In the 45 second Ape In the Midst selective attention test (you can take it yourself above) participants are asked to focus closely on a video showing people passing basketballs back and forth. After the video finishes they are asked to report how many passes were made. But more importantly, participants are also asked whether they saw the gorilla. Many viewers actually miss seeing it.
In her new book Now You See It, Cathy Davidson uses the exercise to suggest that in focusing closely on one thing we become blind to other significant events in our surroundings and that this “attention blindness” is a problem we sorely need to redress in the 21st century. For Davidson, the efficiency imperatives of the industrial age drove a cult of single-tasking that is epitomized in the assembly line and Frederick Winslow Taylor’s efforts to focus workers' labors on a set of narrow tasks so as to increase productivity in the work place. Davidson goes on to argue that inculcating an ethic of mono-tasking no longer prepares our students for work in the 21st century where screens increasingly demand attention to multiple inputs.
Davidson never mentions Marx (or even cites him in the index) but her argument recalls a Marxist analysis: ideology (or the learning and beliefs and the educational institutions that lend support to that learning and beliefs) help legitimate particular relations of production. But as those relations of production change, so eventually must the ideology. In this respect Davidson’s book is a true wake-up call: as academics (who are in part stewards and conservators of past knowledge) we might be inclined to hallow traditional methods of learning. But in so far as we buy into a marxist framework, Davidson is telling us that we better evolve if we don’t want to become apparatchiks to an old and fading way of doing things.
In many ways, I’m persuaded by Davidson’s argument. Having gone through eight years of increasingly narrow and specialized study in grad school, I exited with a degree in political theory that was no longer marketable. I’m a walking example of the opportunity costs and attention blindness that accrue when one focuses for too long and too hard on one subject. And I know that there are plenty of other PhDs in archaic disciplines who can appreciate viscerally what Davidson means when she calls into question the legitimacy and virtues of mono-tasking.
Graduate students and professors sometimes legitimately feel that the demands of their profession encourage over-specialization. And along with that, many of us feel a need to introduce more interdisciplinary courses into the undergraduate curriculum so students can see the connections between different areas of knowledge. (I suspect that this is in part what impelled Davidson to move from being an English professor to being a Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies.) And the relativists among us understand the need to introduce students to Nietzsche’s perspectivism and the virtues in seeing the world from multiple coigns of vantage. More topically, following the 2011 Ig Noble award that was given to John Perry for celebrating structured procrastination, we know that being distracted by things of lesser importance can sometimes lead to accomplishments of consequence.
At the same time, however, we also know, that the production filters thrown up by 20th century mass media have been killed by the internet. We're doing less information filtering than before. As a result it’s more incumbent on us than ever to resurrect those filters in our capacity as consumers (c.f Clay Shirky in his keynote "It's Not Information Overload It's Filter Failure") The cult of specialization and of mono-tasking and of filtering may have, as Davidson argues, some historically specific origins. But some of those concerns transcend time and place. After all, filtering, and confining our focus to a few activities, is what gives us the capacity to build great things and write (as Davidson has done) interesting books. It’s the difference between us and Fido: we don’t bark at every passing stimulus. The now famous New Yorker cartoon that was captioned “On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog” can be rewritten as a caution not to buy Davidson whole sale: “On the internet nobody should be a dog.” Fido for sure will bark at the gorilla. But he won’t be able to count the basketballs!