Apr 102007

It is commonly thought that attention can be equated with time. “I will give you fifteen minutes of my time,” often implies that speaker will pay attention for those fifteen minutes. It would be a mistake though, to think that this formulation means that attention is particularly tied with time. All human activities — eating or walking just as much as paying attention— occur in time, and each one has some duration. But the time taken has little to do with the quality or even the intensity of the attention paid.
Since attention involves the aligning of mind, and since this can be more or less permanent depending on how deeply you allowed yourself to align in the first place, you might well find that you continue to pay attention long after the actual encounter with the person, or with her expression (in the form of a note, a text, a voice message, and e-mail, a website, or a work of art or design of any sort).

Thus, if you have a reasonable visual imagination, for instance, you can probably recall a lot about the look of the person, or of a photo or painting by her. (So, you can bring to mind an image of Albert Einstein, Jay Leno, or Brittney Spears or the Mona Lisa, Picasso’s Guernica, or Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, the general look of a Jackson Pollock or the photo of the flag raising on Iwo Jima, among thousands of others.) Likewise, with a good memory for sounds, you can recall at least snatches of music. You retain and bring to mind precepts, concepts, explanations, strictures and many other kinds of expressions you paid attention to earlier, as well as in many cases the person you associate with them. Thus the actual count of seconds of first paying attention has little meaning.

Also, in the time you supposedly allot to someone or their expression, you may find it hard to alig. You are likely to be bored so your mind will wander. If say, you are a psychotherapist, you may have learned to listen very intently, but still a particular client may fail to engage you. In that case, you might decide to examine what it is about how you are interacting with the client that leaves you so bored, and in that way perhaps return attention to her, as well as possibly learning something about yourself. But that is only if you so choose; for that you must feel a certain dedication, possibly through paying attention to someone who trained you. Whether you are being paid for such an encounter or not, it is again untrue that you can be thought to hand over definite chunk of time.

In sum, attention DOES NOT EQUAL time.

  One Response to “A Garland of Attention Terms 4: Time and Attention”

  1. Mr. Goldhaber, I have recently stumbled upon your writing surrounding an attention economy. I find the concepts presented make sense of more than a few quandries I have puzzled over in the past. In particular, as a software developer, I wonder what I learn about how I spend my time, or, in light of this entry, my attention. I wonder how this programming of my attention, of my cycles, relates to how I program a computer’s cycles. How does computation relate to attention? Are computers levers of attention? Or somehow an electrical attention converter? Presented with a complex arithmetic problem, the person with the calculator will use less attention to solve the same problem. In expending energy, some lost to heat, did that processor share attention with its user?

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