A few weeks ago I wrote about the podcast with Maryanne Wolf and Sven Birkerts in which they talked about what might happen if we all read more books, and it basically turned out to be about attention. I mentioned I had been thinking much about attention and had more to say and then proceeded to not say it. Not because I hadn’t been paying attention, but because I didn’t have enough time to really sort through my thoughts and get them to cohere. But the time has come.
It is generally agreed these days that our attention is scattered, our attention spans shrinking precipitously, and the blame is often laid at the feet of digital and social media. And it’s not just individual attention that is suffering, it’s our collective attention as well. There are plenty of scientific studies and even admissions from our Google Overlords, that yeah, digital and social media is purposely designed to capture our attention and not let go. It all has to do with the way our brains work, looking for novelty and getting little dopamine hits.
I had a lovely back-and-forth with Buried in Print on my last post about whether our online habits were a problem of time management or an attention problem. We ended up at the proverbial chicken-or-egg situation. Allowing it to simmer I’m thinking it isn’t an either/or thing but a both/and. We need to manage our time better, and we also need to manage our attention better.
But it is difficult to manage time and attention in a 24/7/365 world where many people never actually leave work but take it with them everywhere on their phones and laptops. We are encouraged to keep busy because if we aren’t working hard or playing hard we are missing out and woe to anyone who misses out. If someone asks you what your weekend plans are, do you dare to have none? Does anyone dare to take a vacation to do nothing?
I am currently on a week’s vacation from work and several people asked me if I was going anywhere. No. Oh a staycation? Cool what are you going to do? Um…nothing? But I couldn’t say nothing because I’m supposed to do something. So I rambled on about gardening and cycling and reading, which is definitely doing something but I had no specific plans for the doing. My vacation is to take time away from work and just, I dunno, live? Do the things I enjoy doing when I feel like doing them for as long as I feel like doing them.
All that goes to show how Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, ended up with me just nodding my head in agreement the whole time. But doing nothing is pretty revolutionary these days in a world where everyone is supposed to be doing something even on vacation. Have to be productive! Have to keep busy! Have to give our time and attention to all the things and then moan about how there aren’t enough hours in the day to keep up with everything and do everything.
In her book Odell suggests that our constant movement, traveling, moving house, going hither and yon, is a great distraction. We never stay still long enough in one place. But to develop a sense of place
both enables attention and requires it. That is, if we want to relearn how to care about each other, we will also have to relearn how to care about place.Page 180
It’s hard to care about something you don’t stop and pay attention to. Our capitalist rat race demands a mobile workforce. And our consumer society encourages us to buy “starter houses” and keep moving up to bigger room and more debt.
There is a fantastic article I read a couple months ago in Ploughshares, The Discomfort and Difficulty of Attention In it, the author, Jessica Hines, discusses what attention is and what it means and whether attention is love. I think whether or not attention is love is something really good to chew on, but I am not going to chew on it here. But the rest of it, yes.
According to Hines, the word “attention” first appeared in English in the 14th century translated from the Latin noun attentio, derived from the verb adtendre which means “to stretch toward something” like a person would stretch a bow. But the English word is also related to the Medieval French verb atendre, which has the additional connotation of waiting for something. Attention requires stillness and waiting. In the first English translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy where attention appeared, it also was the precursor to recognition and the ability to see the world clearly. This also fits nicely with what Odell said about developing a sense of place.
If attention requires stillness and waiting it is no wonder we find it so challenging in our nonstop world. Not only that, attention requires a relationship of some sort. We “give” our attention to people and things, implying a gift, generosity. We also thank people for their attention, gratitude.
But we also “pay” attention, implying there is a cost. Hines writes:
To pay attention has an actual cost. It requires us to trace the brittle edges of our connections to other people. To witness their pain and have them witness ours; to wait and gather ourselves together to hear what’s coming next. What’s striking then is not only how completely comprehensible it is that attention is always in crisis, characterized as it is by silence, waiting, and recognition, but how absolutely necessary it is. Attention is the word that reminds us of the painful reality of existence—to always be waiting and inextricably stretching outward to see and be seen.
And attention also costs us time.
The Los Angeles Review of Books interviewed Jenny Odell in April and half jokingly asked her what she thought of everyone being forced into a year of doing nothing due to the pandemic. She said it was interesting but it also depended on what sort of work you did because there were plenty of people who did not get to pause. Still, a good many people were forced to slow down and found themselves realizing they were workaholics and wondering why.
She was also asked about social media sucking away our attention. She said,
Social media is really useful for getting the word out right now, getting lots of attention right now, responding to something in the present moment. But I think that there’s a risk it just stays there in that temporal “right now.”
She went on to say there is a great risk of people getting stuck in the right now and not bothering to go deeper to discover context and complexity. Social media is set up for speed, for reaction, you read a tweet, respond, then move on to the next one. We do not stop, wait in stillness, we just pay attention with our time and keep moving.
We have all become Prufrocks, measuring out our lives in tweets, Facebook updates, Instagram photos, and Tik Tok videos instead of coffee spoons.
At the end of her Plougshares article Hines asks,
Even if we want to pay attention, can we? Can we stand to live a life of attention when that means having to recognize the painful world we live in?
Those are good questions. I have more thoughts on them especially related to climate change. More on that in another time.