Powerful forces are fracking our attention. We can fight back

Powerful forces are fracking our attention. We can fight back

D. Graham Burnett, Alyssa Loh and Peter Schmidt write:

The lament is as old as education itself: The students aren’t paying attention. But today, the problem of flighty or fragmented attention has reached truly catastrophic proportions. High school and college teachers overwhelmingly report that students’ capacity for sustained, or deep attention has sharply decreased, significantly impeding the forms of study — reading, looking at art, round-table discussions — once deemed central to the liberal arts.

By some measures you are lucky these days to get 47 seconds of focused attention on a discrete task. “Middlemarch” is tough sledding on that timeline. So are most forms of human interaction out of which meaningful life, collective action and political engagement are made.

We are witnessing the dark side of our new technological lives, whose extractive profit models amount to the systematic fracking of human beings: pumping vast quantities of high-pressure media content into our faces to force up a spume of the vaporous and intimate stuff called attention, which now trades on the open market. Increasingly powerful systems seek to ensure that our attention is never truly ours.

In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution enabled harrowing new forms of exploitation and human misery. Yet through new forms of activity such as trade unions and labor organizing, working people pushed back against the “satanic mills” that compromised their humanity and pressed money out of their blood and bones. The moment has come for a new and parallel revolution against the dishonest expropriation of value from you and me and, most visibly of all, our children. We need a new kind of resistance, equal to the little satanic mills that live in our pockets.

This is going to require attention to attention, and dedicated spaces to learn (or relearn) the powers of this precious faculty. Spaces where we can give our focus to objects and language and other people, and thereby fashion ourselves in relation to a common world. If you think that this sounds like school, you’re right: This revolution starts in our classrooms. [Continue reading…]

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