In his book The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction, Matthew Crawford describes attention as a cultural problem of modern life. Individuals, notably urban dwellers, experience every day the fragmentation of their attention as everything is done to colonise our mental spaces by advertising. In this interview, Matthew Crawford gives details on this phenomenon that precedes Smart Cities but could be amplified by new technologies.
David Ménascé: In the introduction of your 2015 book The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction you describe attention as “a cultural problem”. Could you tell us more on why attention has become an issue of the 21st century?Matthew Crawford: My book begins with this idea because it seems that our mental activity is more and more subjected to fragmentation. We have this strange impression of not being entirely able to control our attention and to focus on one task at a time anymore. The reason is quite simple: everything is done to attract our attention in order to benefit from it. Public spaces for instance, that used to be protected from disturbance, are slowly but surely colonised by advertising.To give you an example, I was comforted by the idea of writing this book when I was paying at automatic checkouts in groceries. Advertisements were displayed on screens in between each step. Perhaps these intervals were even artificial… I realized that someone had understood that in this kind of situation, people are a captive audience and that their mental space could be monetized. So yes, I think that today attention has become a collective problem – a cultural one - of modern life.D.M.: Do you think that the crisis of attention you describe could be amplified by the interplay between Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and urban areas? In other words, would you say that the age of distraction is the age of Smart Cities?
M.C.: The likelihood of being distracted is surely tied to the “intensification of nervous stimulation” that German sociologist Georg Simmel already identified with cities a hundred years ago. The phenomenon is therefore an old problem that can be linked to cities but is definitely older than Smart Cities. Every time people come together in a shared space, there is an opportunity to treat them as a captive audience. And undoubtedly, urban areas give greater opportunities to gather a wide range of people in the same place and at the same time.I can give you a couple of striking examples of the way urban dwellers are treated as a captive audience in cities. In Seoul, South Korea, bus riders experience a new kind of advertising, not related to sight but to the sense of smell. A smell looking like the one of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee is released into the bus. At the same time a Dunkin’ Donuts advertisement is played while the bus stop near the closest Dunkin’ Donuts store…! The advertising agency that came up with this idea was rewarded with a Bronze Lion award for “best use of ambient media”!Another interesting example is the one of railway stations in the United States. In Philadelphia, there is a beautiful railway station that has one day been covered with huge signs advertising a resort in the Bahamas. In the US, we call this communication strategy “station domination campaign”. But it makes you feel as if you were in a place that is no longer really one. What is interesting is that other cities have made very different choices. For instance, in the seventies, NYC railway station, Grand Central Terminal, was covered by advertising. But in the nineties, real shops began to open in the station, progressively replacing intrusive advertising having nothing to do with the shops you can find in the station.However, what is truly new with Smart Cities is that it gives unprecedented opportunities to track people movements, subject them to advertising, etc. While gathering more and more ultra-connected people, Smart Cities are full of technologies that have enabled us to become more technique on how to capture attention.D.M.: Does it mean that the technologies we increasingly find in Smart Cities amplify the contemporary problem with our attention?
M.C.: It would be too simple to consider things like this. If you think of the “station domination campaign” at Philadelphia railway station, this marketing strategy - that really disturbs people’s attention - has little to do with digital technologies… So, the crisis of attention exists without new technologies. However, it is true that with new technologies, advertising has become more and more sophisticated, and maybe more shameless. It has become harder and harder to turn away from advertising in our modern cities.What I would say is that distraction is not a problem of technology in itself. It is rather a problem of political economy. What we need to look at is the driving intention in the design and dissemination of technology in people’s everyday life. Looking at the intention given to technologies is the best way to design Smart Cities for the sake of public good.D.M.: For many observers, Smart Cities can leverage ICT to optimize services (transports, housing, etc.). Do you agree with this idea or do you think that potential risks related to Smart Cities, notably an increasing loss of control on our mental spaces, are greater?
M.C.: I think that great things can always happen from technologies to smooth the functioning of the city. We have today some very good reasons to pursue these smart infrastructures: improvement of basic services (energy, transports, health, etc.), better access to every citizen, etc.But the real problem today is that most Smart Cities are not designed for the public good because they are controlled by what could be seen as a cartel of ICT companies. Thus, citizens have become more and more captive and dependent in their everyday life. Citizens’ lack of control and progressive loss of expertise are the main risks that we need to address when it comes to Smart Cities....MORE