Kyborg 3: Attentional Communities Part A

Attention and Culture

Attention is a concept with many variants. In common parlance, attention is used to signal the conscious direction of mental focus, like when a teacher tells her class “pay attention to what I am saying.” We can easily experience the mental spotlight as it shifts from one locus to another and most of us are aware of how technologies of attention have decreased our capacity to shine that spotlight on one location for long. Like meditation, the book is a technology of conscious attention, as anyone who has curled up with a hardback for hours will attest.

But attention can also be unconscious or reflexive; for example, we can’t avoid paying attention to objects that move into our visual field. Attention to motion is an innate reflex in most animals - a deer that doesn’t have moving objects in its attentional feedback loop won’t live to see another day.

Beyond nature, but still in the unconscious realm, are culturally entrenched ways of paying attention.A literate culture is one that pays attention to the world in a certain way; books, libraries and coffee houses form the attentional mood of intellectual culture. Attention goes beyond the intellect, it’s also related to power. In one of the many stories about Akbar’s confidant and minister Birbal, Birbal visits Iran with his reputation as the cleverest man in the empire preceding him. Arriving at the Iranian court, Birbal is greeted by ten (more or less) identical men and is asked to identify the Shah.

Birbal asks an innocent question and of course, all ten utter the same response, but Birbal immediately points to one of the ten, who indeed turns out to be the Shah.

‘How did you identify me’ asks the Shah?

‘Because all of the others were looking at you when they answered, while you were looking at me’ said Birbal.

Moral of the story: power and attention go together and of course Trump was able to flip the relationship by ascending to power on the back of his capacity to draw attention to himself.

Cultures as ways of paying attention

While there’s enormous interested in Mindfulness and other techniques for training mental focus, we should also recognize that much of attention might be shaped by the larger cultural landscape around us.

Cultures are many things, but let’s be deliberately reductive and say that a culture is a way of paying collective attention to the world. If you think of the universe as a massive catalog - a cosmic Spotify so to speak - then a culture is a playlist that says ‘here’s the music we enjoy together.’ It should remind you of the classic fable of the seven blind men and the elephant.

For example, in India, we pay a lot of attention to social hierarchy, of where someone stands relative to someone else and therefor, our everyday interactions are full of gestures, technologies and verbal tics that signal hierarchy. In other cultures, displays of money play the same role - not that the two aren’t related.

Attentional clusters overlap, which means that mutual understanding across cultures is always possible even if it’s always a work in progress (and not just the generic similarity of being human).

Here’s a question worth asking and answering:

Does identity dictate attention or attention dictate identity? 

Clearly, the relationship goes both ways - intellectual culture needs sustained attention, but one learns that style of paying attention in a social setting where that intellectual identity has value. 

The longer answer, I suspect, lies in learning and development, i.e., how children and young adults are acculturated. Acquisition of culture, like the acquisition of language, must involve rapid learning of what’s worth attending and what’s worth forgetting. This account of attention isn’t purely cognitive - it’s as much about emotion and value as it’s about shining a spotlight. 

To the extent a culture entrenches certain features of the world in our minds, i.e., automating the attentional importance of those aspects of the world, it’s an attentional community.