Attention is not a resource but a way of being alive to the world
Our attention is more than just a resource. It is an experience.
'We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.' Those were the words of the American biologist E O Wilson at the turn of the century. Fastforward to the smartphone era, and it's easy to believe that our mental lives are now more fragmentary and scattered than ever. The 'attention economy' is a phrase that's often used to make sense of what's going on: it puts our attention as a limited resource at the centre of the informational ecosystem, with our various alerts and notifications locked in a constant battle to capture it.
That's a helpful narrative in a world of information overload, and one in which our devices and apps are intentionally designed to get us hooked. Moreover, besides our own mental wellbeing, the attention economy offers a way of looking at some important social problems: from the worrying declines in measures of empathy through to the 'weaponisation' of social media.
The problem, though, is that this narrative assumes a certain kind of attention. An economy, after all, deals with how to allocate resources efficiently in the service of specific objectives (such as maximising profit). Talk of the attention economy relies on the notion of attention-as-resource: our attention is to be applied in the service of some goal, which social media and other ills are bent on diverting us from. Our attention, when we fail to put it to use for our own objectives, becomes a tool to be used and exploited by others.
However, conceiving of attention as a resource misses the fact that attention is not just useful. It’s more fundamental than that: attention is what joins us with the outside world. 'Instrumentally' attending is important, sure. But we also have the capacity to attend in a more 'exploratory' way: to be truly open to whatever we find before us, without any particular agenda.
During a recent trip to Japan, for example, I found myself with a few unplanned hours to spend in Tokyo. Stepping out into the busy district of Shibuya, I wandered aimlessly amid the neon signs and crowds of people. My senses met the wall of smoke and the cacophony of sound as I passed through a busy pachinko parlour. For the entire morning, my attention was in 'exploratory' mode. That stood in contrast to, say, when I had to focus on navigating the metro system later that day.
Treating attention as a resource, as implied by the attention-economy narrative, tells us only half of the overall story – specifically, the left half. According to the British psychiatrist and philosopher Iain McGilchrist, the brain's left and right hemispheres 'deliver' the world to us in two fundamentally different ways. An instrumental mode of attention, McGilchrist contends, is the mainstay of the brain's left hemisphere, which tends to divide up whatever it's presented with into component parts: to analyse and categorise things so that it can utilise them towards some ends.
By contrast, the brain's right hemisphere naturally adopts an exploratory mode of attending: a more embodied awareness, one that is open to whatever makes itself present before us, in all its fullness. This mode of attending comes into play, for instance, when we pay attention to other people, to the natural world and to works of art. None of those fare too well if we attend to them as a means to an end. And it is this mode of paying attention, McGilchrist argues, that offers us the broadest possible experience of the world.
So, as well as attention-as-resource, it's important that we retain a clear sense of attention-as-experience. I believe that’s what the American philosopher William James had in mind in 1890 when he wrote that 'what we attend to is reality': the simple but profound idea that what we pay attention to, and how we pay attention, shapes our reality, moment to moment, day to day, and so on.
It is also the exploratory mode of attention that can connect us to our deepest sense of purpose. Just note how many noninstrumental forms of attention practice lie at the heart of many spiritual traditions. In Awareness Bound and Unbound (2009), the American Zen teacher David Loy characterises an unenlightened existence (samsara) as simply the state in which one's attention becomes 'trapped' as it grasps from one thing to another, always looking for the next thing to latch on to. Nirvana, for Loy, is simply a free and open attention that is completely liberated from such fixations. Meanwhile, Simone Weil, the French Christian mystic, saw prayer as attention 'in its pure form'; she wrote that the 'authentic and pure' values in the activity of a human being, such as truth, beauty and goodness, all result from a particular application of full attention.
The problem, then, is twofold. First, the deluge of stimuli competing to grab our attention almost certainly inclines us towards instant gratification. This crowds out space for the exploratory mode of attention. When I get to the bus stop now, I automatically reach for my phone, rather than stare into space; my fellow commuters (when I do raise my head) seem to be doing the same thing. Second, on top of this, an attention-economy narrative, for all its usefulness, reinforces a conception of attention-as-a-resource, rather than attention-as-experience.
At one extreme, we can imagine a scenario in which we gradually lose touch with attention-as-experience altogether. Attention becomes solely a thing to utilise, a means of getting things done, something from which value can be extracted. This scenario entails, perhaps, the sort of disembodied, inhuman dystopia that the American cultural critic Jonathan Beller talks about in his essay 'Paying Attention' (2006) when he describes a world in which 'humanity has become its own ghost'.
While such an outcome is extreme, there are hints that modern psyches are moving in this direction. One study found, for instance, that most men chose to receive an electric shock rather than be left to their own devices: when, in other words, they had no entertainment on which to fix their attention. Or take the emergence of the 'quantified self' movement, in which 'life loggers' use smart devices to track thousands of daily movements and behaviours in order to (supposedly) amass self-knowledge. If one adopts such a mindset, data is the only valid input. One's direct, felt experience of the world simply does not compute.
Thankfully, no society has reached this dystopia – yet. But faced with a stream of claims on our attention, and narratives that invite us to treat it as a resource to mine, we need to work to keep our instrumental and exploratory modes of attention in balance. How might we do this?
To begin with, when we talk about attention, we need to defend framing it as an experience, not a mere means or implement to some other end.
Next, we can reflect on how we spend our time. Besides expert advice on 'digital hygiene' (turning off notifications, keeping our phones out of the bedroom, and so on), we can be proactive in making a good amount of time each week for activities that nourish us in an open, receptive, undirected way: taking a stroll, visiting a gallery, listening to a record.
Perhaps most effective of all, though, is simply to return to an embodied, exploratory mode of attention, just for a moment or two, as often as we can throughout the day. Watching our breath, say, with no agenda. In an age of fast-paced technologies and instant hits, that might sound a little … underwhelming. But there can be beauty and wonder in the unadorned act of 'experiencing'. This might be what Weil had in mind when she said that the correct application of attention can lead us to 'the gateway to eternity … The infinite in an instant.'
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
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A vertical map might better represent a world dominated by China and determined by shipping routes across the iceless Arctic.
- Europe has dominated cartography for so long that its central place on the world map seems normal.
- However, as the economic centre of gravity shifts east and the climate warms up, tomorrow's map may be very different.
- Focusing on both China and Arctic shipping lanes, this vertical representation could be the world map of the future.
The world, but not as we know it<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMDU1Nzg1NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNTkwMjIyNn0.qmQfwUdjQka8JX6q4KGANagleiuucpWay5ytMenZxUU/img.jpg?width=980" id="b95e4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ac088ec55c0585a93a9a310faab9a4c7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A Chinese 'vertical world map,' showing the world in a different perspective from the one we're used to.
Image: Prior Probability<p>Europe is tucked away in a corner, an appendage of Asia dwarfed by neighboring Africa. North America is stood on its head, facing the rest of the world from the top of the map — cut off from South America, which cuts a solitary figure at the bottom. Africa is justifiably huge, but equally eccentric. </p><p>The eye scouts elsewhere for a place to land: not the Indian Ocean, which dominates the middle of the map, but some terra firma. Antarctica and Australia are too small, mere stepping stones for the land mass of Asia. Ultimately our gaze is drawn toward China, the lynchpin of this unfamiliar world. </p><p>Managing to leave both poles intact, this "vertical" world map is about as far away as you can get from the classic Mercator projection – which slices up both, giving center stage to a puffed-up Europe. Perhaps this new map will become more familiar soon: It may do more justice to the world of the near future, dominated by China and determined by shipping routes across the iceless Arctic. <br></p>
China's 'ten-dash line'<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMDU1Nzg1Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTI4MzQyNn0.sBe0oFTif4Jef1vWh1kAnUylU_QMPXT5xQjm-5aA3sA/img.jpg?width=980" id="a3b81" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="80fc6e4f5c9c1c978f698be2c8de5484" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
'China without any part left out': includes Taiwan and the islands and atolls in the South China Sea, surrounded by a ten-dash line
Image: Global Times<p>While there's no indication that this map represents the Chinese government's "official" worldview, it is no secret that China has a thing with maps – and more specifically, the country's representation on them. </p><p>In China, the country's current economic success is seen as a redress of the unequal treatment meted out by western superpowers in the 19th century. China's world dominance is a return to a more natural state of world affairs, many feel. Cartographic rectifications are a symbolically significant corollary of that sentiment.</p><p><a href="https://www.citylab.com/equity/2015/12/china-cracks-down-on-politcally-incorrect-maps/421032/" target="_blank">Fines are regularly imposed</a> on companies – domestic and foreign – that fail to represent China to the fullest extent of its external borders, disputed though they may be by others (e.g. India, Taiwan and any of the countries with claims overlapping China's in the South China Sea). But the People's Republic's cartographic obsession doesn't end at China's territory itself. It also includes the country's position on the world map. <br></p>
The Kingdom at the Middle of the World<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMDU1Nzg2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTkwODEzMX0.SGrAZBH6iJVggFYSaIahzv9GvfEh17y1SwUNINbVicQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="1774c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="99790d80a909d17a948f7c5d463d7d98" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Early Japanese color copy of Ricci's world map
Image: public domain<p>China's name for itself is <em>Zhōngguó</em>, which means 'Central State' or 'Middle Kingdom', reflecting its ancient self-image as the civilized center (<em>Huá</em>) of the world, with wild tribes (<em>Yí</em>) at the edge. That view is not unique to China. Vietnam, for example, at certain times also styled itself as the "central state" (<em>Trung Quóc</em>) – considering the Chinese in turn as the uncouth outsiders.</p><p>It may be surprising to recall, but Europeans themselves once considered their own continent a relative backwater, viewing Jerusalem as the true center of the world. That changed with the Age of Discovery, which placed Europe at the center of an ever-expanding world. Maps reflected that worldview, and largely continue to do so. That's why today's standard world map still has Europe at its center – with China off toward the periphery on the map's right-hand side. </p><p>The most notable feature of the very first major modern world map produced in China, the <em>Kunyu Wanguo Quantu</em> (1602), is that it places China firmly at the center of the world. Produced for the Chinese emperor by Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, it was the first map ever to combine that perspective with modern western knowledge: it was the first Chinese map to show the Americas, for instance. </p><p>That representation may not have taken off elsewhere, but it will be instantly recognizable to Chinese students, as it's the standard format for world maps in China's schools today.<br></p>
America on its head<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMDU1Nzg2My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwMzQ5NTc0MH0.EqadI2Yp-2dPwi3VccFZelIDK4V9t0ZOfTfHjdB6wVw/img.jpg?width=980" id="97104" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2b66e8de389b3d736bc28e019e445cd0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Upside down you turn me: North America on its head, in Chinese characters
Image: Prior Probability<p>For those used to "classic" Eurocentric world maps, Europe's marginalization may come across as a bit of an upset. America's new position on the horizontal Chinese world map is less jarring: It merely moves from the left- to the right-hand side of the picture. But then there's this vertical world map, which deals a similar blow to the American land mass: divided in two and pushed to the upper and lower edges of the map.</p><p>Unfamiliar? Sure. Shocking? Perhaps. Wrong? Not really. First off, no world map is totally right, since it's mathematically impossible to transfer the surface of a three-dimensional object onto a flat surface without some distortion. And since the world is a globe, where you center that map is a matter of purely subjective choice.<br></p><p>Those choices have historical reasons. Mercator's map was not specifically designed to put an inflated Europe at the center of the world. That was just a side effect; its main purpose was to aid shipping: Straight lines on the map correspond to straight lines sailed on the seas.</p>
By 2050, a completely melted Arctic could enable the Transpolar Passage, shortening trade routes between Asia and Europe and boosting business for Alaskan ports like Nome and Dutch Harbor.
Image: The Maritime Executive<p>The vertical world map, showing the relative proximity of China (and the rest of Asia) to Europe and (even the East Coast of) North America, has a similarly maritime <em>raison d'être</em>, or it will have by mid-century. <a href="https://www.maritime-executive.com/editorials/the-arctic-shipping-route-no-one-s-talking-about" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Experts project</a> that by 2050 (if not sooner), the Arctic will be sufficiently ice-free to enable the so-called Transpolar Passage, i.e. shipping straight across the North Pole. </p><p>That would shave more than three weeks off a traditional sea voyage between Europe and Asia, via the Suez Canal – and even be significantly faster than other northern alternatives like the Northwest Passage (via Canada) or the Northern Sea Route (hugging the Siberian coast). Since ships would not need to go through locks or pass over shallow waters, it would also remove current restrictions on tonnage per ship. <br></p><p>The only country seriously preparing for such a future: China. None of the other Arctic powers is giving the Transpolar route any strategic thought. On the other hand, China's Arctic Policy document, released in January 2018, already matter-of-factly refers to the Transpolar route as the 'Central Passage' – one of several 'Polar Silk Roads' that China seems to want to develop. And they already have the world map to go with it.</p>
The Labour Economics study suggests two potential reasons for the increase: corruption and increased capacity.
Cool hand rebuke<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQyMTIyNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjY1NTYyOH0.0MCPKN3If94mYCNf3mMNrnTvJXjXN_bKLhgk9203EXk/img.jpg?width=917&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=453" id="1627b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6d76421ba1ea0de4b09956b97e80c384" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A chart showing prison population rates (per 100,000 people) in 2018. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
Who profits with for-profit prisons?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="97ac37e6c7f6f22ec130ea2d56871701"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/dB78NV2WpWc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The Labour Economics study suggests that privately-run prisons do convicts a few favors at the moment of sentencing. However, proponents of private prisons often point to other benefits when making their case. Specifically, they argue that private prisons reduce operating costs, stimulate innovation in the correctional system, and reduce recidivism—the rate at which released prisoners are rearrested and return to prison.</p><p>In regard to recidivism, the research is mixed. <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0011128799045001002" target="_blank">One study</a> compared roughly 400 former prisoners from Florida, 200 released from private prisons and 200 from state-run facilities. It found the private-prison cohort maintained lower rates of recidivism. However, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1745-9133.2005.00006.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">another Florida study</a> found no significant rate differences. And two other studies—one from <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0011128799045001002" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Oklahoma</a> and another out of <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0734016813478823" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Minnesota</a>, both comparing much larger cohorts than the first Florida study— found that prisoners leaving private prisons had a greater risk of recidivism.</p><p>The research is also inconclusive regarding cost savings. <a href="https://www.hamiltonproject.org/assets/files/economics_of_private_prisons.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">A Hamilton Project analysis</a> noted that such comparisons are difficult because private prisons, like all private companies, are not required to release operational details. In comparing what studies were available, the authors estimate the costs to be comparable and that "in practice the primary mechanism for cost saving in private prisons is lower salaries for correctional officers"—about $7,000 less than their public peers. They add that competition-driven innovation is lacking as the three largest firms control nearly the entire market.</p><p>"We aren't saying private prisons are bad," Galinato said. "But states need to be careful with them. If your state has previous and regular issues with corruption, I wouldn't be surprised to see laws being more skewed to give longer sentences, for example. If the goal is to reduce the number of incarcerated individuals, increasing the number of private prisons may not be the way to go."</p>
What exactly does "questions are the new answers" mean?
- Traditionally, intelligence has been viewed as having all the answers. When it comes to being innovative and forward-thinking, it turns out that being able to ask the right questions is an equally valuable skill.
- The difference between the right and wrong questions is not simply in the level of difficulty. In this video, geobiologist Hope Jahren, journalist Warren Berger, experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, and investor Tim Ferriss discuss the power of creativity and the merit in asking naive and even "dumb" questions.
- "Very often the dumb question that is sitting right there that no one seems to be asking is the smartest question you can ask," Ferriss says, adding that "not only is it the smartest, most incisive, but if you want to ask it and you're reasonably smart, I guarantee you there are other people who want to ask it but are just embarrassed to do so."