Week 6: Paying Attention

A lot of this week’s reading revolved around Attention, the economy of attention, shifting attention, losing attention and paying attention. But first what does it mean exactly when we refer to our attention?

The Oxford Dictionary says:


Pronunciation: /əˈtɛnʃ(ə)n/


[mass noun]

  1. notice taken of someone or something; the regarding of someone or something as interesting or important
  2. the action of dealing with or taking special care of someone or something

I think when we are talking about our attention in this context, it refers to the amount of time and focus that we have. As both are limited resources (We only have so much time in a day, we can only focus for so long) it would follow that attention is also a limited resource.

So what is happening to this limited resource in the face of a new media landscape where information is not only abundant, but in surplus?

The Economy of Attention deals with attention as a scarce resource that is sought after and ‘paid’ like a currency of the modern age. The domestication of the internet into our daily lives means that we can constantly access it throughout the day and that means being bombarded with information, adverts and updates. As our attention is limited, we can only pay attention to so many things through the day.

I suppose two fears that can result from this would be the fear that we aren’t paying attention to the right things, or that we aren’t paying enough attention to what we do see.

The first, that we aren’t paying attention to the right things, follows the thought that with all the entertainment and social media, we are choosing them over topics such as news and politics. The foreword of Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman goes into this, comparing Brave New World and 1984 to our current society. It compares modern day entertainment to the blissful ignorant ‘happiness’ that the inhabitants of Civilisation live with.

The second fear is in response to the depth of our attention now. With so many things to attend to, we often turn to multitasking to keep afloat the sea of information. This flitting about with our attention, our quickly changing of gears to attend to five things within a minute, has caused some, such as Nicholas Carr, to fear that our ability to deeply engage with media has been lost.

However this paves way to a thing called Infotention which is the collection of tools and skills that our minds are coming to have that help manage and pick out what is worth paying attention to and what isn’t. Humans are very adaptive, and I think this word accounts for the adaptive measures that we have taken to better traverse an information-saturated world.

Another take on the Economy of Attention is that Attention isn’t becoming more and more limited in a world full of information, but that attention is being freed up from previously attention-heavy tasks. It goes that the resulting consumption of media isn’t a matter of it ‘consuming’ our attention, but of our attention having greater freedom to attend to these things.

My stance on all of the above is that everything holds a portion of the truth. While yes, I agree that our time is being freed up by convenient technology (Typing instead of writing, industries catering to food and material goods) there is also this sense that media is so pervasive it is consuming what attention we have and turning it into a scarcity.

I often find myself feeling that I have no time to do something because my attention is caught up with all the media that I consume, and this isn’t even media that I would rate as ‘highly important’. I can waste my time away on Tumblr and YouTube  something which I’m sure many other can relate to their experiences with Facebook or Reddit.

There seems to be a want to keep the brain occupied, to see what is the next shiny update, what’s so and so said now. It’s what keeps me hitting f5 when I’ve been through all the new content and I’m waiting for more. Perhaps this is why procrastination seems easier than every before. The internet is already providing us with so many easy-to-access distractions, and with it’s pervasiveness through notifications and apps across a myriad of devices, it’s becoming hard to escape. This may be what has prompted people to go Tweet-free for a month or into a temporary digital hibernation while they work.

But while this weeks reading focused on the Economy of Attention in relation to media, I feel that it has always been a constant through history. The concept of Economy of Attention pops up in so many areas that are outside of the internet. It covers things like adverts on TV, competition between local stores, the brand names of a certain product and even primary school popularity contests. These all deal with the want to accumulate or gather as much attention as possible, in all these situations attention becomes a form of ‘currency’ for the people involved. Perhaps this is a sign of a capitalist society, or perhaps this is the sign of a society full of social beings. The Economy of Attention is certainly A Thing affecting our media engagement, but then again it has always been A Thing throughout our lives and the workings of our society.

I think that Infotention allows us to manage our attention in the face of  the busy media landscape. Though I don’t think infotention is a matter of ‘allows us’ or not, infotention has become a vital skill that we need to get things done. We certainly are picking up new tools that become not only better ways of processing information, but also shortcuts to access them so that we do not spend too much time finding it. We have learned to multi-task more throughout the day, and some attest to the usefulness and productivity that follows. With the internet we now have greater access to materials, and tools to search through these materials. Google is one example, and the library of UNSW is another.

However it’s not all good news, I do feel like that our attention spans are becoming shorter in some aspects. I don’t think it would limit our ability to engage deeply with things, but our shorter attention span certainly shows in the smaller things, and these small things can build into something bigger.

The newfound ease to do things that technology provides is not only speeding things up,  but also training us to expect things in under a second. Download speeds need to be faster, computer bootups, game loading times and video buffers all need to be reduced. We’re so used to the speed of the internet that waiting ten seconds for a website to load is met with impatience and frustration. Up that to half a minute and it’d be only the most stubborn of users who see it load, or maybe they just have it in another tab with their attention diverted away to something else.

The thing is we’re used to speed, so anything that could take a while would lead to frustration. I think we certainly have lost patience in some aspects but that’s not to say we’ve lost our ability to concentrate. There are lots of techniques and tips that people share to boost productivity. Lifehacker contains quite a few, and I’m sure you can recall a peer sharing a tip or two on how to get rid of distractions and work. I feel that these tips and guides can also fall under the umbrella of infotention, as it also deals with our management of attention and narrowing it down to focus on something for an extended period of time. There are certainly more things to attend to but infotention, our new emerging skillset of managing our attention in relation to the world, help us in directing our attention to what need it most.

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