The blessed wonders of technology are overwhelming us. Yes we do love our digital devices, Facebook is fun, Twitter does provide useful information – but it’s all too time consuming and indeed distracting. Concentration and contemplation don’t seem to belong to the common vocabulary anymore.
The American technology writer Nicholas Carr calls the Internet an interruption system, the French philosopher of technology Bernhard Stiegler worries that the new psychotechniques that are the social networking sites will create a generation incapable of paying deep attention, and theories on the attention economy have made it clear that attention is the scarce resource in the information society.
Last week the European Science Foundation and the Digital Cultures Research Centre at the University of the West of England co-organized the conference Paying Attention: Digital Media Cultures and Generational Responsibility in Linköping, Sweden. The conference was concerned precisely with this growing sense of bewilderment about the stakes of attention in today’s media saturated world.
How can we make sense of the ways in which attention is mediated and cultivated in and through digital media? What kind of experiences do digital media promote today? What architectures of power are at work in the attention economy?
The great mixture of high profile keynote speakers such as Tiziana Terranova, Bernhard Stiegler and Michael Bauwens, young researchers and artists set the tone for a week of great discussions on the topic.
Tiziana Terranova started off the conference by revisiting several of the key players and texts that have been associated with debates on the attention economy, such as Michael Goldhaber and Jonathan Beller’s work in this field. Both Goldhaber and Beller link attention first and foremost to economic discourse and see attention as a commodity that can be traded in a system of exchange. More fruitful to the theorising of attention in economic terms Terranova suggests a turn to the theories of the Italian philosopher Maurizio Lazarrato and the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde. Attention through these perspectives can be seen as the will to power of the brain, as an ontological and expressive force that is productive of desires, beliefs and affects.
Terranova moreover talked about the recent neuroscientific shift in understanding attention, or what she called the bios of attention. I too touched upon this in my talk. Several media and cultural commentators, scholars and theorists have recently deployed neuroscientific knowledge to make sense of the attention economy.
In his recent book the Shallows, Carr argues that we’re experiencing a rewiring of the brain set off by our frantic multi-tasking with digital media. Similarly Stiegler, who also was one of the keynotes at the conference argues somewhat along the same lines in his recent book Taking Care of Youth and the Generations.
In the book, Stiegler contends that the greatest threat to social and cultural development is the destruction of young people’s ability to pay critical attention to the world around them. The myriad of new social network media and technologies must be seen as psychotechniques of capitalist society aimed at keeping a hold of people’s attention by producing consciousness directed towards an imaginary object of desire, feeding into and sustaining a system of consumption and marketing. The pharmakon (something that is both poisonous and therapeutic at the same time) that are the new psychotechniques have thus the unfortunate consequence of producing a subject identifying not with parents but with brands.
In his talk at the conference, Stiegler advocated the need for examining the attentional forms pertaining to the new forms of metadata and the processes of transindividuation that they set off. Stiegler’s conception of attention is hugely influenced by the writings of French philosopher Gilbert Simondon. In Taking Care, Stiegler also enters into dialogue with Katherine Hayles work on what she refers to as a generational shift from modes of deep attention to hyper attention.
For Stiegler attention is both psychic and social, where attention acts as an interface for psychic and collective individuation. The psychic aspects of attention are seen as a modality of concentration on an object, which essentially pertains to a traditional view on attention. As the art historian Jonathan Crary has noted, we have been caught up in an imperative of concentrated attentiveness since the 19th century. The social aspects of attention are based on Stiegler’s reading of the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. Thus the basis of all forming of attention originates in the parent child relationship and in the attention that the mother gives to the child. Hence the title Taking Care. Taking Care both refers to the taking care of the infant child as basis for developing attentional faculties as well as to an overall responsibility of taking care of the generations to come by aiming at enhancing the therapeutic side of the pharmacon instead of letting the toxic side of these technologies take over.
It is this last point that should be emphasised. That the crucial challenge lies in encouraging the therapeutic or productive aspects of these technologies, instead of becoming individuated into the never-ending marketing circuit that capitalizes on our attention and desires. For one could easily read Taking Care as a pessimistic account of a supposed linear shift from deep to hyper attention, in which the latter has succeeded over the former. But as Kathrine Hayles contends, there should be no doubt about the fact that hyper attention came before the mode of deep attention, and that hyper attentive modes are reappearing so to speak with the Internet and new media technologies. With all the references to the rewiring of the brain through our constant and frantic media behaviours, also with dominant voices within neuroscience voicing their fears, it easily looks like there is a causal relation between (the rather recent knowledge about) the plasticity of the brain and diminished attention spans through extensive digital media use. However, as several people have pointed out and which was also voiced at the conference, motherhood is fundamentally characterized by distraction. Caring for an infant child resembles much more a hyper attentive mode than anything else. Hyper attention then is by no means a new phenomenon. This seems quite paradoxical, especially in the context of Taking Care and Stiegler’s argument about the primacy of the mother-child relationship for developing attention. The experience of the mother in this relationship would indeed account for anything but deep attention.