Attention as the Seed of Responsibility

Ever since I first got into meditation, the volatility of attention has been of interest to me – which will be no cause for wonder to anybody who ever tried keeping one’s attention on something as subtle as the breath’s rhythmic change of temperature in the nostrils. What I mean with ‚attention‘ – and it be noted that this is only a preliminary working definition which I am starting out with right here and which I expect to change during the course of this blog – is the ability to focus one’s awareness onto parts of the material or immaterial world. Not until recently, though, did I become particularly interested into one specific aspect of attention, which is its spatial localization.

How it Starts

I am sitting in a Cafe, reading an interview with former-Zuckerberg-adviser-turned-anti-surveillance-economy-activist Roger McNamee, in which he warns against the individual and societal dangers of big tech’s business models. As I pause reading, my gaze and thoughts wander to a guy sitting on a nearby table. At first he is looking out the window onto city life. Then he grabs his smartphone and buries his head into it. And I wonder: From where to where did his attention just go, as he switched from looking out the window to looking at his phone?

I imagine the same scene as before but with an additional overlay: Visualizing his field of view are now semitransparent pink cones, as if his eyes would throw spotlights (which for some unknown reason are pink). First wide and aimed at the city life outside, the spotlights narrowly focus as they come to rest on the screen of his phone. Now whatever is lit up by these spotlights shows where his gaze lands, and therefore his attention. Except that attention is not the same as field of view, is it? After all, there are other ways of paying attention, right – hearing for example. Does my assumption on the whereabouts of his attention change if, for instance, at second sight I realize that he is wearing earphones? Could he look out while his attention actually was on the song or podcast he is listening to?

Now, in addition to the pink spotlights coming out of his eyes, I imagine his ears glowing pink, symbolizing the fact that part of his attention is – or at least: could be – on whatever he is hearing. But are his ears really the location of his attention in this scenario? If that were the case, it would have been in his eyes when only considering his visual perception and that feels like a misinterpretation of the question.

So as soon as his attention is on an immaterial part of the world, localizing it gets a lot harder. Let’s assume he listened to a podcast which is recorded in a studio in Los Angeles and which talks about the history of Africa. Where to localize his attention?

As I stop weaving my net of thoughts for a second, the Cafe’s music seeps through its meshes and to my attention. The music has been playing all along but I was not aware of hearing it – my attention was on my train of thoughts. The same could be true for the guy. So even if from my perspective I could have seen where his gaze was landing and somehow could have heard what he was listening to, I still would have no clue when it comes to the whereabouts of his attention, since it may just as well have been solely on his train of thoughts.

(Later I come up with yet another interesting scenario: Me sitting in that Cafe and having my thoughts interrupted by the abrupt absence of music. In that case my attention would paradoxically not have been on the music until the music wasn’t there anymore.)

Why it Matters

As you can see I meant the question quite literally: Not from what to what? but from where to where? did his attention go. In meditation I train to observe the objects that, in the form of thoughts and images, fill my own awareness. That covers the What?. So far I had never bothered localizing these objects, mapping them out, in order to answer the Where?, though. There had just never been a reason to do so. So, what changed?

[…] simple awareness is the seed of responsibility.

— Jenny Odell in „How to Do Nothing. Resisting the Attention Economy.“

Let’s imagine a map hightlighting (for the sake of continuity, we might stick to pink) all the objects that the guy is paying attention to. Now, we can say that his attention is been filled by these objects. But we can also say that the object are touched by his attention. His attention becomes a feature or a ressource of them, and not a particularly unimportant one for that matter, considering that paying attention to something is the precondition for caring about or action on something. In “How to Do Nothing. Resisting the Attention Economy.”, the author Jenny Odell puts it this way: It is only through continuously paying attention that one becomes aware of the world’s condition and one’s connectedness to it and therefore this “[…] simple awareness is the seed of responsibility.” So it might be worthwhile conceptualizing the fleeting spatial localization of this resource called ‚attention‘.

What it Will Be

After pondering for a while how to find out what other people are paying attention to, in order to map it out and conceptualize its localization, I realized that it is way easier (and more self-revelatory) to observe and document my own attention. So that’s what I will do and this blog will be the log book of my explorations. Also, I will take note of what other people have to say on the topic and intertwine it with my own observations and thoughts. And hopefully the blog will become, in and of itself, a motivation for keeping my explorations up. Last but not least, the aspect of spatiality puts ‚attention‘ squarely into my academic field of study, which is Geography, and chances are that the blog will eventually culminate into a full-blown bachelor thesis.

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