At the Still Point of the Turning World

Yesterday, Rich described our plans for a new Arc90 Lab experiment supporting our proposed talk at SXSW 2011, Toss The Projector: Redefining the Presenter/Audience Dynamic. He writes, “[m]aybe what we need to do is reboot the presenter-audience dynamic entirely” and then describes our vision for a tool that can accompany the presenter on stage and turn the distracted audience into an essential participant of the presentation. The structure of this talk is very Luigi Pirandello Six Characters in Search of an Author, where we plan to take advantage of the fact that the audience only half paying attention to us and use this as a narrative device to reinforce our message. But that trick will only get us so far, the presentation has to have content, a point of view, a take-away.

Theater of the theater. Or something.

Can I have your attention for a moment?

So what will be the content of this proposed talk? I’ve been thinking about (in)attention a lot lately. If you’re anything like me, you might have noticed a change in yourself over the past few years. I’m finding it harder and harder to pay attention to a single thing, to be fully in the moment, to be present.

I’m starting to worry that this is a plague affecting most of us. From sitting in someone’s office attempting to have a conversation with them as they tick away on their Blackberry, to checking your iPhone when playing at home with the kids, to an inability to read long form text, this plague has many symptoms.

This topic blew up into A CONVERSATION with the release of Nick Carr’s excellent book, The Shallows. For those of you that weren’t paying attention, Carr masterfully crafted an argument that our brains are changing, that they’re literally being rewired, as a result of our increasingly shallow interactions with the computer. Multi-tasking, now a requirement for success in the modern world, does in fact come with a cost. The Wall Street Journal held a side-by-side “debate” between Carr and Clay Shirky, where Carr offered:

When we’re constantly distracted and interrupted, as we tend to be online, our brains are unable to forge the strong and expansive neural connections that give depth and distinctiveness to our thinking. We become mere signal-processing units, quickly shepherding disjointed bits of information into and then out of short-term memory.

What we seem to be sacrificing in all our surfing and searching is our capacity to engage in the quieter, attentive modes of thought that underpin contemplation, reflection and introspection. The Web never encourages us to slow down. It keeps us in a state of perpetual mental locomotion.

I’ll have you out of here in no time…

I was surprised by the reaction against Carr’s thesis. To me it’s so plainly obvious that this is the case that it almost goes without saying. Much like our shift away from written text to electronic (have you even tried to hand-write a full page of script lately? I simply cannot do it.), the brain optimizes for its environment. And the environment that is increasingly in demand from us is the ability to shift from item to item with no notice. The modern world rewards quicker thought, and quicker thought isn’t free.

Pay attention to how you work, I’m sure you bounce around from emails, to interrupting IMs, to flying around on the Web following links and skimming headlines and articles. How much deep thinking and deep reading do you do anymore? How often to do you listen to an album all the way through? OK, how about a single song?

Just a minute of your time, it’s all I’ll need…

And have you been to a conference lately? The audience is only half paying attention, at best. Sometimes I feel like people are in attendance to get one quote to tweet to prove that they were there, either as social currency or for their coworkers and bosses back home. Get the tweet, then get back to whatever it is that you’re more interested in. Perhaps that’s cynical, but certainly there are very few people actually present at the average conference talk.

But then again, very few people are actually present at the average meeting.

And increasingly, people are not even present when interacting with their spouses:

Mr. Campbell continues to struggle with the effects of the deluge of data. Even after he unplugs, he craves the stimulation he gets from his electronic gadgets. He forgets things like dinner plans, and he has trouble focusing on his family.

His wife, Brenda, complains, “It seems like he can no longer be fully in the moment.”

Or most damaging of all, people are even finding it difficult to be present while interacting with their kids.

Sherry Turkle, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Initiative on Technology and Self, has been studying how parental use of technology affects children and young adults. After five years and 300 interviews, she has found that feelings of hurt, jealousy and competition are widespread. Her findings will be published in “Alone Together” early next year by Basic Books. In her studies, Dr. Turkle said, “Over and over, kids raised the same three examples of feeling hurt and not wanting to show it when their mom or dad would be on their devices instead of paying attention to them: at meals, during pickup after either school or an extracurricular activity, and during sports events.”

And finally, I wonder about the next generation. Our brains are being rewired to optimize for the modern world, their brains are starting out wired this way.

Checking in at the park

We’re finished, carry on.

Alain de Botton recently wrote that “[o]ne of the more embarrassing and self-indulgent challenges of our time is how we can relearn to concentrate”, but that is the state of affairs that we’ll explore at our talk. Both through the content and delivery of the presentation, we hope to open up an important conversation about attention in the modern world. If you agree that this is an issue worth discussing, there are at least two paths forward. First, perhaps by being aware of this trend in ourselves, we can each take steps towards being more present and mindful in our actions. This brings to mind the most important book I’ve read in my life, Emotional Intelligence, which taught me that you can learn to control and respond to a situation more effectively by being aware of your emotional state. Awareness is half the battle. But there’s another way forward – much like this structure of this talk, perhaps new patterns can be used to bridge this gap. In fact the culprit, technology, might show us a way forward.

It should be fun, we hope you join us.