The Attention Thief and the Mission to Steal it Back

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    by Michael Graf

— Michael Graf


Simone Weil once argued that prayer was a form of 'learned' attention. In an era of increasingly ephemeral thinking, 'attention' has become one of our highest forms of prayer.

In an 'attention economy' built on ever-more targeted information, how well do we understand our own perceptions anymore? Attention is becoming a scarce commodity, and reclaiming it can be a difficult exercise. Yet at its core, is a surprisingly simple philosophy — one that Harvard Psychologist Helen Langer calls a type of 'mindfulness', while Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman refers to it as a type of slow system of thought, NYU Psychologist Johnathan Haidt calls it the rider of the elephant, while the modernist artist Mark Rothko explores it as a type of visual foundation. However one approaches it or phrases it, the idea of 'Other' thinking is not simply an opposing category, an unwanted perspective, or a victim of the many, but is the heart of how we see, process and learn. We may still disagree with other notions of TRIBE, or expressions of LOOK, or a sense of GRACE, or simply laugh at the theatres of PROMISE, but a biased approach to these ideas is difficult to resist, especially when so much of our understandings take place automatically —beneath the surfaces of what we see. To explore the influences of involuntary perceptions requires a patience to grasp what shapes them, and more importantly, to consciously steal back a lost span of attention.

 By Michael Graf

Despite feeling above them, we are all vulnerable to patterns of automatic thought or biases that can steer our definitions into what psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman call heuristics (or mental shortcuts). After all, we are human, and we use mental shortcuts in a fantastic variety of flavours to help us navigate issues at a glance. Sometimes helpful but more often destructive, these techniques are used in our public theatres of advertising, political rhetoric or social dialogue to jumpstart conclusions of conformity, spirituality, sympathy, or balance while often using unproven foundations to base them on. In our modern 'attention economy', becoming dependent on these shortcuts as thinking tools can quickly erode our capacities for deeper thought about larger, more nuanced possibilities. What 'other thinking' proposes is a pause in these routines — no matter how beholden we are to them — to cross into a terrain of what psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls perspective diversity. Arranged as mosaics that reflect our media centric lives, the 12 degrees each represent a category of image and behaviour that we seldom pay attention to in ourselves, and less so in the lives of others. The challenge is to study routine categories from alternate angles — or simply to read images as sentences with shape, syntax, history and larger contexts of influence. The process can be unnerving or just plain difficult, but they illustrate a point about perceptions — they are more vulnerable to unconscious impressions than we might realize. According to psychologists, when faced with what appears to be foreign or complex relationships, we often substitute easier ones —or "heuristics"  without being aware of it. Instead, Otherness suggests a way of approaching our reactions with a type of philosophical checklist in mind — one that might conjure perspectives that differ from first instincts, if only to maintain the integrity to how we really see. The 12 degrees simply create a type of mental gymnastics to explore this. Together, the two volumes provide a sampling of different contexts, biases and processes that silently affect us beneath our skins.

 By Michael Graf

At times, this model of thinking might require a more collaborative effort, borrowing thoughts from philosophers, poets, artists, physicists or cultural leaders past and present, to help better understand our seeing ways. They all, in different ways, foster a certain kind of courage to not look away in hurried indifference, but to face the deeper questions shaping others and ourselves. Borrowing from their efforts, otherness asks not for reactions based on ever smaller, more biased beliefs, but for a more diverse approach to the contexts and behaviours connecting our unseen nature. As we grow increasingly polarized into more righteous, fragmented and immoveable tribes, what is often lost are the efforts to discover and trace the many intelligences and histories that might bind them. With a kind of historical, or evolutionary approach, we can begin to weave the threads of our own isolated beliefs into the tapestry of a larger whole. As Einstein once suggested that there must something deeply hidden behind everything. Connecting them remains our task, and ours only.