As an erstwhile practitioner of zazen meditation, I can say one thing with a fair degree of certainty: humans suck at focusing on a single thing, or even worse, on no thing. PBS Frontline's recent, interesting and wide-ranging program Digital_Nation spent a fair amount of time on the theme of focusing: the price of multi-tasking, the threat of ADHD to education and "kids today," etc. etc. It's a common issue regarding digital technology, and I have little doubt about the inefficiency of multitasking when it comes to activities that require any significant cognitive load. But I want to question this ubi sunt mythology of a past generation of readers who buried their noses in great novels and had prodigious powers of attention. They aren't talking about my generation of slackers are they? They don't mean those dirty hippie baby boomers, do they? So maybe it's that "greatest generation" that won the war and read Faulkner… or not. One can't go back much further and find many literate folks, so I'm not sure what they would have been paying deep attention to or how that deep attention would have been formed since it is so closely associated with reading.
The Frontline story cites a Chronicle survey where professors say that students aren't as good as they were a decade ago. Fine. I believe professors would say that. My only question would be when professors didn't say that? It's a dog bites man story in my view. Even if there were a quantifiable way to determine that students are not as able to perform certain kinds of reading acts as they once were, we'd still only be guessing at the causes. But just as we have created some ridiculous hype around this fantasy that "digital natives" are these amazing multitaskers, I think we have an equal fantasy about the pre-web era. I was an undergrad right before the web emerged, and I can assure you that we weren't sitting around with our noses in books. We never went to the library either.
But I digress. Blame it on the Internet.
So we need to rethink, not just "attention," but cognition. One begins by realizing that the putative deep attention of print culture is just as artificial as whatever attentional mechanisms one wishes to attribute to the coming digital age. Certainly we should not mistake print literacy/attention as an evolutionary, progressive step. It is undeniable that we value the practices of deep attention, especially in the humanities; however, it should also be possible for us to recognize that print literacy participates in the industrial culture that has led us to the brink of global, environmental collapse and that there is no guarantee that it can save us. Maybe, just maybe, we need a different way of paying attention to the world.
That said, we should not be so foolish as to believe that our initial, transitional movements toward a digital hyper attention are on the right path. After all, centuries passed between the invention of writing and Plato's development of philosophy. The right answer might lie in the intersection of deep and hyper attention. In a 2007 PMLA article, "Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes," Katherine Hayles explores these questions and writes
critical interpretation is not above or outside the generational shift of cognitive modes but necessarily located within it, increasingly drawn into the matrix by engaging with works that instantiate the cognitive shift in their aesthetic strategies. Whether inclined toward deep or hyper attention, toward one side or another of the generational divide separating print from digital culture, we cannot afford to ignore the frustrating, zesty, and intriguing ways in which the two cognitive modes interact. Our responsibilities as educators, not to mention our position as practitioners of the literary arts, require nothing less.
One thing I take from Hayles is the need for a critical mode that is not seated in deep attention (even though it might emerge from there). This is what, for example, Ulmer looks for. Zazen gives one a different kind of attention from the focus on print. It is an awareness of the emergence of thought (at least in my reading) from the intersection of the body with the world. Perhaps there is something in that, in thinking about the extension of the body and cognition through these digital networks. Though our cognition may be distributed, we still become conscious of it at a single point. And it is to that point that we must level our attention.