Attention Deficit Could Be Good For You

Each day we attend to our lives through a series of sequential choices, patterns and behaviours. Many of these are adopted from an array of inputs that arise from family, education, economic performance, sustenance, health or interaction with others. Many of them will be quite banal or might in turn be quite fundamental to the direction our lives might take. Some of these decisions or directions might appear as ‘sliding doors’ moments, a mix of volition and indeterminacy. Technology or techne has propelled the outside or phenomenal world further into our lives. Techne, derives etymologically from Greek meaning making or doing and as such is to do with the world outside.

The world outside now competes relentlessly for our attention. This process hasn’t just come along with social media or the aberrations of Twitter of Facebook. Herbert Simon framed some influential thinking in his essay, ‘Designing Organizations for an Information Rich World’ (Carnegie Mellon University, September 1969) when he wrote:

1] What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

He further describes this as an ‘allocation problem’, now familiar to millions; whereupon the horizontal plains of tweets, likes and posts can fill up or rule our days work, rest or play. We are faced with the proposition of how to allocate our time and reduce the blizzard of information to an addressable set of actions and concerns. However, the persistence of Victorian ideas of ‘Time and Motion’ to increase ‘efficiency’ create a perverse idea of cramming more and more of this horizontal tasked behaviour into the day. Bernard Steigler, shaped this line of thinking suggesting that technical subservience in fact leads to a loss of spirit or power to change; through, for example, youth movements (of the 60s). But where does this technical subservience actually come from and why has it become a dominant behaviour?

The conventions in media, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out tend towards the ‘rear-view mirror effect’, where one medium exhibits the characteristics of a previous one. So, printed bibles appeared similar to hand scribed bibles (especially to the illiterate), computer keyboards follow from typewriters and social media takes its cue from billboards. An emotional space or situation is reduced or traduced to a series of characters and whisked off into cyberspace.

It is interesting in this context to consider just how much of the interior world has now been fully subjected to the tactics of media. We can say that in many cases it is almost an overthrow or revolution of the personal. A mobile phone records the casual saunter of a terrorist towards a wounded police officer. The rule of mainstream media is bypassed as it is uploaded and instantly becomes ‘viral’ – as the highways and byways of digital space ever evolve. We can say that it isn’t just the techne that has done this, it is our wholesome subscription to the attention culture and economy that holds us in servitude (as Herbert Simon suggests).

Vertical learning processes and responses tend towards promotion of the interior space. Idle, undigitised, ponderous and deeper. An outcome of the industrial revolution was to inculcate deep divisions in western cultures, making the men and women of techne more efficient, productive and familiar with supply and demand. Meanwhile, the men and women of letters continued with their vertical ‘book learning’. We might compare the great factories of the West Midlands in the 1850s with the new factories of mainland China in 2015. The making has been passed to the area with the most plentiful and cheap labour supply. This leaves us with a curious observation that time and motion or industry has led us to a point where one technically industrialised ‘tiger’ economy manufacturers the tools of servitude for the post industrial economy of attention. Ha, ha.

For those looking toward a way out of the attention economy, we can only suggest that reorganising time and action according to things that are distinct, problematic or difficult is the way to go. Arguably, this requires quieter spaces, higher order relationships and a form of enquiry where one thing leads to another. Unlike.

Simon Poulter, 2015

Herbert A. Simon, Designing Organizations for an Information Rich World (Carnegie-Mellon University, 1969)


This article was commissioned by Metal, for ‘Hoarding’ (with thanks to Mark Richards).