Tag Archive | attention

Reading notes: The Distraction Addiction

I have been looking forward to this book since Alex first told me he was working on it (he was kind enough to agree to serve on the advisory board for a project I planned).

The book doesn’t disappoint. OK, that’s an understatement. It’s one of those books I wish I had written.

Even though this is a book about the dangers of technology use, it is not one of those panicked, hopeless, technology-hating arguments. It is a guide for making the best out of technology – for using it rather than being used by it.

The book’s premise rests in the idea of the extended mind, a concept Alex reframes as entanglement with technology. At its best, entanglement is a state of feeling the body and mind being pleasantly and seamlessly extended by technology – perceiving technology as part of oneself, just like a skilled skier perceives the skis as part of herself when zooming down a slope. This kind of entanglement has been happening since the beginning of history and tool use. Whether you use skis, an axe, a bicycle, a pen, a car, or a computer, you can have that sense of it extending your human abilities, being a part of yourself. However, there are times when entanglement goes wrong, and technology feels like a pair of broken, uncomfortable, awkward high-heel shoes. Then, it becomes an extension of yourself that hinders movement, an arm that doesn’t obey the brain’s commands; a cause of frustration and stress.

The book is grounded in solid Western empirical research as well as Eastern thought and practice. It combines the two to propose a guide for the positive kind of entanglement. In the last chapter, it offers 8 principles for doing so:

  1. be human
  2. be calm
  3. be mindful
  4. make conscious choices
  5. extend your abilities
  6. seek flow
  7. engage with the world
  8. restore your capacity for attention

The book ends beautifully and hopefully:

“You are the inheritor of a contemplative legacy that you can use to retake control of your technology, to tame the monkey mind, and to redesign your extended mind. Connection is inevitable. Distraction is a choice.”

The question remains, how easy and feasible is the plan proposed in this book? I find it feasible, but not necessarily easy. It requires some training of executive attention (aka mindfulness) that might take a while to develop, and demands commitment to regular practice.

Information and Contemplation course at UW

The Chronicle of Higher Education published today an article about a course on Information and Contemplation taught by David Levy at UW. Interesting to see that Levy’s previous work on effects of meditation on multitasking was actually funded by the National Science Foundation. Interesting to see that ACM CHI and Graphics Interface publish this kind of work.

Contemplative Pedagogy

More on this from the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University.

“…the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention,
over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character and will.
No one is compos sui if he has it not. An education which should
improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.”
[William James, 1890]

compos sui = master of one’s self

Another take on attention

Attention is one of the main themes of this blog, something I like to think and teach about – and what I see as the scarcest, and therefore most precious resource in our connected lifestyle.

I came across a view of attention in a book about Ayurveda, a system of traditional medicine from India:

“Ayurveda says that attention happens when prana goes out and carries the vibration of awareness toward the object. Thus, attention is awareness plus prana, movement.”

Prana is the essential life energy, also known as qi/chi or ki in Chinese and Japanese traditions, respectively.

It’s interesting to think of attention as more than focusing the mind on something, but also directing, or giving of your own energy to the object of attention. If you think about it that way, attention becomes even more precious – it’s almost a giving of the self.

The view that includes energy in attention might also explain why people “feel” someone’s gaze and all of a sudden turn around to meet it. Do they feel the energy, the prana? Could it be that even us Westerners who have not developed our potential to feel and work with energy (like Yoga, Tai Chi, and other traditions do) – feel it anyway, even though we don’t quite have a name for it?

Does it change anything for you, to think of attention as giving of yourself, directing your energy towards someone/something else?

The economy of attention

The phrase that keeps coming to mind as I make sense of the way U.S. society is going is the economy of attention.

These are times of information overload, cacophony of voices, pluralism, multitasking, fragmentation, community, and isolation -to name a few.

It has become an established fact in social psychology that people need attention. Children need attention to develop into healthy, balanced adults.

Everything and everybody is fighting for your attention: your children, your pets, your friends, your twitter friends, mass-media, individual-media, TV, employees.

People and pets will do strange things to get attention: Start a fight, act up.

I’ve been working long hours lately so my cat Pooky gets quite possessive when I come back home. I can’t have a phone conversation without him acting up – the other day, running across the dining table as I was eating and talking on the phone, just to make a point, I’m sure!

So, to quote an Indian English phrase, What to do?!

If you’re in an attention-giving role: Give it. Make smart decisions about who and what needs your attention most. In the long run, in the big picture, is it your Blackberry or your kid?

If you’re in an attention-needing role: Ask for it. It’s OK, you don’t need to fight, act up, attack people just so they will notice you. There are plenty of kind people out there who will sit down to have a loving, heart-to-heart conversation with you. You don’t even have to pay them. You just need to get over your ego and open your heart enough so you can find them.

If you’re in the communication professions (PR, marketing, advertising): Be responsible. Don’t do society a disservice by adding to the cacophony unnecessarily. That’s not going to get you attention. Be smart, be judicious, imagine you have a limited “communication & messaging” account and use it wisely to communicate important, valuable, useful information. Sometimes being quiet will get you attention.

As a college student in Romania, once a year, I’d attend the International Advertising Festival. I’d pay half my monthly income on a ticket to sit and watch back-to-back commercials all night long (9 pm – 5 am). I’ve done this 2-3 years in a row, and guess what commercial got my attention and stayed with me to this day, more than 10 years later? This one stood out among the cacophony of voices, among the visual and auditory assault on the senses:

  • Blank white screen.
  • Line-drawn piglet shuffles on screeen.
  • Stops in the center, stares at you, blinks.
  • Oinks.
  • Text bubble: Why are you staring at me? Go to a museum.

I believe it was an ad paid for by the Serbian Art Federation.

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