Warning Messages from Tech Workers
A recent special issue of the Weekend Magazine of the Guardian featured several designers and product developers who have begun speaking out about the dangers and unintended consequences of technological innovations, particularly the smartphone. One recent study, according to Justin Rosenstein, found that the mere presence of the smart phone, even when it is turned off, damages cognitive capacity. “Everyone is distracted. All of the time.” (1)
A former Google employee, Tristan Harris, gave a TED talk in Vancouver in which he said, “All of us are jacked into the system. All of our minds can be hijacked. Our choices are not as free as we think they are. I don’t know a more urgent problem than this. It’s changing our democracy, and it’s changing our conversations and the relationships we want to have with each other.” (2)
Loren Brichter, who designed the pull to refresh feature used in many apps, admits that, “Smart phones are useful tools, but they’re addictive.” “I have two kids and regret every moment that I am not paying attention to them because my smart phone has sucked me in.” (3)
The Attention Economy
Attention is a primary factor in both parenting and education. We talk about “paying attention,” attention-getting behavior,” and “attention deficit disorder,” for example. Most generally speaking, attention could be understood as a basic constituent and function of human consciousness.
When we are online, our freedom to choose what to pay attention to may be more illusionary than real, in part because the interests of others are often leading and shaping us, as much or more than our own interests.
The Attention Economy is the title of a book by Thomas Davenport and John C. Beck written in 2001, but the authors attribute the original concept to Herbert Simon, an economist and computer scientist, who wrote the following in 1971.
“In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else; a scarcity of whatever 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.” (4)
In the ensuing decades, the limited attention of the consumer has been recognized as an increasingly valuable resource in the information age, especially for online businesses. We can all bear witness to how often tantalizing ads and headlines interrupt our online sessions. We could even say that our attention has been commoditized, not unlike the way that labor came to be viewed as a commodity during the industrial revolution.
Matthew Crawford supports this view in a NY Times article in 2015. “Attention is a resource; a person has only so much of it. And yet we’ve auctioned off more and more of our public space to private commercial interests, with their constant demands on us to look at the products on display or simply absorb some bit of corporate messaging. Lately, our self-appointed disrupters have opened up a new frontier of capitalism, complete with its own frontier ethic: to boldly dig up and monetize every bit of private head space by appropriating our collective attention. In the process, we’ve sacrificed silence — the condition of not being addressed. And just as clean air makes it possible to breathe, silence makes it possible to think. What if we saw attention in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource that we hold in common? Perhaps, if we could envision an “attentional commons,” then we could figure out how to protect it.” (5)
Davenport and Beck refer to “attention as the new currency of business”, but their focus is primarily on the psychological and organizational consequences of employees’ feeling overwhelmed by an imbalance of information to available attention and the importance of attention management.
They describe four symptoms of organizational ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)
Increased likelihood of missing key information when making decisions
Diminished time for reflection on anything else but email, etc.
Difficulty of holding others’ attention without increased glitziness
Decreased ability to focus when necessary (6)
When I shared these symptoms to a group of educators, they agreed that all four could be descriptive of the learning problems they observe in grades and high school students.
What happens to a child’s developing capacity to consciously direct his or her attention, when the attention of adults and older students is divided, distracted, or even deficient, as in the above description?
Attention and Presence
We used to speak about the importance of “quality time” with our children. Now, in the midst of our ultra busy, multitasking lifestyle, we need to be as keenly aware of the quality of our attention. Are we fully present or are we only offering a shell of ourselves?
The potency of a conversation or interaction between two people depends a great deal on the quality of attention that they give to each other. Is there a genuine interest in connecting? How well are we listening to each other? We have all experienced going through the motions of being social, while preoccupied with thoughts, feelings or plans that have nothing to do with what is happening at the moment.
This is particularly poignant in a conversation between an adult and child. A spouse who does not have the full attention of his or her partner may register an objection and get fuller participation. It is rare for a young child to be able to do the same. A tantrum may ensue, but if its cause is not recognized, is unlikely to achieve a satisfactory resolution for either child or parent.
I did witness a four year-old child say, in a surprisingly wise and authoritative voice, to his father, as his father glanced at his phone to see who had just sent him a message, “Put down your phone, Dad!” The implication was clear; “I am talking to you.” The father complied, of course.
During my many years as an early childhood teacher, I had the opportunity to observe many interactions between children and adults. A young child can readily sense if and when “someone is at home.” Typically, the child first relaxes and then becomes more animated. Children who sense the conscious, generous, fully present attention of adults around them can feel affirmed in their active devotion to life and supported to enter more firmly into their own beings.
Imitation in the Formative Early Years and Beyond
The reason that our own attention is the critical factor in a young child’s life is because the way a young child learns everything during the first seven years is through imitation. Rudolf Steiner characterizes the young child as wholly sense organ, such that they take in everything in their surroundings, especially everything connected to the human beings with whom they have daily contact. (7) From this perspective, it seems clear to me that the quality of attention of the people with whom a child regularly interacts undoubtedly has an influence on the child, especially before the age of seven, when their capacity for imitation is strongest.
Dr. Michaela Glöckler gave a lecture in Seattle in June of 2017, in which she spoke about the relationship between fundamental experiences in the first three years of a child’s life and three major health and educational challenges in older children and teens. She correlated attention deficiency problems with a lack of concentrated or focused attention in the first year of life; problems of depression and aggression with the lack of a peaceful atmosphere for listening in the second year of life; problems of addictions and dependencies with a lack of feeling accepted, or of having an inner space to feel at home in the third year of life.
These thoughts, in addition to much recent research, certainly underscore the foundational importance of the early years. I believe that the degradation of the quality of our own attention and its effect on our children is an area that bears greater study, as it may well have a role in many of the current challenges described above that are facing the children in our society today.
Attention and Rhythm
Attention does not mean being focused exclusively on one’s child at all times. That kind of attention tends to be stifling and is not necessarily helpful for a child’s development. Our attention, like our breathing, has to be rhythmic and fit the demands of the situation.
Some of our activities require us to be wakeful and others we can do without a lot of focus, as when something is very familiar or repetitive. The rhythm of taking hold and letting go of our concentration is normal and healthy.
With the young child, we alternate times of being fully present with the child with times when the child is free to be fully attentive to his or her own activities. There are also times when we are engaged in side-by-side activities. In this case our attention has a different, more flowing quality, for example, when we are walking, cooking or gardening together.
Many psychologists, doctors and educators are recommending screen-free rooms in the home and screen-free times in the day and week. These suggestions, if they are built into the family’s habit life, can be tremendously supportive to creating healthy rhythms for both parents and children.
The Re-schooling of Attention
George Kuhlewind, in From Normal to Healthy, describes the differences between a child’s and an adult’s perceptions.
“Above all, perceiving in a child is based far less on predetermined concepts, because these have not been formed. This is why the activity of the senses is more intense; everything has to be looked at, touched and listened to. Also, this intense sense activity is still intertwined with the world of feelings, and the feelings are partly cognitive, that is really feeling, feeling toward the outside, not the self-feeling of the adult. The wonder of discovery and the wonder of mental experience are still united. The capacity for devoted attention is much greater in children than in adults, and this is so to the extent that the child does not yet turn his attention egotistically to himself. Psychic experience is multicolored and many-sided and can be characterized by joy. The joy does not apply to the thing perceived, but to perceiving itself. Or rather, perceiving is not yet as separated from the object as for the adult.” (8)
A rich tapestry of sensory, feeling, and cognitive perceptions, that are outwardly oriented and not egocentric, can arise from devoted attention. This way of being and attending to the world, which is completely natural in a small child, is the conscious goal of many a mind-full adult!
Towards this end, Kuhlewind offers us three relevant pieces of advice: 1) Valuable practical experience in freedom of will can be gained by learning to concentrate our attention. 2) The intensity of our sense perceptions can be strengthened “with light, careful attention.” 3) Both of these practices can help us transform our cultural addiction to external, passive pleasures into creative, artistic joy. (9)
Attention is important in a mindfulness practice, but no less important in everyday living, according to the research of psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi initially studied particularly creative and artistic individuals and coined the word, “flow,” to summarize what was common about their optimal experiences. In a subsequent study, he documented stories of ordinary people who also found flow in many aspects of their lives, including work, hobbies, and relationships.
Czikszentmihalyi characterizes flow as a state of complete immersion in an activity that is intrinsically rewarding and lifts the course of one’s life to a different level. The intense absorption in such a state is more like the joy for joy’s sake of the small child, than typical pleasure. He maintains that while it is usually difficult to change the external circumstances of one’s life, changing the focus of one’s attention and thereby the contents of one’s consciousness, is a much more reliable way to achieve a feeling of fulfillment. (10)
Our children not only benefit from the attention that we offer to them directly, but also from witnessing the quality of attention that we cultivate in ourselves, including our interest in others and the world around us.
Attention as Love
Attention and consciousness are all encompassing topics, and it is helpful that we are able to study ourselves in addition to working with the research of others. I have already described some of my experiences with young children.
Through the course of this exploration, I have also begun to understand that, whether one is the giver, the receiver, or sharing an experience of with others, attention in the fullest sense involves all of our soul faculties- thinking, feeling and willing. Mary Oliver, the poet, writes, “Attention without feeling… is only report.” (11)
Simone Weill, the French philosopher, activist and mystic, wrote compellingly about the role of attention in life and education.
“The poet produces something beautiful by fixing his attention on something real. It is the same with an act of love. To know that this man who is hungry and thirsty really exists as much as I do- that is enough, the rest follows of itself. […] The authentic and pure values- truth, beauty and goodness- in the activity of the human being are the result of the one and same act, a certain application of the full attention to the object. Teaching should have no aim but to prepare, by training the attention, for the possibility of such an act.” (12)
Supporting the Forces of Life and Growth
The danger of our attention being co-opted by values and interests that are not our own and as such, significantly influencing our own and our children’s lives seems well founded. Some of the young people that I know are beginning to be aware of the need to consciously manage their media use, but they seem to be exceptions to the norm. It is equally clear that attention is a powerful force that can be transformative.
If we parents and teachers are willing to look at our own habits of attention and try to be healthy models for their children, it is possible to preserve and even strengthen the best of our human capacities.
Holly Koteen-Soule has been an Early Years teacher in Seattle for 25 years and a teacher educator since 1997. Currently, she is the director of the Sound Circle Program and the coordinator for teacher education at WECAN. She is also a board member at WECAN and a member of the Pedagogical Section Council in the USA.
Simon, Herbert, “Designing Organizations for an Information–Rich World,” in The Economics of Communication and Information, Edward Elgar, 1997.
Crawford, Matthew, www.nytimes.com/2015/03/08/opinion/sunday/the-cost-of-paying-attention.html?_r=0. Crawford is the author of the book, The World Beyond your Head: Becoming and Individual in the Age of Distraction, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2015.
Davenport, T and Beck, J. The Attention Economy, p 7, Accenture, 2001.
Steiner, Rudolf, The Kingdom of Childhood, p 18, Anthroposophic Press, 1995.
Kuhlewind, Georg, From Normal to Healthy, p 142, Lindisfarne Press, 1983.
Ibid, p 143.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, Finding Flow, p 129, Basic Books, 1997.
Oliver, Mary, Our World, Penguin Random House, 2007. This quote is taken from the following excerpt from Oliver’s elegy in photographs and memories of her partner, photographer, Molly Malone: It has frequently been remarked, about my own writings, that I emphasize the notion of attention. This began simply enough: to see that the way the flicker flies is greatly different from the way the swallow plays in the golden air of summer. It was my pleasure to notice such things, it was a good first step. But later, watching M. when she was taking photographs, and watching her in the darkroom, and no less watching the intensity and openness with which she dealt with friends, and strangers too, taught me what real attention is about. Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter. Such openness and empathy M. had in abundance, and gave away freely… I was in my late twenties and early thirties, and well filled with a sense of my own thoughts, my own presence. I was eager to address the world of words — to address the world with words. Then M. instilled in me this deeper level of looking and working, of seeing through the heavenly visibles to the heavenly invisibles. I think of this always when I look at her photographs, the images of vitality, hopefulness, endurance, kindness, vulnerability… We each had our separate natures; yet our ideas, our influences upon each other became a rich and abiding confluence.
12. Weil, Simone, Gravity and Grace, p 119-120, Routledge Classics, 2002.