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Algorithm for (a) Digital Generation

Preliminary: I have almost zero understanding of current scientific models of human cognition.

Tasks which require extended periods of attention have become increasingly difficult for me in the last ten years. I don't think the causes of my difficulties, however, are only about lack. I believe this increasing difficulty is the result of almost a decade of reinforcement which begins with my work in a digital media processing and production shop. What was a benefit in that work context is in some ways an enemy of the modes of thought required of literary and cultural analysis. Even stated this way, the magnitude and depth of the problem are vastly understated. It's one thing to say “literary analysis and creative writing require long spans of attention” and quite another to say “digital media creation, processing, and interpretation reward the ability to context switch.” The logical extension of this is that environments which cultivate the ability to context switch are those which also foster the creation, processing, and interpretation of digital content.

Fast forward.

The mechanisms which can cultivate attention switching (which itself can be broken into parts: awareness of peripheral stimuli; evaluation of stimulus; identification of candidate requiring attention switch; promotion of candidate; deprioritization of current task; storing pertinent information regarding current task; processing stimuli emanating from promoted candidate; executing task required of new context) are undoubtedly infinite, but in an academic environment where pure research is encouraged (if not rewarded) as a good in and of itself, people who are able to rapidly shift attention to new tasks and resume previous tasks are at some advantage.

Due to congenital accident and historical contingency, my own nervous system is good at context switching. Extremely good. My suspicion is that the pleasure centers of my brain are intensely stimulated when the neurological and perceptual mechanisms required to attention switch are activated. I get off when I switch attention.

I am not saying I have digitally-induced ADD. Rather, I’m saying that my involvement with the processes of computation and digital media creation have adapted my brain to absorb information from many sources and that this adaptation tends to produce material that looks quite different from the analyses characteristic of physical print. It’s a feature, not a bug.

However, this ability becomes a problem when the rewards of attention switching are so powerful that they indiscriminately reinforce attention switching for its own sake. Perhaps a more flexible model would be something like

  • awareness of peripheral stimuli
  • evaluation of stimulus
  • rejection/identification of candidate requiring attention switch
  • continuance/deprioritization of current task
  • etc.

Of course, this model doesn't account for the possibility that some of these threads may run simultaneously. Even so, my main point stands, which is that the indiscriminate reinforcement of attention switching can effectively remove one’s ability to maintain the priority of a current task.

Many people experienced with working in a digital environment are choosing tools that artificially limit distraction. For example, wrting programs which obscure other programs (including the local filing system!) have been gaining adherents and proselytizers. Such tools certainly have their advantages. But tools that eliminate stimuli by hogging screen real estate may reduce the value of digital media workflows which can reveal/disclose related information that will enhance the quality of produced content. Such tools inhibit productive as well as deleterious instances of attention switching. This is the problem of all or none.

My hope is that the value of rapid attention switching can be increased by developing the ability to reject candidates as ones that do not require an attention switch. Eliminating peripheral stimuli altogether may be the only way some of us can maintain the priority of an important task, but I think there is a better way, one that increases the value of attention switching by limiting the frequency with which it occurs. end of article