The Meaning of Attention

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.

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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.

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17 thoughts on “The Meaning of Attention

  1. That’s true: it’s not “good enough” to say that we are staying at home and enjoying the life we’ve built…you have to want to leave that life for a time and then you finally have something worth talking about. Fortunately, by now everyone had gotten bored with my “stayed home, did nothing” responses, so rarely bothered inquiring anymore, even pre Covid.

    Something Mr BIP has commented on, many times, working in the tech sector, is that companies he’s contracted with are rarely interested in completing a task properly. They want it to be “just good enough” and done as quickly as possible to move onto the next task. No, quicker than that. He used to try being funny about it and go along with things and then, when it reached the point of silliness, make some ridiculous observation like, actually, maybe we should just crunch the timeline so that the job is done even before the client has contacted the company to complete it. But then people would just jump on that idea and not see the “humour” in it at all. LOL Even though this seems to be about a lot of other issues, too, I think attention is a factor in that too.

    Like Andrew, I think that last quotation is crucial. If we just keep scrolling, we don’t have to feel, don’t have to grieve. If we do not grieve and accept the hard bits, we are not expected to, or equipped to, take action. Instead, we just inhabit this make-believe between-ness, but we miss out there, too. Looking forward to your next post!

    1. BIP I’m going to take a page from your book and just start saying stayed home did nothing! Love it!

      So interesting about Mr BIP’s observations. And how sad that few get his joke! Not surprising though given how tech is all about beta and iterations and if something doesn’t work then they will just write a patch and make everyone install updates all the time. Drives me nuts that my phone and computer is always telling me to install new updates.

      You are right, all that scrolling keeps us from grieving and truly understanding what is going on. We read headlines and have no context or depth which makes it much easier to live in a little bubble of our own making.

  2. I think I’ve perfected the art of doing nothing – or nothing much anyway. I’m really good at pottering in the garden, just checking what has changed/grown. It’s thinking time. The late great gardener Geoff Hamilton described any gardening plans by how many mugs of tea it would take him to mull it over. I was quite happy during the strict lockdown and now if the formerly blank calendar has something written in it – I feel quite miffed. Of course I could just be great at procrastinating!

    1. I was really happy during the strict lockdown too Katrina! I had so much more time and nowhere I needed to go. Geoff Hamilton sounds like my kind of gardener! It also sounds like you have mastered doing nothing. I aspire to your perfection 🙂

  3. I’m so glad you posted about this, Stefanie, and that you linked to your earlier article, which I’d missed at the time. It’s something I think about a lot, so let me try to hold my attention together long enough to put it down.

    First, I think the issue of how our brains are changing in the digital world is so important, both individually and collectively. I mean, our brains define so much about who we are and how we respond to the world. A lot of the issues we fret about, such as the rise of extremism, fake news, etc, are surely exacerbated by our growing habits of skimming and reacting quickly, without fully paying attention. As you allude to at the end of your post, this has serious consequences when it comes to thinking through and acting upon a complex issue like climate change. I’d love to hear your further thoughts in that future post you mentioned.

    On an individual level, I know my habits of attention and focus have been affected by spending so much time online. When I read Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows years ago, it was with a grim sense of recognition, and things have only got worse since then. I still read a lot but, like you, I am rarely immersed in the same way. My blog posts have become shorter. The freelance writing I do is getting shorter and dumber all the time, and will probably soon be replaced entirely by YouTube videos. Even an august publication like the Wall Street Journal publishes much shorter articles than when I first started writing for them in 2003.

    Like BIP, I try to take preventive action. I haven’t been on Facebook in years, I stopped doing Instagram, and I only jump on Twitter occasionally. Every few months, I switch off the internet completely for a week and just let my brain slow down again. That helps. What helped most of all, actually, was a ten-day silent meditation retreat I once did. For the first day or two, my mind was still racing, but after that, with nothing to feed on, it slowed right down, and my attention became so focused that my senses were sharpened, and when a fly landed on my leg, I felt the ripples of sensory communication right through my body. It was extraordinary, and gave me a glimpse of what I fail to pay attention to most of the time. I wrote a short post here:

    On the negative reactions to “daring” to do nothing, I wonder how much of that is cultural. I’ve noticed that abhorrence of the evils of sloth in the US and the UK far more than in other countries I’ve lived in. I remember Max Weber had a lot to say about it in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, but it’s too long ago for me to recall the details. In Greece, where I lived for a couple of years, and now here in Serbia, I see that people work very hard, but when the work is over, they feel no guilt about doing nothing. Here in the village I’m living in, a lot of the houses have home-made wooden benches outside, and people happily sit for hours doing nothing but watch the neighbours pass by and call out occasional greetings. In Crete, a popular pastime particularly among older people was to sit in a cafe and wind strings of beads (komboloi) around their fingers. I think many US/UK visitors would look disapprovingly on these forms of “wasting” time, but personally I’m a big believer in the importance of doing nothing sometimes. I think we can learn a lot from cats: when they’re hunting or otherwise engaged in some activity, they are fully engaged and focused on it with every ounce of attention. And then they spend ten hours curled up on the sofa, before suddenly their ears prick up and they’re 100% focused again.

    Finally, I think that Ploughshares quote at the end hits on something hugely important: “Can we stand to live a life of attention when that means having to recognize the painful world we live in?” The reality of life right now is horrific in so many ways, with injustice and inequality everywhere, and yet we live as if everything’s fine. Climate change and the other environmental consquences of our way of life will soon make the world uninhabitable unless we make radical changes, but we are behaving as if it is possible to continue as normal, perhaps with a few minor tweaks like driving electric cars, but without needing to reassess in any meaningful way our unsustainable consumption and destruction of the world’s resources. All of this is madness, and it’s only possible to lie to ourselves like this if we don’t pay full attention, if we keep half an eye on the other 15 tabs we have open in our browser and keep stopping to respond to notification bells and reminders and tweets and emails and… oh, where were we? Doesn’t matter. Hey, I wonder what’s new on Netflix…

    1. “All of this is madness, and it’s only possible to lie to ourselves like this if we don’t pay full attention” Yes! Heh, Andrew, I’m just going to copy and paste your comment for my next post 😉

      Thank you for your thoughts! Our brains are always changing, that’s what makes them so amazing, but digital technology has done a number on us. We never stopped to think about what adopting so much of what we have now would do to us. And the really sad thing is that it is pretty hard to choose not to have most of the tech and digital media in our lives since western society nearly requires it. It is really sad that we need time for digital detox and that even that is a privilege in many ways.

      So interesting about the effects you have noticed in your own writing.

      I believe most, if not all, of doing nothing being daring is cultural. You nailed it with the Protestant work ethic, idle hands are the devil’s workshop! Plus those early protestant colonials in America thought that hard work and wealth accumulation meant you were favored by God and going to heaven. I love hearing about those benches outside house in your village! Do you find it fosters community? Do people stop and talk to each other? And ha! you are right, cats are masters of doing nothing and of focused attention!

      1. Yes, it’s scary to think about how this immersion in digital tchnology is affecting our brains, and I find it even scarier to think about how it’s affecting the developing brains of children. It’s basically a society-wide experiment on a whole new generation. At least I’m old enough to know what a quiet, pre-internet mind felt like and can take steps to recreate it (and that, as you rightly point out, is a privilege). But I can’t imagine not even knowing what that is, being surrounded by screens and addictive stimulae all the time from an early age.

        Yes, those benches do foster community: there’s a lot of stopping and chatting. Going to someone’s house involves a lot of hospitality rules: you have to take a gift, they have to offer you coffee, etc, and then give you something from the garden to take home with you when you leave… The benches are much simpler, so they foster a more informal, fluid interaction – sometimes just a wave and a “Zdravo!” (“Health!”), sometimes a little chat for a few minutes, sometimes something much longer. My Serbian isn’t great, so the longer conversations are difficult, but the friendly greetings are a part of walking through the village. I met more neighbours in my first few days here than in years of living in London!

        1. Definitely concerning about what tech is doing to children’s brains! I am thankful that I grew up pre-internet as well. I didn’t have a computer until I was in grad school in the early 90s. I used to think that was horrible but now I think it was a blessing in disguise!

          Those benches sound amazing! A version of the front porch. I don’t have a front porch but I find it really interesting that my neighbors who do never sit on them. Maybe eventually your Serbian will get good enough for more conversation, but at least you are able to see and greet people 🙂

  4. I’ve been retired for a few years now and I still have a problem feeling guilty that I aspire each day to ‘do nothing’. It doesn’t help that my husband, also retired, is a ‘doer’; he must be doing something, or sleeping. Where are the long relaxing days of reading? The world spins too fast for me.

    1. Oh Joan, yes, it’s sad that even retirement has the struggle that says you need to be productive. I think lots of people who are able to retire don’t because their entire life and identity is wrapped up in going to work every day and without that they don’t know what to do, which is so very sad to me. And when people are retiring we ask them what they are going to do. You’ve spent your whole life doing, enjoy doing nothing and don’t feel guilty!

  5. YOU ARE SPEAKING MY LANGUAGE, Stefanie. I loved Jenny Odell’s book, even if parts of it were slightly out of my realm of knowledge. Being home (with no work, as my work can’t be done from home) for 8 weeks last year was a real paradigm shift for me. I slowed down enough to really ENJOY slowing down. I read, I sat in the backyard and watched the birds and the rabbits. I made a daily chore list. I played board games with my family. It really actually was something close to heaven for an introvert like me. Oh, I definitely missed my friends, and traveling. But I realized how much I like doing NOTHING. If you consider reading, thinking, writing, appreciating nature, taking walks as nothing. Now I make sure that I schedule “nothing” in my weekends. I thrive on it. Our culture feeds on “the grind” and it’s really just a bunch of external approval-seeking BS created by capitalists to make us buy more stuff. I’m tired of it. And lots of other people are too. I really think that the lockdown helped many people see it. I’m hopeful anyway? PS… if you’re on Instagram check out The Nap Ministry and Jamie Varon for accounts resisting grind culture. I’m trying to use Instagram to support and engage with accounts like these.

    1. Hooray Laila! You did make a big shift and that is fantastic! You sound so much happier for it too and that’s the point, right? I meant, what good is life if we aren’t enjoying it? You are making a good example for your son too. Thanks for the Instagram tips! I have an account but don’t spend much time on it but I check in now and then 🙂

  6. I have really been feeling the attention issue this week, as it’s a very VERY busy work week. Last week was too, and as well I had loads of social obligations last week, so I ended up feeling like I’d been hit by a truck. I gave myself a break on tasks for the weekend and just read and read — I finished four books! It was amazing! And a good reminder to give myself the time to focus on a single thing and relax about it.

    1. Oh Jenny! I am glad you were able to give yourself a break for the weekend. Do try to figure out ways to give yourself time to do nothing during the week too!

  7. Another thing that contributes to being “stuck in the right now” is that many teachers reward quickness. Most of us equate getting something quickly with being smart.
    As a person who needs time to mull things over, I’ve noticed this. My students also expect quickness of me, and I have to talk to them about other ways of paying attention.

    1. Oh Jeanne! That is so very true! That has been building for a very long time I think. I am one of those who has to sit with things and let them ferment for a bit before I feel comfortable answering, I have never been quick in class discussions and this always hurt me, especially at university. Those who have quick answers always got the praise and high regard. sorry to hear it is also being turned around at teachers now too.

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