Ultimate and Awesome: The Changing Landscape of Human Attention

An article was released last week in the New York Times about the “Age of […]

Ethan Richardson / 10.8.13


An article was released last week in the New York Times about the “Age of Awesome” we currently live in. That’s no surprise if you live in the vicinity of a television: valuating expressions fill commercials these days with “extreme” and “epic” language. Even many of the most banal home activities–laundry, dinner, yard work–have been re-filtered as new opportunities to live that faraway, unlived life.

Experience commodities, rather than goods or services, are the new avenues for self-invention. The New York Times article pointed to Ultimate Experience vacationing (you know, jet-pack rides, Antarctica tours on huskies, commercial space excursions, even the now-blasé Everest ascents) as an indicator that we are no longer capable of having a “just fine” getaway. As Andrew O’Hagan says, travel has now become a “contact sport” (ht CB):

It exhausts me just thinking about it. We now live in a world of capitalized extremities: the Ultimate Experience now poses a threat to the kind of small revelations that can make us happy. Travelers, by which I mean people who want simply to find a lovely part of the world and dwell in it for a week or two, first have to work out how to avoid all the hype about Experience. And here’s my message. You don’t have to plunge Starship Enterprise-like toward the inner environs of Pluto or scrape the ocean floor to encounter a revelation: you can get one if you stand on your own two feet at Basilica di San Marco in Venice and look up at the cathedral’s stonework, noticing how the carving seems to fizz and “foam,” as Ruskin said. It’s a small, private delight to see that for yourself.

everest-5-webNational Geographic recently reported on the increased danger and banality of Ultimate Experience trips to climb Mount Everest. “The mountain has become an icon for everything that is wrong with climbing,” Mark Jenkins wrote. “Unlike in 1963, when only six people reached the top, in the spring of 2012 more than 500 mobbed the summit.” What is it these people want? Maybe the small things have gone out of focus. The world is full of things that remain undiscovered until you find them for yourself. The sunset is never the same way twice in Africa, so why the dash with “real life” huskies and personal tour guides to the frozen wastes of Antarctica? Just to say you did it? Just to feel your life is a little less ordinary? Fair enough, if that’s what you want, but I would argue that exclusivity is no substitute for genuine connection. Going farther might be good, going higher can be exciting, but I can’t buy into the glitzy self-expansion that comes with going farthest, deepest, highest, as if size were the only thing that has any currency.

This is a growing phenomenon in the Experience Economy, to buy a window (or an airplane) into a revelatory moment. O’Hagan makes a great rejoinder to this way of thinking, though: where does it stop? At what point does experiencing Everest become so-last-century, and we are, instead, purchasing a chance to try it barefoot? But this isn’t just the Law of the Ultimate Experience. It is also working in tandem with this idea of “self-expansion” that, by putting ourselves on top of a mountain, or a bungee platform in the stratosphere, we are gaining a wider, bigger, better perspective on our lives.

Over at Aeon, Tom Chatfield connected this macroscopic focus of experience to the macroscopic attentiveness lent us by technology. When the 160 typed characters of a Twitter bio is knowing another human being, Chatfield comments that this gives us a “totalizing” vision of human attention. The Latin for attention (“attendere”), Chatfield tells us, means “leaning towards” and, with costless reads, replies, and retweets, we can virtually lean in towards a reservoir of noise. Self-expansion here means being like a giant, able to move from one informational horizon to the next, in only a tab-click.

Chatfield also talks about Goodhart’s Law, which says, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” When so many businesses ebb and flow around “profitable clicks” our attention becomes the target in a “click farm.” As soon as our attention entered the market, we became bound to playing by the market’s rules, which meant that the ever-expanding and -moving field of “news” and “experiences” becomes the way to hear and be heard. Human attention is now no longer for time alone, for idle conversation in familiar places; it instead scans in obscurity from our own private mountain. He uses a powerful analogy from G.K. Chesterton to make his point (ht HW):


In the preface to his essay collection Tremendous Trifles (1909), the English author, ontologist and professional paradox-weaver G K Chesterton told the fable of two boys who were each granted a wish. One chose to become a giant, and one to become extremely small. The giant, to his surprise, found himself bored by the shrunken land beneath him. The tiny boy, however, set off gladly to explore the endless world of wonders his front garden had become. The moral, as Chesterton saw it, was one of perspective:

“If anyone says that I am making mountains out of molehills, I confess with pride that it is so. I can imagine no more successful and productive form of manufacture than that of making mountains out of molehills… I have my doubts about all this real value in mountaineering, in getting to the top of everything and overlooking everything. Satan was the most celebrated of Alpine guides, when he took Jesus to the top of an exceeding high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the earth. But the joy of Satan in standing on a peak is not a joy in largeness, but a joy in beholding smallness, in the fact that all men look like insects at his feet.”

There’s a similarly reductive exaltation in defining attention as the contents of a global reservoir, slopping interchangeably between the brains of every human being alive. Where is the space, here, for the idea of attention as a mutual construction more akin to empathy than budgetary expenditure — or for those unregistered moments in which we attend to ourselves, to the space around us, or to nothing at all?

If contentment and a sense of control are partial measures of success, many of us are selling ourselves far too cheap

temptationFrom the loftiest perspective of all, information itself is pulling the strings: free-ranging memes whose ‘purposes’ are pure self-propagation, and whose frantic evolution outstrips all retrospective accounts. This is the mountaintop view of Chesterton’s Satan, whispering in a browser’s ear: consider yourself as interchangeable as the button you’re clicking, as automated as the systems in which you’re implicated. Seen from such a height, you signify nothing beyond your recorded actions.

Like all totalising visions, it’s at once powerful and — viewed sufficiently closely — ragged with illusions. Zoom in on individual experience, and something obscure from afar becomes obvious: in making our attentiveness a fungible asset, we’re not so much conjuring currency out of thin air as chronically undervaluing our time.

We watch a 30-second ad in exchange for a video; we solicit a friend’s endorsement; we freely pour sentence after sentence, hour after hour, into status updates and stock responses. None of this depletes our bank balances. Yet its cumulative cost, while hard to quantify, affects many of those things we hope to put at the heart of a happy life: rich relationships, rewarding leisure, meaningful work, peace of mind.

What kind of attention do we deserve from those around us, or owe to them in return? What kind of attention do we ourselves deserve, or need, if we are to be ‘us’ in the fullest possible sense? These aren’t questions that even the most finely tuned popularity contest can resolve. Yet, if contentment and a sense of control are partial measures of success, many of us are selling ourselves far too cheap.

Are you still paying attention? I can look for signs, but in the end I can’t control what you think or do. And this must be the beginning of any sensible discussion. No matter who or what tells you otherwise, you have the perfect right to ignore me — and to decide for yourself what waits in each waking moment.