Digital - are we paying attention?
One of those questions derives from the fact that we live today in a digital environment characterised by informational overabundance, a massive proliferation of demands on and attempts to capture our attention by or through these technologies. From an empirical point of view, this development is experienced in various ways: the inability to deal with all emails received, a dispersed state of mind that prevents concentration on a task, the difficulty of choosing a film or an album from catalogues of almost infinite scope, and evenings spent frantically and ceaselessly channel-hopping; or worse, the worry of seeing that children cannot focus their attention.
Connected and communicating objects (smartphones, tablets, watches and other wearables) and their applications are simply further sources of alerts and potential demands. Today's web-users have access to vast pools of content and information resources online. Every minute 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube; there are 35 million pieces of music available on Deezer, 30 million on Spotify; Google claims to index 30 trillion (30,000 billion) web pages. Finally, the monetisation model dominating the web today (used by Google, Facebook and Twitter amongst others) combines free access with advertising. In other words, these players capture our attention to then sell it to advertisers. They are following on from traditional media for which, as summed up with painful accuracy by Patrick Le Lay, former head of France's TF1 television channel, the economic mission works like this: "For an advertising message to hit home, the viewer's brain must be available. The role of our programmes is to make it available, in other words to entertain and relax it in the interval between two messages. What we sell to Coca-Cola is available human brain time" (P. Le Lay, Les dirigeants face au changement (Managers facing change), 2004).
Different labels of varying clarity have been suggested to make sense of what is at stake in these different situations: "informational overload", "infobesity", "dispersion", "dumbing-down", "channel-hopping", etc.. Each in their own way, these terms express the broad sense that we are no longer able to deal with the abundance of informational demands, and that we have lost control of our ability to concentrate. Another point they have in common is that they place the issue of attention at the heart of the digital transformation. Nearly fifty years ago, psychologist and economist Herbert Simon proposed a neat formulation of the concept. According to him we have entered an economy of attention, where the principal characteristic is its scarcity: "the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients." (H. Simon, 1971). The scarcity - and so what is coveted - is not located within the information available but in the ability to apply that information, in other words in the attention available to individuals to process it. It follows that human attention is the focus of intense competition by the numerous information channels making demands on it. Since its rediscovery - which coincided with the emergence of the internet - this now widely shared way of thinking has paved the way for numerous works of research in a variety of disciplines: neuroscience, psychology, economics and management, as well as philosophy, sociology, and even rhetoric and aesthetics.
Two different outlooks can be discerned within this broad corpus of work. A first series of studies focuses on understanding individuals' attention management in a world of information abundance, with the aim of improving its (operational) effectiveness. These works seek above all to answer this question: what mechanisms and tools enable the most efficient allocation of the scarce resource that is attention? Numerous studies in experimental psychology, mostly laboratory-based, have in particular highlighted the characteristics of attention and its limits, as well as the existence of a link between an individual's performance when carrying out a task or making a decision, and the volume of information to which they are exposed. This first approach considers understanding attention in the digital context to be chiefly about cognition and perception, with the appropriate analysis being at the micro level - of the interactions between man and machine.
The second outlook believes that the issues raised by changes to attention in the digital era, while manifesting at the cognitive level, have anthropological and political implications, inasmuch as they challenge and question our ways of living together and our shared social and cultural horizons. They are questioning the macro-social and macro-economic consequences of changes to cognition and attention in the digital era. An issue of individual performance or a political challenge? The aim of this Digital society forum dossier is to set the terms for these debates and make a diagnosis.
Attention put to the test by the digital revolution
At the individual level, attention comprises a collection of processes and resources that play several roles in the conduct of our activities and our relationship with our environment. Alongside its filter function, which works to select what we perceive, attention also controls action. It is labelled exogenous when a person is drawn automatically to something, without conscious choice (to a telephone ringing for instance), and endogenous when focus is voluntary (for instance reading this text). One question about the impact of digital technology usage applies precisely to voluntary attention and maintaining it over time. Some authors, such as essayist Nicholas Carr, believe that regular use of the internet is making us lose our ability to concentrate, replacing it with a pattern of flitting from topic to topic; others, such as literature specialist Katherine Hayles, suggest that we are shifting from a pattern of deep concentration, for which the archetype is maintaining voluntary attention on an "object" for a long period, to a pattern of hyper-attention characterised by multi-tasking, the frenetic pursuit of stimuli, and rapid shifts of focus. This switch, according to these writers, accompanies a neurological change made possible by our brain's plasticity. Moving in the same direction, but with less pessimism, Linda Stone posits that the digital era's characteristic pattern is of continuous partial attention, its main features being a permanent state of alert and a continuous search for new opportunities. For Linda Stone this attention pattern only becomes problematic when it starts to dominate a person's life. Alongside these analyses concentrating on the (potentially) problematic consequences of using digital technology, others are less alarmist and even take the opposite view. So, according to Cathy Davidson, being absorbed by computer games is not incompatible with attention. On the contrary, there are positive effects on social interaction. Where Carr believes hyper-attention and concentration are mutually exclusive, Alain Giffard suggests that these two exercises of attention are not contradictory and can even be combined.
Another characteristic of attention is that it is limited/finite both in terms of time and processing capacity. This is the factor that raises the issue of information overload, particularly in the context of professional uses. Today the internet is a vast repository of information, and we receive an ever growing volume of emails and messages from social media. In industrialised countries the issue is no longer access to information but the attention time available to process it. This problem of information source proliferation is certainly not new, but is however vastly accentuated by digital technologies.
How are individuals reacting to these changes? When we look at how people deal in concrete terms with the over-abundance of information and digital demands, we see a number of different types of approach, which sometimes develop into more calculated and radical control strategies for technology use, to the point of temporary or permanent disconnection. Analysing individuals' activities also reveals that digital demands, alerts and digitally channelled interruptions are now part of their everyday life, and are indeed essential to carrying out certain activities, particularly at work. This leads them to develop skills in multi-tasking and spreading (dispersing) their attention. So there is more nuance to the situation than suggested by the rhetoric denouncing the negative effects of information and communication technology usage on attention. We are also seeing the emergence of coaching offers that aim to help individuals deal with information overload and the stress generated through using digital technology.
But the tactics people use to maintain their attention and deal with the abundance of information are not always enough. This is where designing user interfaces that are adapted to the properties of human attention becomes important. It is a question on which researchers and specialists in human-machine interaction (ergonomists, designers, computer experts) have been focused for many years. Research conducted in this field has resulted in a whole series of design principles that aim to facilitate perception of information provided by the interfaces, while avoiding overloading the user's attention and processing capacities. One can single out, for instance, so-called ambient interfaces, which provide information in a discreet, non-intrusive manner, offering the least possible disturbance to the user's focused attention (for example by using changes in lighting and contrast). Then there are systems that filter incoming demands (such as emails) with varying degrees of sophistication, built on communication rules that assign a "monetary" type value to messages (e.g. Seriosity), or systems that help with the work of finding information (e.g. search engines). Ambient and complex filtering interfaces (such as those based on principles of artificial intelligence) are not widely used, despite numerous suggestions found in the scientific literature and some attempts at commercialisation. Meanwhile, search engines raise the question of information control by the algorithms that govern their operation (e.g. PageRank, which prioritises certain classifications and so directs attention to certain types of information).
Attention, a precious commodity
Another key factor is that as information abundance transforms attention into a scarce resource, it arouses proportional levels of commercial interest. Numerous economic players are organising and moving to cultivate, create value from and commercialise attention in the same way as other rare resources. These economic leanings are certainly nothing new; they lie at the heart of marketing and advertising, fields where capturing attention is the first of a series of steps that then seeks to create awareness, establish a favourable attitude, and finally encourage a decision and a purchase (attention-awareness-attitude-action). Marketing and advertising professionals have a huge range of action: informing, certainly, but also surprising, seducing, creating emotion, desire, indignation, humour, etc.. The hook can also be set with plays on format, the aim being to create a route to visibility: standing out to attract the gaze and arouse interest.
Now, in a media environment that is ever more fragmented and saturated with perceptual signals, the battle is raging to capture people's attention. There is strong temptation to increase advertising pressure and hype, in short, to make even greater demands on attention, which risks over-exploitation, in the same way that the fishing industry is said to be over-exploiting marine stocks. The general impression is that advertising pressure is continuously increasing, that we are ever more exposed to advertising. While advertising spending has remained fairly stable for the last twenty years, balances are shifting. Advertising and marketing investment on the internet - and now on mobiles - is growing very quickly and our consumption of media - now multi-screen based - is continuously increasing, intensifying our exposure to advertising, hence the strong impression of advertising pollution.
At the same time, digital media give people more ways of managing their attention and controlling their audio-visual consumption. Advertising avoidance strategies (conscious and tool-based to varying degrees) are a clear indication of the increased independence of audiences, who have more and more control over the time, place and method of their media content consumption. Set-top recorders like TiVo in the US paved the way; viewers can easily choose when they watch, and avoid advertising breaks. Digital media and their interactivity give consumers more ways to organise their consumption. Avoiding advertising (and sales messages of all types) is a particularly conspicuous manifestation of this audience empowerment, which follows from (re)establishing control of attention. There are overt and conscious methods for eliminating and bypassing advertising which have become widespread in recent years: the AdBlock Plus extension, which can eliminate the majority of adverts appearing in a web-browser, is now used every day by 5 to 10% of web-users.
Faced with an advertising approach judged aggressive and indifferent to the need to protect the scare resource of attention, some researchers and practitioners believe that advertising would be more effective (and more considerate of the consumer) if it sought to protect and economise attention. In extending cognitive research into interfaces that favour attention, researchers are proposing to develop advertising formats that integrate better with the user's environment and experience, under labels like "pervasive advertising" and "low-key advertising"). This approach is embodied by the advertising formats developed by Google (sponsored links), Facebook (adverts in the newsfeed) and Twitter (sponsored tweets), which are discreetly integrated into the user's visual interface and activity. While they aim not to disturb the user's attention in the same way as advertising windows that are imposed (pop-up or interstitial pages), these formats still face two pitfalls. First, since the effectiveness of the advertisement depends on its discretion, it tends to become invisible, at the risk of blurring the separation between editorial and advertising content. Second, since its effectiveness depends on its relevance to the user, advertising content is linked to personalisation and targeting strategies that are very greedy for personal data.
Paying attention to attention: a political issue?
So our attention has steadily become an object of desire for more and more of digital technology's economic players. They are developing interfaces to help us organise and direct our attention (search engines, social media, alert tools, etc.). And yet at the same time they are deploying advertising formats that aim to commercialise our attention, which has already been captured by their tools and transformed into a commodity. Some writers, such as Yves Citton, Bernard Stiegler, Jonathan Crary and Matthew Crawford, see the matrix of contemporary capitalism in this ambivalent relationship with users-consumers and regard it as the source of the "attention crisis" supposedly pervading our society. While attention may have been the focus of commercial exploitation for a very long time, that exploitation has hugely intensified in the digital era. A significant proportion of digital interfaces are constantly seeking our attention in order immediately to sell it on. In doing so, this commercial approach risks dragging us deeper and deeper into a pattern of constant distraction.
The urgent need, for these writers, is to retake control of our attention, in particular how it is directed, and to act on our environment. This takes the form of re-appropriation - even disconnection - of the digital to counter these tendencies, creating a more healthy space that is sheltered from commercial drives. They believe this is an issue that is primarily ethical and political, since it brings how we live together into question and involves collective choices. Yves Citton puts forward an ecological vision of attention, in the sense of its inclusion within material and social environments; he emphasises the urgent need to collectively move it back towards the "natural" environment, given the threats hanging over it (resource exhaustion, global warming, etc.). He invites us collectively to redirect our attention towards priorities that have been hijacked, relegated to the background by the frenetic search for financial profit. Author of the noted "Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (published as Éloge du carburateur in French) Matthew Crawford, philosopher and mechanic, sees our salvation in manual activities like cooking and DIY: they give structure to our attention. Beginning by observing that the steady reduction in the time we spend sleeping has gone hand in hand with the capitalist consumerist drive that encourages us to stay awake 24/7, Jonathan Crary suggests we should defend ourselves from this tendency by protecting our sleep and surrendering ourselves to "reverie". Will our attention find its salvation in the arms of Morpheus?
To conclude this overview of some current challenges raised by digital media and its impacts on attention, we can only observe that numerous questions remain unanswered. Does digital technology, or more accurately the way it is used, really represent a threat to attention? Might we not be in the middle of a gradual adaptation and appropriation phase? Or are we in the process of shifting more fundamentally into radically new world?