Sep 152006

Now ready for downloading is the second draft installment of  “What is Attention?” the book chapter I began putting out last week.

I decided, owing to length, to put it out only as a pdf.

(You  can also read the first installment, as a pdf, or in this blog.)

  3 Responses to “Here now, "What is Attention?": Second installment”

  1. Where to start…. sheesh.

    The drafts are too reductionist, is one big thing. Variations on the theme of “mirroring” are an incomplete foundation for explaining the kinds of social dynamics of interest to you (from tennis matches through hitler).

    Ch 3 goes on for quite a few pages (more than I think necessary) to point out that we are naturally inclined towards animistic perceptions, that these perceptions are very well tuned for objects of the homo sapien variety, and that this can be highly influential on our subjectivity and behavior. Well, yes, sure — these are things taught in advertising courses, for example.

    What you overlook, I think, are other deep, universal capacities of brains like ours. For example, we have a lot of capacity for understanding, in ways I’ll describe, complex dynamic phenomenon that have no equivalence relation to our bodily capacity to act. What do I mean?

    Consider surfing. A human can sit and study waves as they come in to crash on the shore and get a “feel” for them. What does that feel mean? It means some things in relation to our capacity to act — one can image the potential for surfing — we can imagine what it would feel like to ride those waves — but that is not the same as sayign we can imagine what it feels like to *be* a wave. And it means some things that are pretty far removed from our bodily actions. For example, we can imagine how dropping a large bolder into the water, near the beach, would create water that is more still behind the rock. We can imagine standing in that more still space, still feeling the surge of the water, and feeling the spray as waves break on the rock. We can imagine that if the surges are not too bad that that might be a good place from which to cast a fishing line. We can imagine that if the surges are too bad, we’ll be repeatedly bashed against the rock.

    The point of my surfing example is that our minds are shaped not by mirroring, per se, but by a sense of our degrees of freedom to act. We have a deep appreciation of the dynamics of a wave exactly as it pertains to our individual capacities to move with respect to it.

    And this general ability, the ability to perceive complex dynamic phenomenon exactly as they pertain first to our direct bodily capacities (surfing, standing behind a rock) and later to our capacity to plan (should we push a boulder off the cliff to create a wave-break?) — that more general thing is the right place to look for a teleological understanding of human subjectivity.

    What of mirroring, then? I don’t think you can show that it is different in kind from our general capacity for relating to complex dynamic phenomena. Yes, to be sure, we have more faculties for understanding dynamic phenomena arising from human forms than from fluids. We have more faculties for understanding mammals than rockslides. But, so what? This has little to do with having a sense how others feel.

    Speaking of waves, how does mirroring relate to “the wave” that fans in a stadium sometimes create? Mirroring isn’t irrelevant — it’s a show for humans, by humans, and participation is a local and interpersonal decision. But the understanding, all around the stadium, of what is going on — it’s not simple empathy — it’s a shared appreciation of a dynamic phenomenon that is super-human in scale and its relation to our individual enjoyment of spectacle and our individual physical capacity to do a small part to make it happen.

    Which brings us back to, for example, hitler.

    Did hitler thrive on mirroring — on a mass audience aligning their minds with his subjectivity? or did he thrive on a mass audience that shared, like “the wave” among football fans, a blueprint for a complex dynamic phenomenon, super-human in scale, in which they could sense a role for themselves both as incremental contributor to creating the phenomenon and incremental beneficiary?

    Have you ever interacted, at length, and in a circumstance of material significance, with a true and truely smart sociopath? It’s horrifying, I tell you. It’s a bitch. And that’s because their mirror circuits are highly acute but, really, their attention — their will — has nothing at all to do with knowing how you feel. Their mirrors are highly accute and, just like the rest of us, their subjectivity is shaped by their degrees of freedom — their individual, solipsistic capacity to act. You are a wave, to the sociopath — something to be ridden. They understand no more of how you feel than you understand how it feels to be a wave, or, as the song goes, how it feels to be thick as a brick.

    Now me, personally, I have my own little senses about complex dynamic phenomena. As a computer programmer for quite a few decades now, and an observer of nature, and with a few other qualifications — I have my own little senses of how human interactions play out — of why “the wave” happens.

    And I think you’re setting off on a reckless and dangerous path. As far as I can remember, I came to bookmark and eventually read your site via E. Dyson. While she can scarcely be regarded as the queen of the world it certainly suggests that you are tossing around this stuff near some high voltage power lines, so to speak. And where are you headed? Scientifically and philosophically informed but naive, I think you are headed towards the practical effect of advancing the technology of manipulating hoi poloi. Even an alchemist knows how to make a good soup and while you are, on this course, likely to mix up a lot of truths about human brains into a potent brew — without a more considered reflection on what you are dealing in I think your main product is likely to turn out to be an amoral set of technological observations. “Look, if we push this boulder into the water, stuff happens!” Yup, I’m sure it does.


  2. Hello,

    I am currently involved in a European research project inversting the support of attention.
    During this work, we have collected a few references that you may like to be aware of.


    – thierry

  3. Thanks for the interesting comments. In regard to T. Lord’s, as usual, I find I have probably not explained my goals clearly enough. Certainly a complete inventory of human mental capacities was not one of them, I am interested rather in exploring those aspects of attention relevant to an attention economy.

    There are various ways to count where attention goes. I have been interested primarily in that attention that flows between people, as I judge this as salient to the attention economy. Certainly not all attention, nor all human attention does this. We pay attention to the stars, to the sunset, to the food we might be cooking for our own individual dinner. There are various possible ways to count such attention; one can view it as simply leaving the system or as directed at oneself. Or, it we ascribe a mind to the sunset “god” to that god. I think it most reasonable to count such attention as to oneself, but if this is as far as it goes, it has no great attention economic import. An economy must tie different people together, and purely solipsistic attention does not do that, at least not directly.

    In the example of the commenter above, Thomas Lord, attention to the surf may be of this kind. It is also possible however, that one reveals one’s observations to others, or that one acts on these observations so as to create a new condition that can then be noticed by others. To the extent one does either of these things, one is engaged, however unintentionally, in would-be attention-getting behavior. (Apologies for the awkwardness with which I put that.) This is a separate category I discuss further in
    Chapter 5.

    As to phenomena such as the Wave, this is an example of crowd behavior, which I do discuss at some point in the present chapter. I do not intend to suggest that the only loyalty of Germans was due other alignment with Hitler, but I think such alignment was an important element in the absoluteness of his following. I intend to discuss, in chapter 5, in more detail, what charisma is. I also have more to say about it later in this chapter.

    Mr. Lord rather confusingly chides me for being to reductionistic, for saying what is already said in advertising courses, and for doing something dangerous, presumably because it is somewhat different from what is common knowledge. Clearly I am not as sophisticated as Lord, whoever he is, but I believe that what I have to say can be illuminating and, as I put it, is somewhat new. Of course it can be misunderstood, or put to uses not to my liking. However, what I hope will weigh against that is its offering a clearer understanding of the present historical moment, with the hope — and only the hope— that this better understanding will aid those who most need such aid.

    Finally, I regard Esther Dyson as a friend. Of course, this does not mean we see eye to eye on everything, or even the big things.
    – Michael

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