Sunday, December 31, 2017

"The Right to Attention in an Age of Distraction"

There is no right to attention.
That's what makes stories such as this one at The Hill last month giggle-worthy:

"Eminem angry Trump ‘not paying attention to me’"

In the words of Larry the Cable Guy: "I don't care who you are, that's funny right there".

Fortunately, most children usually have it figured out by age three-or-so and come up with other strategies.
See also the closely related: "Don't you know who I am?"

From Philosophical Disquisitions, May 19, 2017:
We are living through a crisis of attention that is now widely remarked upon, usually in the context of some complaint or other about technology.
That’s how Matthew Crawford starts his 2015 book The World Beyond Your Head, his inquiry into the self in an age of distraction. He was prompted to write the book by a profound sense of unease over how the ‘attentional commons’ was being hijacked by advertising and digital media. One day, he was paying for groceries using a credit card. He swiped the card on the machine and waited for a prompt to enter his details to appear on the screen. He was surprised to find that he was shown advertisements while he waited for the prompt. Somebody had decided that this moment — the moment between swiping your card and inputting your details — was a moment when they had a captive audience and that they could capitalise on it. Crawford noticed that these intrusions into our attentional commons were everywhere. We live, after all, in an attentional economy, where grabbing and holding someone’s attention is highly prized.

There is something disturbing about this trend. What we pay attention to, in large part, determines the quality of our lives. If our attention is monopolised by things that make us unhappy, anxious, sad, self-conscious, petty, jealous (and so on), our lives may end up worse than they might otherwise be. I am sure we have all shared the sense that the social media platforms, video and news websites, and advertisements that currently vie for our attention can have a tendency to do these very things. I find I have become obsessed with the number of retweets I receive. I constantly check my Facebook feed to see if I have any new notifications. I’m always tempted to watch one last one last funny cat video. My attention is thus swallowed whole by shallow and frivolous things. I am distracted away from experiences and activities that are ultimately more satisfying.

Given this state of affairs, perhaps it is time that we recognised a right to attentional protection? In other words, a right to do with our attention as we please, and a corresponding duty to protect our attentional ecosphere from intrusions that are captivating, but ultimately shallow and unfulfilling. I want to consider the argument in favour of recognising that right in this post. I do so by looking at the arguments that can be made in favour of three propositions:
Proposition 1: Attention is valuable and hence something worthy of protection.
Proposition 2: Attention is increasingly under threat, i.e. there is greater need/cause for protecting attention nowadays.
Proposition 3: We should (consequently) recognise a right to attentional protection (doing so might be politically and practically useful)
My analysis of these propositions is my own, but is heavily influenced by the work of others. Jasper L. Tran’s article ‘The Right to Attention’ is probably the main source and provides perhaps the best introduction to the topic of attentional rights. He casts a wide net, discussing the importance of attention across a number of domains. But there is something of an emerging zeitgeist when it comes to the protection of attention. Tristan Harris, Tim Wu, Matthew Crawford and Adam Alter are just some of the people who have recently written about or advocated for the importance of attention in the modern era.

1. Attention is Valuable
It would probably help if we started with a definition of attention. Here’s a possible one:
Attention = focused conscious awareness.
We all live in a stream of consciousness (occasionally interrupted by sleep, concussion, and coma). This stream of consciousness has different qualitative elements. Some things we are never consciously aware of — they are unseen and unknown; some things we are only dimly aware of — they hover in the background, ready to be brought into the light; some things we are acutely aware of — they are in the spotlight. The spotlight is our attention. As I sit writing this, I am dimly aware of some birds singing in the background. If I force myself, I can pay attention to their songs, but I’m not really paying attention to them. The screen of my laptop is where my attention lies. That’s where my thoughts are being translated into words. It’s where the spotlight shines.

This definition of attention is relatively uncontroversial. Tran, in his article on the right to attention, argues that there is, in fact, little disagreement about the definition of attention across different disciplines. He notes, for example, that psychologists define it as ‘the concentration of awareness’, and economists define it as ‘focused mental engagement’. There is little to choose between these definitions.

So granting that the definition is on the right track, does it help us to identify the value of attention? Perhaps. Think for a moment about the things that make life worth living — the experiences, capacities, resources (etc.) that make for a flourishing existence. Philosophers have thought long and hard about these things. They have identified many candidate elements of the good life. But lurking behind them all — and taking pride of place in many accounts of moral status — is the capacity for conscious awareness. It is our ability to experience the world, to experience pleasure and pain, hope and despair, joy and suffering, that makes what we do morally salient. A rock is not conscious. If you split the rock with a pickaxe you are not making its existence any worse. If you do the same thing to a human being, it’s rather different. You are making the human’s life go worse. This is because the human being is conscious. Cracking open the human skull with a pickaxe will almost certainly cause the human great suffering and, possibly, end its stream of consciousness (the very thing that makes other valuable things possible).

That consciousness is central to what makes life worth living is fairly widely accepted. The only disputes tend to relate to how wide the net of consciousness expands (are animals conscious? do we make their lives worse by killing and eating them?). Given that attention is simply a specific form of consciousness (focused conscious awareness), it would seem to follow that attention is valuable. A simple argument can be made:
  • (1) Consciousness is valuable (hence worth protecting).
  • (2) Attention is a form of consciousness (focused conscious awareness).
  • (3) Therefore, attention is valuable (hence worth protecting).
But this argument throws up a problem. If attention is merely a form of conscious awareness, then what is the point in talking specifically about a right to attentional protection? Shouldn’t we just focus on consciousness more generally?...