• Adam

Wander 4. "Attention"

Updated: May 17, 2019



May I have your attention, please?

Do you remember the last time you were asked politely to attend? It was probably that tinny public transit route change announcement that became gibberish as soon as you paused your podcast.


The majority of appeals to your senses are much more forceful. White-hot numbers in blood-red bubbles cry for your eyes. All-caps headlines wax both apocalyptic and cryptic, slurping up your mind with a question it can't answer. Never mind that rattlesnake in your pocket that quivers and hums until your startled fingers calm it with a quick touch.

Paying attention yet?

You are, as the structure of the internet economy makes clear. Your attention is the most precious commodity going. Tech platforms buy it from you with free email, search, and social networking services, then they flip it for a major profit to advertisers. Economics becomes abstract and technical very quickly, though, so let's focus on the physical.

Attention comes to English by way of Old French attencion and Latin attendere, both of which meant what attention does today. The Latin root comes from two parts, ad ('toward') and tendere ('to stretch'). This is an active sense: to attend is to bend, or (ex)tend toward something: how fitting that we refer to our focus limits as our attention span. To pay attention is to seek something out, to strive toward it ('strive' is another translation of tendere).

Paying attention may be 'active' grammatically, but the activity itself may look pretty lazy. Disney/Pixar's Wall-E captured us rather viciously on that front.

Less cognitive work to find information means more time for being informed. More exposure to content. More profit from your 'interest', as it were.

You may think of information as something you consume: passive data for you to ingest and process. The word itself, of course, challenges that assumption. Information may be 'knowledge communicated', but it also describes the process of informing, 'the communication of news' used 'to train, instruct, educate'. The Latin noun, informatio, means 'concept' or 'outline', like a mold passed on to another crafts-person.

Form, the centerpiece of the word, captures this double nature. Partridge translates the Latin forma eloquently: 'that which shapes, that which has been shaped.' To pay attention, to be informed, is to be shaped. This is literally true of your brain. It re-shapes itself as you take in sensory input, an ability called plasticity (from Greek plastos 'molded, formed'). It is also 'literally' true in that letters (from littera - shared root of 'literal') form the words that help organize your mental concepts, shaping your brain from infancy.

Your best intentions may direct your attention, but your focus will always be the product of a tension between influences. You always make informed choices, but what has formed them? Market pressure encourages us to operate on a surplus of information, spoiling us for choice. This produces safe, predictable returns: retention of what we encounter most frequently and, of course, cognitive conformity to those patterns.

Meditating on this stark economy of sense surprisingly may ease academic anxiety over the relevance of extended, hyper-specific research (one of my personal bugbears). If you stretch yourself beyond the level of quick conversation (i.e. past your own comfortable competence) in anything, it should at least leave you thinking more actively.

Doing so can also form new, rigid patterns that are all-too-easy to maintain ('to hold in hand', tenere has the same root as tendere). Spreading this attention to more than one domain, though, forces you to deform and reform patterns, to be more flexible in your tendencies. No matter how truculently I try to map my interests in early modern drama, improvised theatre, and language atop each other, for example, they do not permit a well-knit theory of everything, and thank goodness.

It's delightful to mind the gap.

#wander #attention #information #tension

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