A Note on Attention

Walking through the airport with a camera, and Michael Sacasas.

November 04, 2019Filed under Tech#attention#photography#social media#wisdomMarkdown source

Assumed Audience: written with an eye to folks willing to think a little bit harder about attention—something we all need to get better at.


Walking through the airport this morning, I found that my attention itself had caught my attention. I have had this bit from L. M. Sacasas bouncing around in my head for the last month or so:

The ability to take photographs expands (and limits) the hiker’s perceptive repertoire—it creates new possibilities, the landscape now appears differently to our hiker. Smartphone in hand, the hiker might now perceive the world as field of possible images. This may, for example, direct attention up from the path toward the horizon, causing even our experienced hiker to stumble. We may be tempted to say, consequently, that the hiker is no longer paying attention, that the device has distracted him. But this is, at best, only partly true. The hiker is still paying attention. In fact, he may be paying very close, directed attention, hunting for that perfect image. But his attention is of a very different sort than the “in the flow” attention of a hiker on the move. They are now missing some aspects of the surroundings, but picking up on others. Without the smartphone in hand, the hiker may not stumble, but they may not notice a particularly striking vista either.

Yesterday’s bit of history might give you to how I ended up walking through Denver International Airport with my camera in hand today, taking in the architecture with a rather different eye than I usually do. My normal path through the airport is merely utilitarian: get to the gate, fill my water bottle, hit the bathroom, grab a seat and knock out some work while I wait to board. Today, though, I found myself considering the structures of the facility, its décor, the little touches architects and designers had put in place to (or at least, to attempt to) humanize what might otherwise be a terribly forbidding structure.

(Airports are among the chief edifices of our modern, technological regime. They are not merely travel hubs, but miniature shopping malls. They require not only the massive infrastructure that supports aircraft themselves, but also the perhaps even greater infrastructure to support the cars we park there, the workers who cycle through, the food to be eaten, and so on. They are, I think, under-appreciated as signifiers of our default approach of technological mastery over the world. More on this, perhaps, another day.)

The very act of carrying a camera with me changed my perceptual relationship to the airport. And why? Because the device around my neck prompted (that is: my choice to carry it with me prompted) a shift in my attention. I left Sacasas’ words above just as he wrote them, focused on the way a smartphone shifts the attention of his hypothetical hiker. The smartphone, by dint of its ubiquity and its versatility, does indeed (and more especially than other devices) shift our attention. Not least, I think, because for most of us, there is no conscious choice to bring it with us, as there was for me with my camera this morning.

The phone both draws our attention and diffuses it. For all that having the smartphone in my pocket may increase my attentiveness to the beautiful vista on a hike, it may also tempt me to disengage entirely from the hike: not only to consider the environment in a different light, but to send my mind across the world to other places, other activities entirely. The contrast with a dedicated device like the camera I brought with me is illuminating. Certainly a camera shifts my relationship to a hike, just as it does to a stroll through the airport. But it does so by way of focusing my attention, and drawing it into aspects of the hike that I might otherwise miss. That focusing is a tradeoff: as Sacasas notes, it means there are things I notice which I might not have had I not had a camera in hand; but also that there are aspects of a hike that I do not enjoy as I would had I no camera to hand—precisely because my attention is focused by the device. But the difference between the way a single-purpose technology affects our attention and the way a device with greater versatility affects our attention is rather stark.

I have an increasing degree of affection for an interest in devices dedicated to a single job. Some of this is simply that, as good as smartphones are at many tasks, a purpose-built piece can often serve better than a jack-of-all-trades production. As my friend Stephen has often lamented: the iPod was a better portable music player—in the sense of doing that one specific job—than any iPhone! I could say the same of my Kobo… and far more for a paper book! I find the experience of using those task-tailored technologies much more enjoyable than our ubiquitous and flexible—and therefore ultimately distracting—smartphones. They shape my attention very differently, and (I think), better.