Interest as an Alternative to Attention in the Digital Age

New uses for old words–or perhaps more accurately, old words bestowed with greater significance and meaning–have accompanied the rise of the networked world. Reputation is one. Attention is another, and is one heralded by the fairly clairvoyant futurist Howard Rheingold. He even includes “attention” as one of the four essential media literacies (h/t Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning). The Britannica Blog has a really interesting series of posts on multitasking, seen as attention’s opposite, with a number of different perspectives on attention in modern life.

Sketchy notes

There is no question that teachers must compete with connected laptops for students’ attention, and therefore the attention argument is often used to support the idea that school needs to be fun, use video games, and leverage digital media or become irrelevant. I call this the “Keeping Up With Disneyland” argument in honor of a strategy devised by a museum I used to work at, which, after some management changes, saw Disneyland as their biggest competitor. By grabbing at pieces of students’ attention with activities that approximate what students do for fun, we can inject something that looks like learning.

I’m certainly not against a little fun in school; even “father of modern education” John Amos Comenius, laying out the Fifth Principle of his Didactica Magna in the 17th century, wrote:

The method of instruction should lighten the drudgery of learning, that there be nothing to hinder the scholars or deter them from making progress with their studies.

I get the sense, however, that the “Keeping Up With Disneyland” argument is used to promote an efficiency model of education through fun “hooks” at the expense of thoughtful and meaningful learning. While the use of video games and online social networks in education may be meaningful in that they connect with students’ lived experiences, does this use also necessarily expand, as Hans-Georg Gadamer refers to it, students’ “horizon of understanding“?

Rheingold himself advocates for attention to be developed as a skill, a literacy. Focused attention is necessary sometimes, so shutting out other distractions is an important skill to learn. Rheingold brings in the literacy aspect in terms of learning when to focus attention and when to multitask. This middle ground approach is compelling.

Reviewing the comments to Howard Rheingold’s defense of the middle ground on the Brittanica blog, I found some great commentary by anthropologist Michael Wesch:

What really interests me here though is not whether or not people can be more or less effective in such environments, but how our sense of our selves and our relations to others is changing in this process. This is not just an information problem/opportunity. As hinted throughout this debate, but not fully explored, is the fact that it is a relationship problem/opportunity. As Gergen noted in 1991, “the traditional individual is thrust into an ever-widening array of relationships … one grows anguished over the violation of one’s sense of identity” (1991:17).

In a hyper-connected world, we now find ourselves in multiple conversations at once, both real and virtual, and are often putting forth different masks, faces, identities, and selves in each one.
As interesting as the multi-tasking discussion is, it becomes especially interesting to me to consider the idea that we might also be “multi-selfing” as we bounce between our e-mails, tweets, texts, status updates, etc.

The connection between what we do with our attention and who we are and how we relate to the world is an even more compelling mode of inquiry for education and educators, I believe, than the literacy/efficiency model. UNESCO’s report Learning: The Treasure Within lists the notoriously vague, oh-so-important, yet perpetually neglected “Learning to Be” as one of the Four Pillars of Learning.

As an alternative to the notion of attention, then, educators may want to refocus on the idea of “interest.” In considering this concept, I look to psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm and his book The Revolution of Hope: Toward a Humanized Technology (1968). He named interest as one of the “humane experiences” for humanized technology, and he recognized that the term “interest” has experienced a “deterioration of meaning.” Fromm explored the concept deeply:

“Interest” comes from the Latin inter-esse, that is, “to be in-between.” If I am interested, I must transcend my ego, be open to the world, and jump into it. Interest is based on activeness. It is the relatively constant attitude which permits one at any moment to grasp intellectually as well as emotionally and sensuously the world outside.

Learning and teaching take on deeper meanings when an emphasis is placed on “interest” rather than “attention.” For example, the Teaching for Understanding framework places a premium on teacher interest. As Fromm put it, “[t]he interested person becomes interesting to others because interest has an infectious quality which awakens interest in those who cannot initiate it without help.”

Fromm recognizes the connection between our interest and our sense of self. He recognizes that the “object” of interesting may take on many forms (“persons, plants, animals, ideas, social structures”) depending on the individual; in education, often the object of interest is guided or set by the curriculum. For Fromm, in the end it is not the object of interest which matters, however:

Nevertheless the objects are secondary. Interest is an all-pervading attitude and form of relatedness to the world, and one might define it in a very broad sense as the interest of the living person in all that is alive and grows.

A focus on “attention” creates an environment of efficiency and economy as the task of learning competes with a range of distraction. A lack of attention is due to a lack of skill on either the part of the teacher or the students. Attention is “within” the student, or something that a student “has.”

Viewed through the concept of interest, however, teachers and students are counted as part of “all that is alive and grows,” free to relate to each other through interest, that which they find in-between.