Space, Technology, and Attention Structures

Rodney H. Jones
Rodney H. Jones

‘There’s no there there,’ Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland, California. What she meant, of course, was that she could find nothing in Oakland that made it different from anywhere else, nothing that caught her attention, nothing that made it a ‘place’ for her. Sociologists, geographers, and philosophers have long made a distinction between ‘space’ and ‘place’ (see, for example, Entrikin, 1991; Lefebvre, 1991). ‘Space’ is something ‘objective’, independent of human consciousness, whereas a ‘place’ is more ‘subjective’, something that is ‘discursively constructed’. The danger with this distinction, however, as Merrifield (1993) points out, is that it traps the analyst into a Cartesian dualism which separates the ’objective’ from the ‘subjective’, the ‘material’ from the ‘cognitive’. What is needed is an understanding of how consciousness interacts with the physical world to create ‘places’. Mediated discourse analysis (Norris and Jones, 2005; Scollon, 2001) addresses this dilemma by focusing on human action. According to Scollon (2001), all actions take place at sities of engagement, which he defines as ‘moments when particular people, particular cultural tools, and particular social practices converge in such a way as to make certain actions possible. In other words, what makes a space a ‘place’ is what we are able to ‘do’ in it, the way it functions as a field for human action. The fact is, all actions take place on multiple scales, both spatial and temporal, in what Blommaert (2005) calls layered simultaneity. What occurs in a moment also takes place within a day, a year, and a lifetime, and what happens in a classroom also happens within a school, a city, a nation and a world. Of course, we never pay attention to all of these scales at once – we would never get anything ‘done’ if we did. Instead, we construct sites of engagement, which focus our attention in ways that create ‘windows of opportunity’ which make particular actions possible.

I have called these orientations towards time and space that create sites of engagement attention structures (Jones, 2005a; 2009b). The use of the word ‘attention’, however, should not be mistaken as a retreat into a cognitive view of space and time. In this model, ‘attention’ is not seen as a ‘mental state’ or quality of the individual mind, but rather as a social activity, something that we do along with other people. Attention structures do not exist solely in the minds of social actors. Instead, they are the result of the interaction among physical environments (or discourses in place), social relationships (or interaction orders) and the memories, skills, goals and plans of individual social actors (or the historical bodies). Scollon and Scollon (2004) give the example of crossing a busy city street to illustrate how these three elements work together: objects and texts in the physical setting (signs, lights, lines and arrows) alert us to what we should pay attention to as we are crossing the street, but they are not enough. These external cues interact with the knowledge that has accumulated in the historical bodies of the residents of a particular city that tell them how to interpret these discourses in place (whether or not, for example, it is possible to cross even when the light is red). Finally, the way we distribute our attention when crossing the street is invariably affected by the interaction orders in which we find ourselves: if we are crossing the street alone, for example, we might take extra care in checking for on-coming traffic, whereas if we are part of a large crowd of people, we might pay more attention to the actions of other pedestrians. In some cases we may need to distribute our attention between the action of crossing the street and some other action such as carrying on a conversation or making sure a child gets across the street safely. In a sense, then, a particular city street corner may be a very different ‘place’ for the different people who converge there, and even for the same person at different moments.

Over the past two decades my work has been primarily focused on how communication technologies affect attention structures, applying this model to face-to-face conversation (2002), retrospective narrative (Jones and Candlin, 2003), television (Jones, 1996), photography (Jones, 2009c), collaborative writing (Jones et al., 2012), text-based computer mediated interaction (Jones, 2005b, 2013a), televideo computer mediated interaction (Jones, 2008b) and newer forms of ‘social media’ (Jones and Hafner, 2012).

The chief effect of communication technologies on discourse in place is that they allow us to transcend the ‘here and now’, to make the discourse produced at one moment in one place available at other moments and in other places. This first occurred with the development of writing and later the printing press, with dramatic consequences for human history and consciousness (Ong, 1988). The development of technologies like the camera, the phonograph, the telephone, and television represented another dramatic change, allowing us to project not just our ‘words’, but our voices and images of our bodies across time and space. Computers and the internet have introduced even more ways for us to distribute our attention across time and space, allowing us to inhabit multiple physical and virtual spaces simultaneously, and to strategically manage multiple long term and short term activities within these spaces. The consequence of this is not that it makes the ‘here and now’ less relevant, as some have claimed (see, for example, McLuhan, 1964), but rather that it creates a series of layered or ‘laminated’ spaces (Goffman, 1974), each depending on the other for its status as a ‘place’. Another important effect of these technologies on discourses in place is that they make available different modes and materialities for communication, which in turn have a dramatic effect on the kinds of meanings we can make: what I can express in text is different from what I can express with a photograph or with a YouTube video. In fact, one of the most important aspects of new media communication is the way interactants negotiate shifts from one mode to another (Jones, 2005b).

Communication technologies affect interaction orders by making available to us new ways to be ‘present’ to one another, thus making possible new kinds of ‘participation structures’. Face-to-face communication and telephone conversations favor the kind of ‘focused encounters’ (Goffman, 1966) on which most traditional theories of language and social interaction are based. Newer communication technologies, on the other hand, make available more complex, diffuse many-to-many participation structures. Social networking sites like Facebook, for example, allow users to move easily in and out of ‘conversations’ with different parts of their social networks, enacting multiple levels of participation from sharing to merely ‘liking’ what someone else has shared. What makes these new participation structures possible is not just the new ways new media ‘connect’ people, but also the new ways they separate them, facilitating multiple separate interactions and effective ‘audience segregation’ (Goffman, 1959). The layering of multiple contexts made possible by these new configurations of channels and barriers allows users to enact ways of being present to one another that have fundamentally altered the power relations associated with face to face communication: stable social boundaries of age, power and geographical location are becoming blurred, and previously marginalized individuals and groups are developing inventive ways of subverting traditional hierarchies and disrupting traditional flows of information (Jones, 2008a).

Finally, communication technologies affect the ways individuals themselves think, act, and distribute their attention. The more monofocal orientation of print has given way to the polyfocal orientation of the internet (Scollon, Scollon and Jones, 2012), much to the chagrin of many parents and schoolteachers. It has become something of a cliché to declare that, for better or worse, the minds of ‘digital natives’ are ‘wired’ differently than those of ‘digital immigrants’. What is less frequently discussed are the social origins of this ‘rewiring’. What Scollon (2001) calls the historical body comes about as social practices are submerged into the individual’s consciousness. Understanding how new media have changed people’s minds, then, requires understanding the new social practices they have given rise to — practices like blogging, social networking, and massively multiplayer online gaming, which require different orientations towards time and space than those required by older practices like newspaper reading, telephoning and card games. Ironically, the kind of highly developed polyfocal attention required by these new practices is in many ways similar to that needed by hunter-gathers before the development of agriculture; without the strength, speed or equipment (claws, fangs, tusks) of other animals, the only chance our ancestors had was to rely on their superior ability to attend to many different things at once, scanning complex landscapes in search of signs of prey (or predators) while also keeping track of fellow hunters and of other dangers in the environment.

Another important way new technologies have affected the historical body is in the opportunities they have given us for reflexivity. New technologies do not just allow people to assume ‘multiple identities’, ‘trying on’ different ‘selves’ in different situations; they also allow them to create multiple ‘reflections’ of themselves, ‘virtual bodies’, through which different aspects of themselves can be made criterial, examined, experienced in different ways, and experimented with (Jones, 2009c). The ways new media technologies facilitate the virtualization of the body has, of course, had a profound impact on things like medical care and health communication (Jones, 2013b, c). It has also, however, had a profound impact on the everyday lives of people as they discover new ways of organizing, narrativizing, and reconstructing their lives through webpages, social media spaces, role-playing games, and digital video, providing them new opportunities to exercise agency in their lives (Archer, 2007; Ochs and Capps, 1996).

It should be clear from this discussion that I take a generally positive view of the way technology has allowed us to engage more with the ‘layered simultaneity’ of space and time. At the same time, there is a need to acknowledge the views of those who are less sanguine. Engaging with this layered simultaneity necessarily involves distributing our attention across a wider range of locations, activities, timeframes, and interactions at one time, which can create a strain when the attention structures we have developed in particular situations are not designed to facilitate this (Jones, 2010). Some argue that the channels and interfaces of communication through which we interact have allowed us to spread our attention so thin that the actual messages we communicate to one another (in the form, for example, of text messages or ‘tweets’) have become increasingly trivial and our relationships increasingly superficial. Others wonder how we can do anything ‘well’ if we are always ‘multitasking’, and still others worry that the new attention structures are making us less able to ‘think for ourselves’ or causing disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity syndrome. All I can say to such concerns is that they are probably, in some ways, justified. New technologies always alter the discourses in place that surround us, the interaction orders through which we relate to one another, and the historical bodies of those who use them in ways that cause some kind of disruption to traditional ways of thinking, being and relating. This was as true for writing in Plato’s day as it is for computers in ours (and, interestingly, Plato raised many of the same concerns about writing that many people today raise about computers).

New communication technologies do not ‘abolish’ (McLuhan, 1964:3) or undermine the ‘here and now’. They do not create ‘alternate’ spaces into which people escape from the ‘real world’. Rather, they help to reveal the layered simultaneity of space and time that has always been there. One useful way of thinking about space when it comes to communication technologies is by replacing it with the word umwelt (‘surroundings’), which Goffman (1971:252), borrowing from the study of animal behaviour, defines as ‘the region around an individual from which signs of alarm can come’. Unmediated, the individual’s umwelt is limited by his or her physical capacities for perception and production of communicative signals. When mediated by technologies like writing, telephones and computers, however, the umwelt expands — with other spaces being layered upon the physical space users occupy (Jones, 2004). The expansion to the umwelt creates for an organism both new possibilities and new dangers, new ways of interacting with friends and shielding oneself from predators, and new demands on one’s attention, new vulnerabilities, and new blind spots.


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