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The cultural crisis of attention

Author  :  ZHOU XIAN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2021-11-10

It is common to see quite a lot of students playing on their phones during classes, especially in general courses. Although I tend to assume that they are searching online for information about the course, there is actually no way to find out what they are actually doing. One thing that I have been following closely for a long time is that nowadays, I believe, everyone is faced with the crisis of attention.

For instance, the 2019 Douyin Data Report highlighted a fact that a video of a real-life tumbler doll performance in Datang Everbright City had been played 2.3 billion times in 2009. Although ByteDance [owner of both Tiktok and Douyin] was proud of this result, this astonishing figure also revealed something worrying. In How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds, American critic Nicholas Carr wrote bluntly that “smartphones have become so entangled with our existence that, even when we are not peering or pawing at them, they tug at our attention, diverting precious cognitive resources.” “They promise an unending supply of information and experiences,” and that “as the brain grows dependent on the technology, the research suggests, the intellect weakens.”

Unlike “digital immigrants” that have experienced the print era, young people who were born after the 1990s and even the 2000s are “digital natives,” and are therefore less immune to digital media culture, thus more susceptible to attention crisis.

Attention and distraction

Simply put, the so-called “attention” here refers to the ability to perceive certain stimulus while neglecting other stimuli, so as to determine the preferred terms for perception and actions. Attention is limited, and selective. In the 1960s, American economist Herbert A. Simon came up with the concept of “attention economics,” which earned him the Nobel Prize in Economics. He pointed out that “in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. 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.”

The cultural crisis of attention is manifested in the form of “information overload syndrome,” which can be found in almost every one of us. The symptoms can be both mental and physiological, including always paying attention to our phones, not willing to miss any new message, sensory fatigue, and anxiety, etc.

Attention deficit and distraction have become a common mental state and an illness. The most typical sign of being easily distracted is not being able to stick to one thing for a long time.

What is worse, humans have gone from “passive distraction” to “active distraction,” i.e. from getting distracted by information to actively seeking distraction. Consequently, some people have developed cognitive and emotional disorders. Some Western scholars call it the “distraction addiction.”

American postmodern literary critic Nancy Katherine Hayles made a very classic judgment. She believed that as humans entered the digital civilization, the shift in cognitive styles could be seen in the contrast between deep attention and hyper attention. Deep attention, the cognitive style that belonged to the print civilization, is no longer in fashion, whereas hyper attention is in vogue. It is characterized by switching focus rapidly among different tasks, preferring multiple information streams, seeking a high level of stimulation, and having a low tolerance for boredom.

I find her observation very accurate.

Information age

If we zoom out, and look at the phenomenon in a larger perspective, what can we make of the culture in today’s information era? German sociologist Andreas Reckwitz’s point of view on the attention crisis is very thought-provoking. He believed that algorithms, digitality, and the sociality of the internet constitute the infrastructure of culture today.

Meanwhile, technology is becoming more logical by the day, while also showing the tendency to become cultural and emotional. The rationality of its logic will be perfectly in sync with the sensibility of its emotions. Increasingly, more technologies are not only coated with culture, but also winning people’s hearts by touching our soul. This also makes technology more capable of manipulating our attention.

Nowadays, with the help of an eye tracker that is able to accurately measure what appeals to us, algorithms and technology can customize the way our attention is attracted. As a result, the “independent choices” that we make might actually be the result of calculated design.

Attention has become a precious asset that attracts fierce competition. It has now become capital that generates value. Economist Michael H. Goldhaber believed that attention is an important driver in the post-industrial economy, where competition for attention has become the most important way of winning the competition among businesses.

Attention consumes human time, so according to Simon, attention can be measured by time. The more time our attention is consumed, the less focused we can be. Now there is a popular saying: Where did our time go? The attention crisis refers to the fact that we have no time to concentrate, no time to think, or even no time to space out.

Our actual trouble is not that we are overloaded with excessive information every day, but that we could not understand: Why is that so? What problem will come of it?

The attention technology has internally invaded our sense organs, hearts, and minds. I think the humanities circle does not have enough alertness and reflection on those technological things. There are various reasons, like technolatry, technological determinism, and other prevalent phenomena. We Chinese scholars should pay more attention to these issues, and tackle these weaknesses; particularly, we should make some critical remarks.

Way out

How should we get out of the cultural crisis of attention? Is there any feasible Chinese experience or scheme? This requires more scholars’ involvement in systematic research and investigation. Only on this basis can we find the answer. Here, I would like to offer some suggestions.

First, we need to build a reality context for all walks of life to have eyes on this cultural crisis of attention, so that they would have stronger recognition of and attention to this crisis.

Second, we should promote some necessary “simplification,” by creating some information-free time, i.e. not checking our cellphone or working on our computer. Young people, in particular, should develop such a habit.

Third, we should try to help young people to develop stronger attention habits. We Chinese people have quite fine traditions in this regard. In the Taoism philosophy, there are things like “xinzhai” (purifying the heart) and “sit and forget.” And the “sitting in meditation” and “perceiving through meditation” are also quite good meditation drills. In the West, there are similar methods, like mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.

Fourth, various activities should be encouraged to cultivate and train concentration, like hand-made work, artistic appreciation, and natural aesthetics. They can change the present scenario of poor attention.

Finally, I would like to end my talk with some words by Neil Postman: What afflicted the people was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking. I think these words are quite provoking, I hope that more scholars can pay attention to this problem, and find some Chinese solutions and success stories to address this issue.


Zhou Xian is the chair professor of the Cheung Kong Scholar Program at the Art Institute of Nanjing University and founding dean of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Studies at Nanjing University. This is edited and translated from his speech at The International Academic Forum in China 2021.

Editor: Yu Hui

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