The Evolution of Attention in Modern and Contemporary Culture

The digital revolution is associated with a radical transformation in the way we encounter, process and evaluate information. This is evident in the way we read, observe and attend phenomena. Neural function is adapting to the screen and its constant excitations and stimulations; much of the data we encounter is received passively and fleetingly. Critical, slow and deep thinking is being replaced by the fast-paced gratification of relay; our online activity proceeds by passing knowledge on rather than absorbing it. 

Recent advances in neuroscience, cognitive sciences, disability studies, literary theory, cultural materialism and the digital humanities have transformed our understanding of mind, attention and the human. Attention emerges as a productive conceptual anchor for the consideration of the historic and cultural evolution of the human subject. Moral and value judgments, cultural and social norms, medical practices and civic duty all touch on the question of attention; each prescribes to the individual how she might apply or use it for self-promotion and for the promotion of the public good. Technology, lifestyle practices and pharmacological interventions all complement the individual's attempt to harness attention as a means to productivity. Attention becomes a measure to police social norms and a medical baseline- and those individuals or societies that fail to realize it seek ways to remedy such a failure. Attention emerges as a mode of aesthetic pleasure, work, as well as a biopolitical measure to ensure the healthy life of the liberal state. 

Our aim is to trace the emergence of current debates on attention by turning to the past in order to study significant cultural shifts in the way we view, celebrate or upset common 3 conceptualizations of attention. By looking back to artistic and literary explorations of attention, we will seek to ask, first, whether the seismic shift associated with the digital revolution has indeed radically changed the value of attention in human life, or whether such shifts are already in evidence in our past history; second, how technology complements or is in competition with cultural commentary on attention, and, third, what the comparative analyses of these epistemes might contribute to our understanding of the human. Our exploration will take cognizance of empirical data from ongoing studies on questions of attention and perception in an attempt to test the commonalities between disciplines. We aim to investigate how the rise and fall of competing terms distraction, boredom and attention deficit are suggestive not only of the bon ton of an era, but of significant shifts in the way we understand community, the individual and the state that holds them together.