Friday, December 27, 2013

Should we be Managing Media or Managing Attention?

As those charged with media creation, promulgation, and consumption of mediated messages for the enterprise, we have been preoccupied, quite understandably with the creation of those messages. Just like the operators of the coal-fired power stations of the recent past, we've gotten paid for what goes out over the wires, while the exhaust fumes were somebody else's (the atmosphere's) problem.

We've suffered a similar ecological blindness. We've been less concerned with the attention our messages receive than with just getting them out the door.

These two items are intimately related, as Herb Simon wrote in 1971, "In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it."

This is about more than audience measurement; more than units sold, units delivered, circulation, readership, and certainly, more than hits. It's not enough to say our message has been seen. 

Science purports to know what attention is, at least operationally, and can get at measuring it, at least in a lab setting. Science can measure its short- and long term effects to an extent. If subsequent behaviors are changed, we can infer the "learning" has taken place. We can observe certain neural changes that result from certain experience.   Science tells us that multi-tasking is a myth, and that human attention has inherent signal-processing limitations. Philosophy struggles with a deeper understanding of attention, one that digs into the nature of consciousness itself. 

Attention is narrow.
William James analogized attention as a spotlight, characterizing it's narrow reach, and the need for time to allow it's sweep to reveal the wider world beyond our foveal view. The "Spotlight" metaphor for attention: what does it "carry" well, and what does it "leave behind"?

(Derivative of the metaphor: KNOWLEDGE IS LIGHT)

Entailments: consciously directed by the user
...goes wherever the user wills
...and stays fixed as long as the user wishes
...reveals fully & immediately whatever it is fixed upon of constant size/scope
...allows only for sequential exposure; one detail at a time
...sweeps over over a continuous and contiguous field
...reveals what is true it leaves the rest in the dark.

It assumes that we attend (from L. for "to hold") wherever we wish, that it is a willed and deliberate act. But our attention can be "stolen" from us by a shiny or moving object at the periphery of the "beam" of our attention. Memory plays a part in our our knowledge as well; as a mental construction of the wider field, a kind of montage is built up over time and is registered as a different kind of knowledge elsewhere.

Attention is effortful.
Our subjective experience of attending is that it is partial, but also that it is effortful. It's work. Recent experimental work has found that attention appears to consume work energy in the same sense that muscular effort does. We can use up, for a time, our attentional energy budget. 

Attention is not always under internal control.
We also feel we can have our attention "stolen", against our will, as we drift through competing stimuli, arising either from the world, or from our screens. 

Attention is also variously cheap, expensive, disloyal, whimsical, habitual, revealing, blinding, and rewarding.

The deeper we dig into attention, the harder it is to understand it.

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