We live, it is said, in the information age. We are surrounded by low-cost communication technologies that increasingly mediate our relationships and greatly expand the amount of information to which we are exposed. We are inundated by images and sounds, with advertising alone accounting for some 5,000 messages a day, according to one marketing firm. Our viewing, reading, and other activities have a scattershot quality, the constant flow of intrusions and disruptions gnawing at our attention and challenging any sustained concentration. Daily life seems ever busier, a merry-go-round of expectations and opportunities that permits little time off or moments of genuine repose. Distracted, disorganized, and overwhelmed: these are common and widely shared experiences.
Responses are typically framed in individual terms—we are enjoined to simplify, meditate, or reprogram our neural pathways. But the problem is not simply one of individual minds. Demands on our attention come from the informational environments and shared physical spaces we inhabit. So the cultural challenge begins with how these environments are structured and regulated. At issue are ethical questions about the conduct of civic life. And ecological notions, such as “pollution” and the “commons,” can offer a vocabulary for addressing these thorny questions rather than continuing to accommodate ourselves to relentless distraction (see McCullough’s essay).
Thinking in ecological terms also brings into view the inherently social and ethical nature of attention itself. Our attention, our “attending to,” is not merely consciousness or a state of mind, much less some neutral selecting of relevant objects in a field of possibilities. Rather, attention is an ethical engagement with features of our lived experience, something we give to someone or something that has significance for us and that is realized in leading us out of ourselves (see Crawford’s essay). This is “absorption,” an immersing or losing of ourselves in something we love (see Edmundson’s essay). Our attention, in this sense, is not a mere exercise of will, but a recognition of and assent to a form of the good that can be achieved only through a “focused seeing and participating” (see Pfau’s essay).
The cultural challenge of minding our minds, then, of leading more reflective lives, is both a matter of reducing the overload and filling an absence—the cultivation of those loves that can order our attention and intensify our connection to the good beyond ourselves.