the technological history of modernity

I’m going to try to piece a few things together here, so hang on for the ride —

I have been reading and enjoying Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, and I’ll have more to say about it here later. I strongly recommend it to you. But today I’m going to talk about something in it I disagree with. On the book’s first page Crawford writes of “profound cultural changes” that have

a certain coherence to them, an arc — one that begins in the Enlightenment, accelerates in the twentieth century, and is perhaps culminating now. Though digital technologies certainly contribute to it, our current crisis of attention is the coming to fruition of a picture of the human being that was offered some centuries ago.

With this idea in mind, Crawford later in the book gives us a chapter called “A Brief History of Freedom” that spells out the philosophical ideas that, he believes, paved the way for the emergence of a culture in which lengthy and patient attentiveness is all but impossible.

Since attention is something I think about a lot — and have written about here and elsewhere — I’m deeply sympathetic to Crawford’s general critique. But I am not persuaded by his history. In fact, I have come to believe — as I have also written here — that the way Crawford tells the history has things backwards, in much the same way that the neo-Thomist interpretation of history gets things backwards. I don’t think we have our current attention economy because of Kant, any more than we have Moralistic Therapeutic Deism because of Ockham and Duns Scotus.

To make the kind of argument that Crawford and the neo-Thomists make is to take philosophy too much at its own self-valuation. Philosophy likes to see itself as operating largely independently of culture and society and setting the terms on which people will later think. But I believe that philosophy is far more a product of existing social and economic structures than it is an independent entity. We don’t have the modern attention economy because of Kant; rather, we got Kant because of certain features of technological modernity — especially those involving printing, publishing, and international postal delivery — that also have produced our current attention economy, which, I believe, would work just as it does if Kant had never lived. What I call the Oppenheimer Principle — “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success” — has worked far more powerfully to shape our world than any of our master thinkers. Indeed, those thinkers are, in ways we scarcely understand, themselves the product of the Oppenheimer Principle.

So while it is true that, as I said in one of those earlier posts, “those of us who are seriously seeking alternatives to the typical modes of living in late modernity need a much, much better philosophy and theology of technology,” we also need better history — what I think I want to call a technological history of modernity.

To be sure, that already exists in bits and pieces — indeed, in fairly large chunks. Some existing works that might help us re-orient our thinking towards a better account of how we got to Us:

Those of us who — out of theological conviction or out of some other conviction — have some serious doubts about the turn that modernity has taken have been far too neglectful of this material, economic, and technological history. We need to remedy that deficiency. And someone needs to write a really comprehensive and ambitious technological history of modernity. I don’t think I’m up to that challenge, but if no one steps up to the plate….

My current book project has convinced me of the importance of these issues. All of the figures I am writing about there understood that they could not think of World War II simply as a conflict between the Allies and the Axis. There were, rather, serious questions to be asked about the emerging character of the Western democratic societies. On some level each of these figures intuited or explicitly argued that if the Allies won the war simply because of their technological superiority — and then, precisely because of that success, allowed their societies to become purely technocratic, ruled by the military-industrial complex — their victory would become largely a hollow one. Each of them sees the creative renewal of some form of Christian humanism as a necessary counterbalance to technocracy.

I agree with them, and think that at the present moment our world needs — desperately — the kind of sympathetic and humane yet strong critique of technocracy they tried to offer. But such a critique can only be valuable if it grows from a deep understanding — an attentive understanding — of both the present moment, in all its complexities, and the present moment’s antecedents, in all their complexities. In the coming months, as I continue to work on my book, I’ll be thinking about how that technological history of modernity might be told, and will share some thoughts here. That will probably mean posting less often but more substantively; we’ll see. The idea is to lay the foundation for future work. Please stay tuned.

withdrawals and commitments

I posted this on my personal blog, but on reflection I’m thinking that it has a place here, especially with our recent thoughts about attention.

My buddy Rod Dreher writes,

What I call the Benedict Option is this: a limited, strategic withdrawal of Christians from the mainstream of American popular culture, for the sake of shoring up our understanding of what the church is, and what we must do to be the church. We must do this because the strongly anti-Christian nature of contemporary popular culture occludes the meaning of the Gospel, and hides from us the kinds of habits and practices we need to engage in to be truly faithful to what we have been given.

David French responds,

I must admit, my first response to the notion of “strategic withdrawal” is less intellectual and more visceral. Retreat? I recall John Paul Jones’s words, “I have not yet begun to fight,” or, more succinctly, General Anthony McAuliffe’s legendary response to German surrender demands at Bastogne: “Nuts!”  

In reality, Christian conservatives have barely begun to fight. Christians, following the examples of the Apostles, should never retreat from the public square. They must leave only when quite literally forced out, after expending every legal bullet, availing themselves of every right of protest, and after exhausting themselves in civil disobedience. Have cultural conservatives spent half the energy on defense that the Left has spent on the attack?

It strikes me that French is responding to something Rod didn’t say: Rod writes of “the strategic withdrawal of Christians from mainstream of American popular culture,” and French replies that Christians “should never retreat from the public square” — but “popular culture” and “public square” are by no means the same thing.

In most of the rest of his response French emphasizes strictly political issues, for instance, current debates over the extent of free speech. But Rod doesn’t say anything about withdrawing from electoral politics — he doesn’t say anything about politics at all, except insofar as building and strengthening the ekklesia is political (which it is — see below).

It’s not likely that French and I could ever come to much agreement about the core issues here, since he so readily conflates Christianity and conservatism. (“The surprising box office of God’s Not Dead, the overwhelming success of American Sniper, celebrating the life of a Christian warrior” — I … I … — “and the consistent ratings for Bible-themed television demonstrate that there remains a large-scale appetite for works of art that advance, whether by intention or by effect, a substantially more conservative point of view.”) But his response to Rod has the effect of forcing some important questions on those of us who think that the current social and political climate calls for new strategies: What exactly do we mean by “withdraw,” and how far do we withdraw? What specifically do we withdraw from? What are the political implications of cultural withdrawal?

Rod, in the post I quoted at the outset, does a fantastic job of laying out very briefly and concisely the work that needs to be done to strengthen local religious communities. But time, energy, attention, and money are all plagued by scarcity, which is why some kind of “withdrawal” is unavoidable — if I’m going to put more money into my church, that means less money available elsewhere. And if I’m going to devote more attention to active love of God and active love of my neighbor, from what should I withdraw my attention?

All of this is going to remain excessively vague and abstract until we can see specific instances of such withdrawal. But I suspect that different groups of Christians will have widely varying ideas of what needs to be withdrawn from: cable TV, New York Times subscriptions, Hollywood movies, monetary contributions to either of the major political parties, public schools, etc.

So I wonder if a better way to think about the Benedict Option is not as a strategic withdrawal from anything in particular but a strategic attentiveness to the institutions and forms of life within which Christians can flourish. In other words, Rod’s post is the right starting place, and the language of “withdrawal” something of a distraction from what that post is all about.

My own inclination — but then I have been a teacher for thirtysomething years — is to think that our primary focus should be on the two chief modes of Bildung: paideia and catechesis. And I do not mean for either of these modes to be confined to the formation of children.

If we ask ourselves what genuine Christian Bildung is, and what is required to achieve it in our time, then we will be directed to the construction and conservation of institutions and practices that are necessary for that great task. And then the necessary withdrawals — which may indeed vary from person to person, vocation to vocation, community to community — will take care of themselves.

on the attention economy

Let me zero in on what I think is the key paragraph in my friend Chad Wellmon’s response to some of my theses:

But this image of a sovereign self governing an internal economy of attention is a poor description of other experiences of the world and ourselves. In addition, it levies an impossible burden of self mastery. A distributive model of attention cuts us off, as Matt Crawford puts it, from the world “beyond [our] head.” It suggests that anything other than my own mind that lays claim to my attention impinges upon my own powers to willfully distribute that attention. My son’s repeated questions about the Turing test are a distraction, but it might also be an unexpected opportunity to engage the world beyond my own head.

I want to begin by responding to that last sentence by saying: Yes, and it is an opportunity you can take only by ceding the sovereignty of self, by choosing (“willfully”) to allow someone else to occupy your attention, rather than insisting on setting your own course. This is something most of us find it hard to do, which is why Simone Weil says “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” And yet it is our choice whether or not to practice that generosity.

I would further argue that, in most cases, we manage to cede the “right” to our attention to others — when we manage to do that — only because we have disciplined and habituated ourselves to such generosity. Chad’s example of St. Teresa is instructive in this regard, because by her own account her ecstatic union with God followed upon her long practice of rigorous spiritual exercises, especially those prescribed by Francisco de Osuna in his Tercer abecedario espiritual (Third Spiritual Alphabet) and by Saint Peter of Alcantara in his Tractatus de oratione et meditatione (Treatise on Prayer and Meditation). Those ecstatic experiences were a free gift of God, Teresa thought, but through an extended discipline of paying attention to God she had laid the groundwork for receptivity to them.

(I’m also reminded here of the little experiment the violinist Joshua Bell tried in 2007, when he pretended to be a busker playing in a D.C. Metro station. Hardly anyone noticed, but those who did were able to do so because of long experience in listening to challenging music played beautifully.)

In my theses I am somewhat insistent on employing economic metaphors to describe the challenges and rewards of attentiveness, and in so doing I always had in mind the root of that word, oikonomos (οἰκονόμος), meaning the steward of a household. The steward does not own his household, any more than we own our lifeworld, but rather is accountable to it and answerable for the decisions he makes within it. The resources of the household are indeed limited, and the steward does indeed have to make decisions about how to distribute them, but such matters do not mark him as a “sovereign self” but rather the opposite: a person embedded in a social and familial context within which he has serious responsibilities. But he has to decide how and when (and whether) to meet those responsibilities. So too the person embedded in an “attention economy.”

In this light I want to question Weil’s notion of attention as a form of generosity. It can be that, of course. In their recent biography Becoming Steve Jobs, Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli tell a lovely story about a memorial service for Jobs during which Bill Gates ignored the high-powered crowd and spent the entire time in a corner talking with Jobs’s daughter about horses. That, surely, is attention as generosity. But in other circumstances attention may not be a free gift but a just rendering — as can happen when my son wants my attention while I am reading or watching sports on TV. This is often a theme in the religious life, as when the Psalmist says “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name” or in a liturgical exchange: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” “It is meet and right so to do.”

There is, then, such a thing as the attention that is proper and adequate to its object. Such attention can only be paid if attention is withheld from other potential objects of our notice or contemplation: the economy of our attentional lifeworld is a strict one. But I would not agree with Chad that this model “levies an impossible burden of self mastery”; rather, it imposes the difficult burden of wisely and discerningly distributing my attention in ways that are appropriate not to myself qua self but to the “household” in which I am embedded and to which I am responsible.

Cross-posted at The Infernal Machine

learning attention

Here at Baylor’s Honors Program, we offer first year seminars that are meant to introduce our students to the challenges and benefits of honors-level work. I’m going to be teaching one of those next year, and here are some of the possibilities I’ve been considering:

(1) The Two Cultures: C.P. Snow wrote fifty years ago that the sciences and the humanities were drawing farther and farther apart, and that this severance socially dangerous. Was he right? Have things changed since then? If so, for the better or the worse? If there is a gap to be bridged, what can we do to bridge it?

(2) The Future of the Book: With the ever-increasing availability of e-books and other forms of digital reading, are we seeing the imminent demise of the bound-in-paper book, the codex? If so, what effects will the digitization of text have on the reading (and writing, and researching) experience? We’ll investigate these questions with some attention to the history of the codex and especially its role in the shaping of Christian culture.

(3) Attention: Are digital technologies destroying our capacity to pay attention — or are they just changing it, in some ways for the better? In this class we will try to understand what attention is, why it has been thought important in prayer, study, and personal relationships, and how it may best be nurtured as our technological environment changes.

(4) Poetry as Theology: Can poetry not just describe spiritual experience but actually be a way of doing Christian theology? Of seriously contributing to the work of theology? Poets studied will include Dante, John Milton, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg, among others.

I asked my current students which they would prefer, and the first option got the most votes. (They also convinced me that the last one would probably be better as an upper-level course.)

I would enjoy teaching any of these, but the one I think is most important is the third. I’m inclined to think that every college should offer a required first-year course on attention and attentiveness. Attention is costly — there’s a reason why we speak of paying attention — and as a resource it is easy to deplete though also renewable. Simply to make students aware of the costs and the renewability would be a major service to them, I think.

popularity sort

The problem with Instapaper’s new Popularity Sort — essentially, an engine for finding out what everyone else is reading on Instapaper and suggesting that you read it too — is that it does what so many other social media do: exacerbate the gap between the attentional haves and have-nots. It’s a matter of inertia: posts and essays and articles that get a little attention at first stand a good chance of getting more, and then more, and then still more, while those that don’t get that little bump at first will be more likely to sink into neglect.

The net result of this kind of thing, as it becomes more dominant in online discourse — and it will indeed become more dominant — will be (a) more and more writers whoring for that initial burst of attention to get the ball rolling, and (b) a significant loss of what I’m going to call, on the model of biodiversity, graphodiversity.

So, you know, just never read something because other people are reading it. Avoid popularity sorting. Cultivate your own genuine interests and don’t let them get crowded out by invasive species of popular but bad writing.

bodies and minds

Really interesting brief essay by Linda Stone:

In our current relationship with technology, we bring our bodies, but our minds rule. “Don’t stop now, you’re on a roll. Yes, pick up that phone call, you can still answer these six emails. Follow Twitter while working on PowerPoint, why not?” Our minds push, demand, coax, and cajole. “No break yet, we’re not done. No dinner until this draft is done.” Our tyrannical minds conspire with enabling technologies and our bodies do their best to hang on for the wild ride.With technologies like Freedom, we re-assign the role of tyrant to the technology. The technology dictates to the mind. The mind dictates to the body. Meanwhile, the body that senses and feels, that turns out to offer more wisdom than the finest mind could even imagine, is ignored.At the heart of compromised attention is compromised breathing. Breathing and attention are commutative. Athletes, dancers, and musicians are among those who don’t have email apnea. Optimal breathing contributes to regulating our autonomic nervous system and it’s in this regulated state that our cognition and memory, social and emotional intelligence, and even innovative thinking can be fueled.Our opportunity is to create personal technologies that are prosthetics for our beings. Conscious Computing. It’s post-productivity, post-communication era computing.

Stone is best known as the coiner of the term “continuous partial attention”.

anxieties of influence

Ezra Klein’s response to the current books-that-most-influenced-me meme is interesting: He says that in such conversations, “I always feel like a fraud.” Though he lists some books, he continues,

These books meant a lot to me, but they were much less influential in my thinking — particularly in my current thinking — than a variety of texts that carry consider less physical heft. Years spent reading the Washington Monthly, American Prospect and New Republic transformed me from someone interested in politics into someone interested in policy. So, too, did bloggers like, well, Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum and Tyler Cowen. In fact, Cowen, Brad DeLong, Mark Thoma and a variety of other economics bloggers also get credit for familiarizing me with a type of basic economic analysis that’s consistently present in my approach to new issues. . . .Going forward, I wonder how common canons like mine will become. Twenty years ago, someone with my interests would’ve spent a lot more time reading books because blogs simply didn’t exist yet. Magazines were around, but the advent of the Web led to daily content, so I’ve also spent more time reading those. But I can’t deny it: So much as I love my favorite books, the biggest influences in my thinking have been the continuous intellectual relationships I’ve had with blogs, periodicals and other people. Books aren’t even that close.

Klein is making an important distinction here: most of us can name the books that most influenced our intellectual development, but it can be a little harder to assess all of the forces that shaped us and figure out which ones are the most important.To say that a magazine, or a set of magazines, or even a series of blogs are the chief instruments of your intellectual formation is not — or should not be — a shameful confession. A lot depends on the quality of your reading. If you read an intelligent and active blogger over the course of a year, say, you are likely to be reading more than a book’s worth of that person’s words; and while you won’t be getting the benefit of tracing a single argument through lengthy development — something relatively few books offer anyway — if you are an attentive reader you will learn a great deal about how that person’s mind works, how that mind encounters and assesses the many provocations that any smart person faces in a year. That kind of reading can be a useful intellectual education . . . in some fields.But not in all. In my field, literary studies, I would say that you could (theoretically) get an education in criticism by reading smart blogs, but you can only get an education in literature by reading literature. And that means learning to reckon not just with short works — lyric poems, essays, short stories — but with great big things: novels, plays, epics. In literature the book-length work is central and irreplaceable.

the dangers of focus?

Sam Anderson’s argument that “unwavering focus . . . can actually be just as problematic as ADHD” is the conclusion that follows from this paragraph:

My favorite focusing exercise comes from William James: Draw a dot on a piece of paper, then pay attention to it for as long as you can. (Sitting in my office one afternoon, with my monkey mind swinging busily across the lush rain forest of online distractions, I tried this with the closest dot in the vicinity: the bright-red mouse-nipple at the center of my laptop’s keyboard. I managed to stare at it for 30 minutes, with mixed results.) James argued that the human mind can’t actually focus on the dot, or any unchanging object, for more than a few seconds at a time: It’s too hungry for variety, surprise, the adventure of the unknown. It has to refresh its attention by continually finding new aspects of the dot to focus on: subtleties of its shape, its relationship to the edges of the paper, metaphorical associations (a fly, an eye, a hole). The exercise becomes a question less of pure unwavering focus than of your ability to organize distractions around a central point. The dot, in other words, becomes only the hub of your total dot-related distraction.

This is wrong-headed in a number of ways, but chief among them is this: there’s no good reason for focusing on a dot. The mind trying to focus on a dot gets impatient because a dot is neither interesting nor complex. The artistic achievements mentioned elsewhere in the essay — Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, John Lennon’s songs — were the product of intense focus on complex and multivalent tasks. Indeed, that’s why focus is so important for artists and other intellectual workers — and for that matter dancers and surgeons and bomb defusers: complex tasks demand a great deal of attention and if we lose any of that attention we do those jobs less well. (But at least the novelist can go back and fix things later; this is harder for the surgeon and especially for the bomb defuser.) Besides, how many people are really in danger of “unwavering focus”? Many years ago I read a magazine profile of the chess champion Bobby Fischer in which the writer described an interview session they had over lunch. At one point the writer asked a question just as Fischer was lifting some food to his mouth, and the grandmaster ended up poking himself in the cheek with his fork. He simply could not do two things at once — a social problem, to be sure, but almost certainly a boon to his attentiveness to the chessboard. Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever been so distracted by a question that you speared your cheek with a fork? If not, then you probably don't need to worry about the dangers of being too focused.