(Author in philosophy, academia. Published 2015)

Fragmentation of mental life, attention.

Advertising. Intrusion into attentional environment.

Email. Notifications. Our attention is no longer ours to direct.

Author wants to bridge between cognitive psychology and phemenology. Phemenology, says wikipiedia, ‘rejects the concept of objective research’ and ‘seeks through systematic reflection to determine the essential properties and structures of experience’. Given that everything I read about cognitive science seems to revolve around illusory experiences of reflection and introspection, this description is not promising.

Aims for an ‘ethics of attention’ - a conscious decision on what kind of attentional spaces we as a society want to inhabit.

Orienting response - on novel content in visual field, turn to look. TV etc trigger responses selected for detecting predators. Must spend limited executive function to override.

Attention as a resource => attentional commons, and ensuing tragedy. Compare to need for silence and noise laws.

Right to privacy. Right not to be addressed? Right to attention?

Social responsibility. Impairment of driving while talking on the phone.

Loss of individuality from loss of focus. Easiest source of stimulation becomes lowest common denominator.

Freedom => ability to satisfy own preferences. But preferences are subject to social engineering, and doing so is profitable.

Second-order desire - desire for desire - the person we would like to be.

Humans thought to be the only animal that can recall a memory without environmental cues (this seems somehow slippery - how would one determine that the recall was not cued?), but can only do that when able to suppress existing environmental cues.

Forming narratives seems to be involved in the sense of self. If we can’t detach from environmental cues, can we still build an coherent self?

We engage less in activities that structure attention.

Routine / ritual does so by relieving the need for executive decision / override.

Skilled practice does so by placing us in a task-specific ‘attention ecology’, which directs attention for us.

Autonomy opposes development of rich ecologies of attention. Want instead to be situated in the world, to be constrained. Struggling to follow this part, so paraphrasal may be inaccurate. Promises to explore this theme throughout the book.

Book sections:

Wants to taboo the word ‘freedom’ - too much contradictory baggage. Replacing with ‘agency’?

Argues for ‘real world’ vs ‘mediated by representations’.

The jig, the nudge, and local ecology

Jig - reduces degrees of freedom to aid correct action. Can jig ones environment - move data and computation into environment, then allow environment to direct attention. Ok, so I guess this is where the freedom vs constraint thing comes in - setting up external systems to guide our flighty focus.

Lots of examples from Intelligent Use of Space.

Assembly lines, McDonalds standardized kitchens etc are remade jigs that allow untrained workers to compete with experts.

Nudges vs jigs. Nudge is external, imposed. Jig is self-created and flexibly deployed. But self-created vs imposed is not the defining difference because eg kitchen comes preprepared, chef jig is only the final layer.

‘Be frugal and be free’ - thriftiness as cultural jig. Such jigs are robust. Nudges not a true replacement. Thriftiness jig builds a habit that directs behavior even when the agent is moved to another context. Nudges don’t.

Not against nudge - choice architecture inescapable, so might as well craft it consciously.

Argues that studies on irrational choice-making take place in an artificial context, where the agent is stripped of environmental support. But that in eg supermarket shopping the agent is also stripped.

Drive for autonomy has largely led to replacing cultural jigs with highest-bidder for choice architecture. De-regulation has increased burden of self-regulation.

Jigs for hire eg accountant can take up the attentional drain of managing finances, but also as a forcing function - a nag to sign the paperwork in time. Similarly, authors experience as SAT tutor where they mostly just provided a fixed structure for students to show up and do the work they already knew they should be doing.

Was parental discipline/authority such a jig? Now outsourced to schools.

Commons of jigs has been privatized - cultural injunctions replaced by accountants, tutors, personal trainers etc which are available to the monied.

Embodied perception

Cognitive extension - ‘the new capacities added by tools and prosthetics become indistinguishable from those of the natural human body, in terms of how they are treated by the brain that organizes our actions and perceptions.’ Eg when writing there is a progression: think about moving fingers -> think about moving pen -> think about writing word -> think about essay structure. Lower-level tasks disappear and the tool becomes transparent.

Embodied cognition. Don’t have to construct a full internal representation of the world when you can just act on the world itself. Catch a ball by countering motion relative to plane of vision, not by computing the trajectory and correcting for wind, air resistance, spin etc.

References ‘Supersizing the Mind’. I gave up on that book because of the tangled writing, but I liked the later book ‘Natural-born Cyborgs’, so maybe it’s worth another go.

Affordances organize perception eg an experienced biker perceives the upcoming road in terms of obstacles, grip, turn speed etc. So the current activity determines affordances.

Affordances are about interface between actor and environment. Prosthetics such as motorbikes change the interface.

Objective knowledge (speedometer) vs experiential knowledge (instinctive feeling of safety at this speed on this terrain). Proposes that objective knowledge can break actor out of skillful action by diverting attention from experiential knowledge. That can be useful if you want to deliberately override instinctive or trained reactions, but not when you are relying on fast trained reactions to avoid the upcoming oil puddle.

Unsure of the distinction between objective and experiential knowledge here. A speedometer is effectively adding an extra sense, one which is tied to experience like every other sense. Not sure why paying attention to speedometer is a distraction but paying attention to speed of passing ground is fine.

Ok, so they clear this up in the next section.

Learning connects perception-action-effect. But to know which perceptions were relevant requires conscious attention. So here is the connection to deliberate practice - if you aren’t paying attention you can’t actually learn. Internal replay or external criticism can direct attention after the fact.

Vaguely recall experiments on what kinds of connections various animals are capable learn. Surprisingly limited in some cases.

Consciousness also involved in preparing for possible futures eg anticipating that there might be unseen loose gravel around the next turn. Primes appropriate contingencies for faster reactions.

‘Alert watchfulness, without meddling’. Strongly reminds me of climbing flow, where you have to believe that falling is impossible to be able to climb, but still be ready to back out if the climb becomes too dangerous.

So - skilled action is not mental computation and not unconscious routine, but some interesting blend of the too. Conscious observation without impeding unconscious speed.

Virtual reality as moral ideal

Will of a toddler - it’s snowing but I don’t want to wear shoes. Freedom/autonomy without regard to constraints of environment is limiting, not freeing.

‘Virtual reality’ - removing environmental constraints so that will is never frustrated. Making environment an extension of will, rather than a constraint on it. We have associated freedom with the ability to make unconstrained choices. Choosing replaces doing, which opens the door to exploitative choice architectures.

With this comes fragility - that of a self that can’t tolerate conflict and frustration. And this fragility, in turn, makes us more pliable to whoever can present the most enthralling representations that save us from a direct confrontation with the world. Being addressed to us, these representations allow us to remain comfortable in a little “me-world” of manufactured experience. If these representations make use of hyper-palatable mental stimuli, the world of regular old experience may come to seem not only frustrating but unbearably drab by comparison.

Whenever I read philosophy texts I keep losing track of what we are talking about. The author is trying to connect two ideas: internal-representation vs embodied-cognition and manufactured-autonomy vs authentic-agency.

In the former, the meaning of ‘representation’ is quite clear - some internal structure which is entangled with the world. The debate there is to what degree we build internal representations vs querying the world directly and repeatedly.

If I try to understand the latter according to the same meaning of ‘representation’, the author seems to be arguing that direct interaction with the world is being replaced by intermediate representations, crafted by outside interests. But I don’t see how someone slaving away to buy the latest fancy gadget is having a less direct experience of the world than someone who spent their live dragging two-ton boulders to build a magic circle. Our cultural representations of the world have been controlling people for a long time. The author really likes using the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse as a demonstration of how people can’t handle conflict or agency anymore, but it doesn’t strike me as being much different from old stories that revolve around fate - stuff just works out the way it’s supposed to be and fighting it just gets you in trouble.

Attention and design

The package also includes Blind Spot Assist, so you no longer have to bother with a head check before drifting into the next lane. The basic intention guiding Mercedes in the last ten years seems to be that its cars should offer psychic blow jobs to the affluent.

I’m tiring of the authors insistence on enjoying driving as a moral value.

Choosing replaces doing => more vulnerable to choice architecture.

Autism as a design principle: gambling

Slot machines as producing an experience of agency in a closed, predicatable world. Very similar trend in modern AAA games towards zombie mode gameplay, producing artificial achievements without requiring effort or engagement.

“Continuous gaming productivity”

Increase speed of play => increase engagament => increase duration of play

Increase win rate over play sessions => artificial sensation of mastery

Once they submit to the compulsion, the question is settled and the will is relieved of its burden. For this person, as the gambler, the real relief lies in being spent. Only then can there be a moment of repose.

Sometimes I just want to stay where I am and watch Dateline, because that’s what’s next. Let death come.

Failing with abandon seems to describe the same phenomenon.

Libertarian autonomy - freedom of choice as a defence for allowing sabotage of choice. People should be ‘free’ to choose to become gambling addicts.

Freedom from government is not the most pressing issue for most Western citizens - freedom from attentional enslavement is much more pressing.

Capital is concentrated to the point that it operates in quasi-governmental ways, abetted by ever more powerful information technology. Arguably, one of the most important functions of the (actual, elected) government, now, is precisely to restrain and regulate the explosion of unaccountable governmentality in our dealings with outsized commercial enterprises.

A brief history of freedom

On being led out

Tension between education and autonomy, because learning requires ‘submission to authorative structures’ (authority is reality, not teachers etc).

Crafts cannot be reduced to explicit instruction, rely on mentorship or community learning. (Counts the practice of science as such a craft).

Against MOOCs?

Encountering things with other people

Achieving individuality

The culture of performance

Depression caused by excess of choice and removal of cultural templates - ‘he is tired of having to become himself’.

This is not the only chapter that quotes Freud as an authoritative source. I notice many other philosophy texts also have this habit of trying to weave together and reframe ideas from major figures. I have a vague impression that it’s a credential thing - you must quote this many famous texts to be taken seriously in philisophy circles. It’s kind of like citations, except that the authority comes from the celebrity rather than the consensus acceptance of evidence. Feels like a physics paper citing Newton rather than a recent paper, because you have to mention Newton to show you’re familiar with the history of physics and not an outsider.

The erotics of attention

Learning how to think really means learning to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be hosed.

The flattening

I’m having trouble paying attention to the actual arguments because of the sweeping assertions about kids-these-days.

The statistical self

The organ makers’ shop

Epilogue: Reclaiming the real

Attention as a resource. Attention commons.

Enlightenment individualism not compatible with social nature of knowledge.

Skill provides agency.

There are websites for “weld porn”, and the mere fact that this is so should be of urgent interest to educators. Education requires a certain capactity for asceticism, but more fundamentally it is erotic. Only beautiful things lead us out to join the world beyond our heads.


I really wanted to like this book.

I can follow along as far as the link between skill, agency and individuality. Reminds me of making beliefs pay rent in anticipated experience, in that developing real skill requires engaging with some external reality (although not necessarily one as ‘real’ as the author might like - developing extreme skill at, say, Starcraft is just as challenging as anything else). Reality is a thing that can be understood, predicted and manipulated, and learning to do so in any particular domain grants new agency.

But, ironically, most of the ideas in the book do not produce anticipated experience, and are not concrete enough to be falsified. I admittedly didn’t engage with every part of the book, but in the earlier parts where I made a strong effort to understand the author I kept running into confusions of terms. Ideas were connected by an appealing aesthetic similarity that wasn’t grounded in actual prediction or observation. The book is too attached to the representations and abstractions it’s using and forgets to map them back to reality to check that they still work.

Worse, most of the argument is just disguised moralizing. Eg ‘authentic’ is used to mean direct or immediate, but later takes on a tone of moral value. Who wants to have inauthentic experiences? Around the middle the language becomes downright insulting and it devolves into a get-off-my-lawn. Disappointing.