Kyborg 4: Attentional Communities Part B

There’s “how to pay attention” and there’s “what to pay attention.”

The first can be trained by adopting a meditative principle. In classic Vipassana style meditation, the goal is to rest your attention at the tip of the nostrils and bring it back there every time you notice your attention has wandered away.

A generalized version of this meditation is to pick one’s object of concentration (whatever that might be) and bring one’s attention back to it whenever you notice your mind wandering. If I am supposed to be doing my homework and find myself looking at Snapchat every ten seconds, I could (but I won’t 😬) train myself to look at the homework assignment every time my mind wanders over to Snapchat.

But the intrusion of Snapchat into homework begs the question: what should I be paying attention to? Let me play the Devil’s Advocate for a second, and state the following premises:

  1. Let’s say homework is training you to be an obedient worker in the industrial avatar of the capitalist system

  2. Snapchat is training you to be an obedient consumer in the informational avatar of the capitalist system.

  3. The industrial system is dying and any training you get in its skills will be useless by the time you’re an adult.

  4. The informational system has very few jobs.

If all four are true:

Should you be paying attention to your homework or to Snapchat?

Independent of what you choose, it’s clear that our cultural environment shapes what’s worth attending. Sometimes that’s explicitly coded, like when we are subjected to advertising, but much of attention modulation is tacit, by hearing what’s cool from one’s peers, or what’s important from one’s bosses.

Some attentional community lies behind every attempt to focus and concentrate.

Just as becoming a member of a political community is to learn how to participate in its political activities - elections, debate, governance etc - becoming a member of an attentional community is about learning how to concentrate and what’s worth concentrating. 

If you are a modern person who thinks Snapchat is making it hard to concentrate on homework, you might have a bit more sympathy for your traditional (i.e., religious) counterpart, who thinks homework is making it hard to concentrate on God. Faith communities are designed around a single object of attention - the divine - but no modern community (with or without Snapchat) will be satisfied with one and only one object of adoration. Note how a totalitarian or fascist state reinstates theology into politics by making the state or the supreme leader the only acceptable object of attention. It’s not religious in its content but its religious as an attentional community.

In this view, secularization is not just about loss of faith, but of distributed attention.

The Kantian (or is it Marxian?) question is: 

How is an attentional community constituted and how are its sources and targets of attention transformed over time?