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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