May I Have Your Attention Please?

Change generally creeps up on you. I’m not talking about the case where you visit/live in a place and then come back ten years later. I’m talking about change that happens on a quiet, day-to-day basis. It’s only when you stop and reflect that you think to yourself: “whoa“.

That’s how I feel about the state of technology today. The confluence of computing power, ubiquitous internet connectivity and mass production means that just about anyone in a developed country can get their hands on a portable powerhouse. In fact, smartphones are now the norm — you are weird if you don’t have one.

I’m less interested in the technology per se. What is more interesting (and troubling) to me are the political, sociological and psychological ramifications of uber-(cyber)-connectedness. Privacy is a BIG FREAKING DEAL that I will explore in later posts.

For now I want to talk about an interpersonal element: attentiveness. I am inspired by the NYTimes article entitled ‘How Not To Be Alone‘, adapted from a commencement speech given by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. Technology has done a great job of facilitating communication when face-to-face contact is impossible or unfeasible. Over time, however, as Foer writes: “we began to prefer the diminished substitutes” — from phones to answering machines to emails to texting, each one more compact and emotionally detached.

I am reminded of the work Sherry Turkle has done in bringing to light the isolating effects of technology. Even as people are more ‘connected’ than ever before, they are also more likely to report more loneliness and less intimacy with others.

This is a big problem. The more we are engrossed with our devices, the less we are engrossed with our surroundings. If you ever catch public transport during peak hour, take a look at the people around you. Here’s my prediction: 20% will be trying to sleep/dozing off, 70% will be buried in a screen of some sort, and 10% will be doing something else. It really is quite striking.

The problem is also compounding. Neurons that fire together, wire together — that’s a pithy psychological parlance meaning that the more we do something, the more we are likely to keep doing it. Less attention on our surroundings means less opportunity and ability to go deep. Deeper relationships. Deeper reflections on society and the world and your place in it. Deeper understanding of self. This is what is at stake.

I love this quote by Simone Weil that was cited in Foer’s article:

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

The starkest example of this comes from developmental psychology. In a study of mother-infant interaction, the researchers found that for every standard deviation of maternal remoteness (ie, disengagement, lack of attention) shown at two months, the infant was 15 times more likely to develop an insecure attachment at 18 months. Maternal remoteness had by far the most devastating impact, outperforming maternal depression (3x) and maternal intrusiveness (4.5x).

Would-be parents, take note.

So I’ve laid out a bunch of not-so-nice things. What now? Here are some things that you can do to fight the tide of inattention (I am as guilty as anyone and need to preach this to myself regularly):

  • Keep your phone in your pocket/handbag in social situations (including at the dinner table…) — ESPECIALLY goes if you’re in the middle of a conversation. NO you don’t need to check that SMS/Whatsapp/FB/Twitter/whatever alert. Even if you are not directly participating in the conversation stream, you can still listen. Observe. Think. It is not a signal for you to retreat into your own little digitised world. I am not even talking about etiquette here, this is about breaking entrenched habits and building better ones.
  • Institute regular downtime (no phone/computer/etc for X hours/days every Y days/weeks/months) — Can you handle it?
  • Make eye contact and smile — People are not just walking flesh bags. They are not just atomised units moving in space, inconvenient obstacles for you to manoeuvre through. They are living, breathing, loving, fearing, expecting, hoping beings. The best way to recognise that: look to their eyes.

I’ll end on some thoughtful words by Foer:

Most of the time, most people are not crying in public, but everyone is always in need of something that another person can give, be it undivided attention, a kind word or deep empathy. There is no better use of a life than to be attentive to such needs. There are as many ways to do this as there are kinds of loneliness, but all of them require attentiveness, all of them require the hard work of emotional computation and corporeal compassion. All of them require the human processing of the only animal who risks “getting it wrong” and whose dreams provide shelters and vaccines and words to crying strangers.