with the idea of feeling a little lost. (p.112)
- Ask: How did it get that way? Find out the backstory. Walker references writer Paul Lukas’s idea of “inconspicuous consumption” (p.201) as a curiosity tool for questioning how aspects of our built environment end up the way they are. For example, the stop sign. How did it get that way? In the digital sphere, how about the pull to refresh gesture on many mobile apps? Or the advertisements you are algorithmically served in your news or social feeds?
We’d love to hear about your reflections and explorations with “standing apart.” Share them on our blog or click the blue button to share them just with us.
How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell
The Art of Noticing, Rob Walker
A Better Internet is Waiting for Us, Annalee Newitz
New Ways of Seeing podcast series, James Bridle
And for those wondering… on the steep descent from Snively’s Ridge, my daughter and I took Sky Trail to Maple Canyon and crossed back over the Carmel River watershed to the car. We were tired, but the park had offered us the gift of attention. And the marshmallow shrub? With cell signal re-established, I uploaded our photo to iNaturalist. The identification was immediate. It was Symphoricarpos albus or common Snowberry, a native to the area, and a natural source of soap.
Did you miss our 2019 Detox articles? View them on the Digital Detox webpage