Attention and Information

Peo­ple often argue that we have too much infor­ma­tion and too lit­tle atten­tion; that this is a con­di­tion of being “mod­ern.” But the oppo­site may be true: that atten­tion is a human con­stant and that it con­stantly seeks new forms. Where there’s “sur­plus atten­tion” we always come  up with things to occupy it.

Was the past sim­pler, with less infor­ma­tion to dis­tract the mind and less to worry about? That can’t really be true: there’s noth­ing sim­ple about farm­ing and the nat­ural world is full of infor­ma­tion we’ve lost the capac­ity to discern.

Here’s an image of pas­toral life, taken early in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury in North Dakota. Rus­tic sim­plic­ity, except that the farmer in charge has labor man­age­ment problems–who are these work­ers, how is he com­pen­sat­ing them? He has to man­age the horses–how is their health? Do they need feed­ing and water­ing? He’s got to get the har­vested wheat stored prop­erly: he’s check­ing the weather all the time–just imag­ine how much infor­ma­tion is involved, in an age before reli­able fore­casts, in guess­ing the weather! He’s scan­ning the crop itself, to see how much he lost to insects or dis­ease. He’s got a good idea of crop prices in Chicago and whether they’re trend­ing up or down. The scene was information-dense, and if you click on the image, you can see how the orig­i­nal title frames the scene.

The mod­ern farmer climbs into the air con­di­tioned cab of a com­bine har­vester, and turns on the radio. The radio fills the atten­tion spaces left by, say, read­ing the weather signs or man­ag­ing the work­ers or the animals.

Or this woman, feed­ing chickens–she’s “read­ing” things most of us can’t see. Are the chick­ens healthy? Are there any signs of incip­i­ent dis­ease? Which ones are lay­ing pro­duc­tively? which ones are des­tined for the din­ner table?

A woman in a farm kitchen had a LOT to consider–just mak­ing a cook­ing fire took con­stant atten­tion, and infor­ma­tion about the kind and qual­ity of the wood, the spe­cific char­ac­ter­is­tics of the cook stove, the nature of the thing being cooked.

The mod­ern cook flips on the burner, and his or her atten­tion, freed up, diverts to other things. She or he has much less infor­ma­tion to deal with.

So what appears to us as “too much infor­ma­tion” could just be the free­dom from neces­sity. I don’t have to worry about find­ing and cut­ting and stor­ing fire­wood: I don’t even have to man­age a coal fur­nace.  That atten­tion has been freed up for other things. What we see as “too much infor­ma­tion” is prob­a­bly some­thing more like “a sur­plus of free attention.”

As a his­to­rian, I no longer have to spend hours scan­ning texts to find the smaller sets of infor­ma­tion  I need. They pop up quickly when I deal with dig­i­tized texts, and the search process is stream­lined and auto­mated much in the way a gas burner stream­lines and auto­mates a wood stove.

Just as the act of split­ting and stack­ing fire­wood has become a delib­er­ately anachro­nis­tic act, so might the act of split­ting and stack­ing ref­er­ences become less nec­es­sary. Do I still need to  sh0w, piece by piece, what any­one can find in  five min­utes? So what should our atten­tion turn to?

One answer might be  that aca­d­e­mic his­tory becomes more and more con­fined to the undig­i­tized realm, the kinds of ques­tions that take you to archives that grow increas­ingly anachro­nis­tic and old fash­ioned: more and more peo­ple focus­ing on a shrink­ing body of mate­r­ial. Although we all value that kind of work, over­all that can’t be a good outcome.

It seems to me, as men­tioned, that his­tory will prob­a­bly become less about evi­dence and more about the struc­ture of the argu­ment. Less about the man­ual accu­mu­la­tion of data–the split­ting and chop­ping and stack­ing of fuel for the stove–and more about the con­text, the fram­ing, and the discussion.

But the argu­ment about atten­tion here is that atten­tion is a constant–it just directs itself, when freed, to whatever’s avail­able. The arrival of online archives gives us “sur­plus atten­tion.” What do we do with our­selves now that the time required for basic research has been (in many cases) so dras­ti­cally reduced?

Another argu­ment might be for new forms of his­tor­i­cal writ­ing, shorter forms with less schol­arly appa­ra­tus. For exam­ple, I made a post about Wal­ter Plecker, the Vir­ginia eugeni­cist who set about reclas­si­fy­ing peo­ple as white or “col­ored” based on his own prej­u­dices. The story is sur­pris­ing and inter­est­ing and starts with the per­sonal, but with two excep­tions all the evi­dence in that post is avail­able on the web, via Google books or Pro­quest or web­sites oth­ers have established.

It seemed to me to be too small a story for a schol­arly arti­cle, and that much of it had already been told else­where. That makes it a good can­di­date for a blog post. It’s pub­licly avail­able, based on evi­dence, and draws on  twenty years as a pro­fes­sional his­to­rian. The online jour­nal Common-place also has a lot of inter­est­ing work on it that’s in between the deep schol­arly and the popular.

We could have that dis­cus­sion, about the future of his­tor­i­cal writ­ing, here and else­where online.

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