How to Get Our Attention Back




After I thank D. Graham Burnett for his lyrical introduction to the book Affinities, we exchange a few emails about the importance of attention—how it is being stolen from us and how, if we want to stay sane, we need to seize back the reins.

“You might want to review a little book we did about this,” he remarks. I agree gladly, but brace myself. Burnett is a historian of science and a Guggenheim fellow on the faculty of Princeton University. The book is no doubt a massive tome, dense as granite, filled with rich lodes that must be scratched out in hours of concentrated work.

In time, a small, slender book arrives, 12 Theses on Attention, its cover the palest shade of robin’s egg blue. Mysteriously, it is co-edited by Burnett but authored by The Friends of Attention, “an underground collective of activist-critics, utopian dreamers, and peaceful insurgents.” That might signal a diatribe, a rant, a manifesto—but this is gentler, the sort of book that wakes you by delicately tracing a fingertip along your eyelashes. Better yet, it does not posture or stomp about; I sniff no ego in the anonymous pages. They have been written, explains the introduction, simply because “we worry.”

I already know what they worry about. So do you. That endless buzzing beeping matrix in which our brains are pulled hither and yon, made nervous or greedy, duped, sucked in, depersonalized, digitized, addicted. But these pages breathe. In today’s hypertextual world, the white space feels like a cool hand on a fevered brow. Photographs show up the instant your eye needs them. The most evocative series is black and white, simple and exquisite, a series showing the flowering of a night-blooming moonflower. “The bud stands for all things…” notes the acknowledgments page. (If, that is, you are paying attention.)

“True attention does the work of bringing forth,” the theses begin. Under our focused gaze, people and even objects come alive. A pure attention—not practical, not utilitarian, free of agenda, and concentrated entirely on the other—“does not require doors, because it walks through walls.

The theses point out that true attention heeds the attentional path traced by someone else. “Retracing the attentional path of a free mind is one of the keenest pleasures we can take in each other and in the world.” But doing so is not “free”—we must submit our own attention in order to follow theirs.

What happens when our attention is hijacked instead, when, instead of voluntary submission, we find ourselves “deliberately manipulated by market structures and technologies to the point that we are increasingly incapable of true attention”? We scatter ourselves all over the internet.

“Our attention has never been more free,” the writers remark, “or more continuously entrapped.”

I am nodding. This is how I feel about the internet, about my phone, about virtual reality— captivated, but also captive. Seduced by endless possibilities, dizzied by my ability to learn and experience and maneuver with unprecedented speed and ease—and chained by all that possibility, caught by its magic spell, unwilling and unable to escape.

So what do we do? No single scheme will free us, the theses warn. My chronic daydream of spending an entire summer on an island with no wife? I would return peaceful and stay that way for five minutes. Not even my husband’s resolute refusal to carry anything but a flip phone keeps him away from the world news he gulps daily from the internet, emerging sure that our species does not deserve to survive.

You do not need to fall for influencers or obsess over Tik Tok or even order much at all on Amazon to lose control of your attention. Which means to lose your mind.

I turn the page. We can only reclaim our attentional power, the theses say, with “the carving out of spaces in the world where it can survive and thrive.” Physical spaces, designed with that purpose in mind. Psychological spaces, within us and between us.

I think of Graham Chapel, on campus, and how glad I was to read that it will be open for quiet reflection this fall. Heathen though I be, holy places still calm my mind. Even the sight of a gothic cathedral restores priorities, pointing to something higher than my daily temptations. There will be new sanctuaries, too, the book promises—places of art and nature, places that gather the likeminded and allow them to be quiet together.

The theses also emphasize the senses. Their messages are direct, real, and what menus call “shareable,” instant reminders of our common human nature. There is a reason the most abstract Eastern meditation sessions begin with the vibration of a gong, the inrush of the breath, the solidity of the wood beneath us.

None of this is new, I find myself thinking, a sneaky little rebel thought trying to break the spell this little book has cast on me.

Nor is it practiced, my better angel counters. We have barely begun.

“True attention takes the unlivable, and makes it livable.” Like these distilled pages, true attention lets us breathe again. It redefines freedom as something tougher and finer, less self-indulgent. It lets us go deeper, until we actually understand something.

What these thinkers, artists, and activists gathered to create “is a work, through attention, of world-building.” They tell us so near the book’s end.

And on the next page, a single line: “This work is fundamentally political.”

I rest with that for a moment, feeling a delicious shiver as I think of the many corporations, financial institutions, and political organizations that currently profit by confounding us. Or commodifying us. We accept each innovation as inevitable and celebrate it as cool, never daring to shape it in a way that might do less harm. Then the moneymakers and power brokers bend it to their ends.

Slowly, I close the book. A miracle has occurred: I have focused on a book (admittedly, a short one) from start to finish, and my mind still feels rested and bright, interested. I flip the smooth, hard cover and pore over the summary on the back: “Unprecedented technologies, operating at unprecedented scales and with near-total ubiquity, continuously ‘frack’ our faculties of eye and mind, extracting revenue by capturing our most precious and intimate resource: our attention.”

The stakes, in other words, could not be higher. All the energy Madison Avenue once put into persuading us that buying airbrushed products would make us suddenly beautiful, sexy, and beloved? Far more energy now goes into studying the neurology of attention, learning exactly how to lure our eyes, interrupt our attention, catch us off guard, seduce us into clicking. It is in no one’s interests (save ours) to back down from that.

If we want to own our attention again—and use it at full blast to bring the world forth, keep us present, lead us into intimacy and understanding, and feed our souls—we have to declare war with the shallow distractions we have welcomed into our lives. This austere, deceptively gentle book uses its quiet as a camouflage—but it is a call to arms.


Note: The collective also runs community-oriented Attention Labs, and for its next trick is working on a new book, working title Handbook for the Attention Liberation Movements.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.