Special Issue: Shifting Attention

AHP readers may be interested in a recently published special issue of Science, Technology, & Human Values on “Shifting Attention.” Full details below.

“Introduction: Shifting Attention,” Rebecca Jablonsky, Tero Karppi, Nick Seaver. Abstract:

In recent years, attention has become a matter of increasing public concern. New digital technologies have transformed human attention materially and discursively, reorganizing perceptual practices and inciting debates about them. The essays in this special issue emerged from a set of panels focused on attention at the 4S conference in New Orleans in 2019. They are all, in various ways, concerned with shifts among attention’s many meanings: between payment and care, instinct and agency, or vulnerability and power. Drawing on Science and Technology Studies (STS) sensibilities, these pieces examine how scientific and technical actors are invested in theorizing and capturing attention, while simultaneously engendering new forms of care, resistance, and critique. At a moment where the attention economy appears to be in transformative crisis, this collection maps a set of incipient directions that ask us to pay attention to not only attention itself but also to the many sociotechnical settings where experts and publics are shifting attention’s meaning and value.

“Divided Attention, Divided Self: Race and Dual-mind Theories in the History of Experimental Psychology,” C. J. Valasek. Abstract:

The duality of attention is explored by turning our focus to the political and cultural conceptions of automatic attention and deliberate attention, with the former being associated with animality and “uncivilized” behavior and the latter with intelligence and self-mastery. In this article, I trace this ongoing dualism of the mind from early race psychology in the late nineteenth century to twentieth century psychological models including those found in psychoanalysis, behaviorism, neo-behaviorism, and behavioral economics. These earlier studies explicitly or implicitly maintained a deficiency model of controlled attention and other mental processes that were thought to differ between racial groups. Such early models of attention included assumptions that Black and Indigenous peoples were less in control of their attention compared to whites. This racialized model of attention, as seen in the law of economy in the nineteenth century, with similar manifestations in psychoanalysis and neo-behaviorism in the twentieth century, can now be seen in present-day dual-process models as used in current psychological research and behavioral policy. These historical connections show that attention is not a value-neutral term and that attention studies do not stand outside of race and structural racism.

“Listening Like a Computer: Attentional Tensions and Mechanized Care in Psychiatric Digital Phenotyping,” Beth M. Semel. Abstract:

This article explores negotiations over the humanistic versus mechanized components of care through an ethnographic account of digital phenotyping research. I focus on a US-based team of psychiatric and engineering professionals assembling a smartphone application that they hope will analyze minute changes in the sounds of speech during phone calls to predict when a user with bipolar disorder will have a manic or depressive episode. Contrary to conventional depictions of psychiatry as essentially humanistic, the discourse surrounding digital phenotyping positions the machine as a necessary addition to mental health care precisely because of its more-than-human sensory, attentional capacities. The bipolar research team likewise portrays their app as capable of pinpointing sonic signs of mental illness that humans, too distracted by semantic meaning, otherwise ignore. Nevertheless, the team members tasked with processing the team’s data (audio recordings of human research subject speech) must craft and perform a selectively attentive machinic subject position, which they call “listening like a computer”: a paradoxical mode of attention (to speech sound) and inattention (to speech meaning). By tracing the team’s discursive and on-the-ground enactments of care and attention as both humanistic and machinic, I tune a critical ear to the posthuman promises of digital phenotyping.

“The Algorithms of Mindfulness,” Johannes Bruder. Abstract:

This paper analyzes notions and models of optimized cognition emerging at the intersections of psychology, neuroscience, and computing. What I somewhat polemically call the algorithms of mindfulness describes an ideal that determines algorithmic techniques of the self, geared at emotional resilience and creative cognition. A reframing of rest, exemplified in corporate mindfulness programs and the design of experimental artificial neural networks sits at the heart of this process. Mindfulness trainings provide cues as to this reframing, for they detail each in their own way how intermittent periods of rest are to be recruited to augment our cognitive capacities and combat the effects of stress and information overload. They typically rely on and co-opt neuroscience knowledge about what the brains of North Americans and Europeans do when we rest. Current designs for artificial neural networks draw on the same neuroscience research and incorporate coarse principles of cognition in brains to make machine learning systems more resilient and creative. These algorithmic techniques are primarily conceived to prevent psychopathologies where stress is considered the driving force of success. Against this backdrop, I ask how machine learning systems could be employed to unsettle the concept of pathological cognition itself

“Meditation Apps and the Promise of Attention by Design,” Rebecca Jablonsky. Abstract:

This article demonstrates how meditation apps, such as Headspace and Calm, are imbricated within public discourse about technology addiction, exploring the consequences of this discourse on contemporary mental life. Based on ethnographic research with designers and users of meditation apps, I identify a promise put forth by meditation app companies that I call attention by design: a discursive strategy that frames attention as an antidote to technology addiction, which is ostensibly made possible when design is done right. I argue that attention by design is a promise unfulfilled. Meditation app companies construct attention as socially valuable by endlessly pointing out its purported opposite, technology addiction. Attention by design is promissory in that it keeps promising even when it doesn’t deliver what it promises, compelling the user to return to a practice that represents socially desirable traits that can never be fully acquired—and that often recede further from reach as the person becomes distracted by other obligations and communication mediated through the smartphone. Despite this broken promise, users believe they are becoming more attentive. The promissory attention designed into meditation apps reflects a new form of governmentality, in which users receive a mental nudge to reinterpret similarly designed experiences as different.

“From Poacher to Protector of Attention: The Therapeutic Turn of Persuasive Technology and Ethics of a Smartphone Habit-breaking Application,” Alex Beattie. Abstract:

This paper critically investigates the ethical perspectives and practices of individuals and organizations who make persuasive technologies (“persuasive technologists”). An organization that claims to be at the forefront of ethical persuasion is behavioral software company Boundless Mind. Yet Boundless Mind sells ostensibly oxymoronic software products: an Application Programming Interface for third-party applications that optimizes the capture of end user attention, and an application for end users on how to make third-party applications less persuasive. Drawing upon Foucault’s interpretation of ethics as an “aesthetics of existence” and the related concept of “therapeutic authority,” I argue Boundless Mind justify the “poaching” and “protecting” of user attention based on a view of the human subject as fixable and their capability to instrumentalize user subjectivity to socially desirable ends. I walkthrough Boundless Mind’s technology-habit-breaking application Space and highlight a behavioral technique administered by Space called stimulus devaluation, which enables the user to develop a transformative relationship with their technology habits and persuasive applications. I conclude the paper by arguing that a persuasive technology ethics based on fixing the user obfuscates the power of persuasive technologists by limiting the scope of ethical inquiry to the activities of the user

“Afterword: Shifting the Terms of the Debate,” Natasha D. Schüll. Abstract

The afterword discusses how this special issue’s articles work from different angles to unsettle the precepts of “attentional sovereignty” — the socially, politically, and economically valorized virtue that anchors most discussions over attention in its contemporary technological predicament. Whether the attentional sovereign appears in its liberal humanist or its neoliberal behavioral economic guise, sovereignty is valorized and considered under threat. By revealing the contemporary and historical backstories to our investment in this notion, these articles shift the terms of the debate around the attention crisis and clear space for thinking anew about the possibilities and limits of attention today.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.