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Yes, Virginia, there is attentiveness

November 19, 2010

Virginia Heffernan has a funny little column in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine. She opens by pointing to Jonah Lehrer and me as examples of people who allegedly believe that, as she puts it, "everyone has an attention span" and "an attention span is a freestanding entity like a boxer’s reach, existing independently of any newspaper or chess game that might engage or repel it, and which might be measured by the psychologist’s equivalent of a tailor’s tape." This is complete horseshit. Lehrer and I have different views of how the internet and other media influence attentiveness, but I certainly don't believe that individual human beings have fixed and precisely measurable attention spans, and I'm pretty sure that Lehrer doesn't believe that either. In fact, I can't say I've come across anyone of any sentience who subscribes to such a naive notion. Of course attentiveness is situational, and of course it's influenced by the activities one pursues - indeed, it's the nature of that influence that concerns Lehrer, me, and the many other people who are interested in the cognitive effects of media and other technologies.

In trotting out the strawman of a fixed attention span, Heffernan obfuscates a whole array of interesting, complicated, and important questions. Central to those questions is the fact that "attentiveness" takes many forms. One can, for instance, be attentive to rapid-paced changes in the environment, a form of attentiveness characterized by quick, deliberate shifts in focus. As Lehrer and others have described, there is evidence that video gaming can enhance this kind of attentiveness. There is a very different form of attentiveness that involves filtering out, or ignoring, environmental stimuli in order to focus steadily on one thing - reading a long book, say, or repairing a watch. Our capacity for this kind of sustained attention is being eroded, I argue, by the streams of enticing info-bits pouring out of our networked gadgets. There are also differing degrees of control that we wield over our attention. Research by Clifford Nass and his associates at Stanford suggests that people who are heavy media multitaskers may be sacrificing their ability to distinguish important information from trivia - it all blurs together. And there are, as well, different sorts of distractions - those that can refresh our thinking and those that can short-circuit it.

We're still a long way from understanding exactly how attention works in our minds, but we do know that the way we pay attention has a crucial effect on many of our most important mental processes, from the formation of memories to conceptual and critical thinking. As the psychology professor David Strayer puts it, "Attention is the holy grail. Everything that you’re conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on it.” Heffernan is right to remind us that there is no one ideal form of attentiveness - that focusing too tightly can be as bad as focusing too loosely - but if she truly believes that "the dominant model" of discourse about attentiveness "ignores the content of activities in favor of a wonky span thought vaguely to be in the brain," she hasn't been paying attention.

UPDATE: Another view of attention spans,* also from today's Sunday Times. And an older take.

*In the vernacular sense, meaning, roughly, "ability to sustain one's concentration."

FURTHER UPDATE: Rob Horning chimes in, smartly:

... unlike Heffernan, I see concentration rather than distraction as an act of cultural resistance.

The problem with reckoning with attention problems is not that it is ineffable but that it doesn’t correspond with an economic model that has us spending and replenishing some quantifiable supply of it. But the metaphors built into an “attention span” or “paying attention” or the “attention economy” imagine a scarce resource rather than a quality of consciousness, a mindfulness. It may be that the notion of an attention economy is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, bringing into being the problems its posits through the way it frames experience. It may not be constructive to regard attention as scarce or something that can be wasted and let those conceptions govern our relation to our consciousness. The metaphor of how we exert control over our focus may be more applicable, more politically useful in imagining an alternative to the utility-maximizing neoliberal self. The goal would then be not to maximize the amount of stuff we can pay attention to but instead an awareness that much of what nips at us is beneath our attention.


That part of her article is the weakest, because it's basically an argument from incredulity. But on the underlying point, which is global implication, yes, you actually did just agree with her that it is your argument. Quote (emphasis added) "Our capacity for this kind of sustained attention is being eroded, I argue, by the streams of enticing info-bits pouring out of our networked gadgets". That is, there is a global ("kind") of attention, which is independent of the specific activity, and specific (browsing? IM?) activities harm the ability to do different activities. Your objection is merely that you generalize there to a lesser extent than she claims. Elsewhere, you generalize MORE:

Quote (my notes in brackets):

"We're still a long way from understanding exactly how attention works in our minds [disclaimer], but we do know that the way we pay attention [specific activity] has a crucial effect [global implication] on many of our most important mental processes, from the formation of memories to conceptual and critical thinking [SCARY! SCARY!! SCARY!!!].

But aside from the strict logical fallacy of the incredulity point, there's a pretty good rebuttal contained in her article regarding how these sorts of arguments are (my phrasing) historically fogeyism. "Long is good. Good scholars, good citizens and good children have long attention spans. Attention spans used to be robust; now they are stunted. Technology ... shriveled them"."
That's a fine summary of the underlying social preaching.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 20, 2010 11:03 AM

Your rebuttal of Heffernan's article is long on a suspiciously visceral agreement with her premise but short (for you) on actual refutation of her arguments. More of such would be greatly appreciated by your readers.

Posted by: Joe Elwell [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 21, 2010 11:26 AM

It was interesting reading about, oh yeah, attention spans.

Now, what was I saying?

Thats a pretty blue border.


Posted by: Tdavis [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 24, 2010 04:32 PM

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