Unless you are sleep walking, you are noticing things as you move around. You might ask yourself about you daily motion. How many steps do you take each day? Do you know that there is a close correlation between what you pay attention to and number of steps you take every day?
If you are reading this essay, you aren’t in motion. I have (so far) your attention. Along the way you pay attention to what you see coming and what find along the path. There is something deeply unpleasant in the way I pay attention. The shallowness robs me of not only depth but also ignores an opportunity. I noticed things that most of you also noticed like the disappearance of the Malaysian Air Flight MH370 less than two hours into a KL to Beijing flight. Like a missing person, it had vanished. The world watched officials who said nothing in the matter of robots programmed to avoid hard questions. I paid attention to officials who were cross that I along with millions of others were paying attention to a performance to distract from the existential questions of why and how something nearly 70 meters long with that many people and many tons of steel can just disappear? What child or adult wouldn’t pay attention to something that big that disappeared?
Airline and government officials squirmed, shifted, blinked as they stared into the TV cameras. When we pay really close attention to what someone says, especially if they are powerful, they become very, very careful. Officials in government, teachers, and employers all are in the attention paying business. It is a monopoly they’ve long controlled, nurtured, protected and lavishly funded. The powerful have a huge stake in what you pay attention to. Like all great magicians, they are masters of distraction. Most people fall for sleight of hand. We can’t help it. Our brains are easily distracted. Our attention easily bought and sold without stopping to think that attention shouldn’t be just another commodity.
But it is. All of the time this week, you sold your attention (if you had a job and wanted to keep it), handed it over to a pundit, or politician who gives you certain emotional awards in return for your attention. I was thinking about how this week the vision of the military bunkers set up throughout Bangkok—about 176 bunkers and checkpoints—are manned with soldiers.
In most places, people would pay attention to the appearance of military bunkers throughout the capital city. The photographs reveal that the freshly decorated bunkers fall somewhere between a shrine, spirit house or spa. So far no one has suggested a contest for tourists to submit their decoration ideas to the Bunker Decoration Committee.
People might well asked, who ordered that to happen? What are the orders given to the soldiers inside the bunker? Are they supposed to go out on patrol? Or do they just sit there and pay attention, observe and write down what they see? But pay attention to who and what, and if by paying attention, they see someone with a gun, what are they under orders to do? I don’t know, I am merely asking how bunkers are organized, staffed and instead most of the press reports have described how some of the bunkers have been decorated. We’re not told where the decoration budget comes from for the potted plants or flowers (perhaps they were donated) or whether each unit is allowed to decorate their bunker guided by their own ideas of good taste and beauty. But the flowers and potted plants have drawn international attention.
In summary, this week I’ve paid attention to a disappeared airliner flight MH370 flying from KL filled with passengers and crew and the appearance of military bunkers in Bangkok. What appears and disappears, like the 0s and 1s of digital language, communicate events, incidents, and movement that causes us to wonder about agency. What caused it? And meaning? How does one thing suddenly appear while another disappears?
The mystery of life is in these disappearance and appearances. The unscheduled events that evolution has wired us to respond automatically and quickly such as an elephant appearing out of nowhere. Six people and an elephant died this week in Thailand when the elephant suddenly appeared on the road causing a three vehicle crash. Evolution hasn’t equipped us to react to elephants while driving cars on highways. We aren’t paying attention to elephants.
Disappearing planes, decorated bunkers, and elephants knock us out of our routine as we move through life processing our reality along the way. We shared this paying attention experience collectively this week. But sharing something only partially tells you how the attention was processed. We shouldn’t assume there is a one-size-fits-all processing for attention. For instance, the anti-government protesters’ attention more likely processes the Bangkok military bunkers in a different light than the pro-government supporters’ attention would. Each will argue the other side isn’t paying attention, or at least not paying proper attention. This kind of attention processing difference underlies social discontent, alienation and revolt as the agreed upon patterns, shaped by culture, language and history, lose their grip to define agency and meaning.
Airport security experts and authorities have taken our plastic bottles of drinking water and made us take off our belts and shoes. At the same time, in many places, it seems the authorities hardly glance at a boarding passenger’s passport. Given there are nearly forty million entries for passports lost in the vortex of global tourism which shares an airlock with global crimes, illegal smuggling, illegal immigration and terrorism, suggests that the authorities haven’t been paying attention to a potentially lethal flaw in the system. This large database of stolen passports is evidence a country-sized population with phony identities floating around planet earth. It took MH370 to go missing before we shifted our attention to this hidden nation in a database that no one but the Americans, British a couple of other countries regularly consult. Most don’t bother. That Interpol database simply doesn’t have their attention.
The Guardian writes that Thailand has been a hub for stolen passports. Incompetence, corruption, lies, lack of training and supervision, and laziness within responsible authorities are all candidates to explain why attention is not paid to the stolen passport database. They also explain why only now after MH370 disappeared with two men who boarded with passports stolen in Thailand (though it seems neither man was a terrorist but a couple of illegal immigrants on their way to what they thought was a new life with a fake identity) we are turning our attention to the matter of those stolen, fake or forged passports. Like the missing airplane, no one seems to have a handle on where they’ve disappeared.
A couple of years ago, a close friend and his wife arrived in Bangkok on a flight from London. They managed to mix up their passports. When my middle-aged friend, who is bald and wears glasses, presented a passport at immigration he was stamped in. The stamp was in his wife’s passport. I can assure you his wife isn’t bald and doesn’t wear glasses. When it came to the wife’s turn, the immigration official through a masterly of detective work looked at the husband’s photo in the passport and at the middle-aged lady in front of him. A conference was held. The supervisor finally sorted it out. The weak link is the lack of attention paid by those who are paid to give their attention to identity of others. It doesn’t always work out that way.
The business of authors, painter, mathematicians, and musicians to offer alternative ways of paying attention through words, images, numbers, and sound. They might even be so bold as to suggest that the State is wrong, lying, stonewalling or otherwise dishonest in diverting our attention to matters of grave importance. This explains why the State likes to be, if possible, the sole or most important sponsor of the arts. The money flows to those who fall in line with what the government wishes people to pay attention to. Censorship is the State’s way of warning artists and citizens to restrict the range of the ideas, events, personalities and institutions that may be paid critical attention to.
Sometimes those stories are contradictory to official stories and when challenging power, as Voltaire once suggested, is a dangerous activity. Artists, who tell the safe story, or one supportive of power, are rewarded and invited to give speeches, interviews and lunch. At some point, every author makes a decision on which side of the attention paying line he or she will patrol while seeking to tell the story of what has disappeared and what has suddenly appeared.
There’s a threshold all of us cross everyday as we explore our world. I was struck by Albert Sun’s “The Monitored Man”.
in the New York Times. The author tested a number of tracking devices that register motion and activity with readings on perspiration, heat rate, muscle heat, calories burned, skin temperature and level of movement or activity. The idea is the state of your health is connected with the nature and duration of your movement. Then came the bombshell. On weekends, the author’s tracker disclosed that he took 16,000 steps.
Compare that with the weekdays spend working at the office and the commute back and forth, including the time spent at home. Sun’s workday shrank his weekend movement from a high of 16,000 (which approaches a half-marathon in distance) to 6,000 to 7,000 steps, and most of that attention occurred inside the dome of an office. Someone pays him to concentrate on a task that benefited the employer. People assume this is natural or normal. But it is bizarre and weird that two-thirds of what we pay attention to in life is a product someone more powerful than us controls. And we find ourselves defining ourselves as an adjunct of our employer’s organization.
Our hunter-gather ancestors had a much larger range of motion. In modern Africa, the Hadza have a hunter-gather lifestyle and the men on average walk 11.2 kilometers a day (more than 14,000 steps). The Hadza men are paying attention in a much different way from the modern office worker.
Company uniforms or military uniforms are good ways to keep the attention focused in a unified, conforming range of motion. That is the life of most people. How they notice and how they hand over what to notice to others. Our attention is filtered, fracked, pipelined so that we hardly are aware that we’ve been socially engineered to channel certain types of information, form that information into a range of acceptable patterns, and to repeat that activity until further notice.
When I paid close attention to the story about trackers, I found another story buried under the surface, one that raised much larger issues about the range of our daily motion spectrum and where we fit in that spectrum will likely define how our attention paying is mortgaged to pay the rent and feed the family.
Employers are buying attention from their employees. The most effective employees not only readily sell their attention, their identity is indistinguishable from the job to which all of their attention is vested. I’ve talked to lawyers who are rich enough to quit their law firms but couldn’t image what identity would be left once they were no longer practicing law. This state of enforced non-identity happens to many when they retire. Their motion is returned to them. Every day is a weekend of possible motions. Do they grab that opportunity? Some do, many don’t.
Paying attention is like a muscle. Use both or they both atrophy. The strength required to pay attention without the handrails of indoctrination, propaganda, or work rules is great. It’s you at the controls. If you can find that ‘you.’
After a lifetime of paying attention we have grown comfortable with outsourcing the edit feature of our reality through the filter of family, neighbors, teachers, officials, and employers. We use this edited version of our reality to form this fragile thing called identity. The fact that it is largely built by others doesn’t seem to concern us too much. We don’t really think about how those filters distill patterns from an unfathomable jumble of events, things, and motions washing over us.
We’ve been on an attention paying glide path from early school through a life time of employment, in early old age that glider lands on a park bench with a batch of memories that seem ours but are mainly off the rack memories shared by many others. The struggle is to understand new stories outside the context we’ve spent our entire lives. We seek a way to occupy all of that 66% of the lost time for our own movement. But it may not be that easy. If you’ve lived a lifetime in a circus, being freed in the wild is more terrifying than liberating. The jungle is an uneasy, dangerous place. The lion cage door is open. But the lion no longer wants to leave. He couldn’t make it in the wild. Outside the cage door, big airplanes disappear for days and days, military bunkers decorated with flowers and potted plants litter the city, as 40 million lost passports data entries circulate like El Niño racing along the surface of the planet.
We try to make sense of these mysteries. We seek a way to move through the world, which is stranger and more alien than the one we’ve left behind. What makes the old sad is the dangerous idea they were duped; there were other things in life they should have paid attention to and didn’t. We regret that we sold most of our attention in the name of love, faith, doctrine or profit. We didn’t have enough motion to break free of the gravity of all of those filters. As there were so many other possibilities, and we envy those who kept in motion and managed to break free.
But it’s never too late. You don’t need to steal a passport. What you need is a plan for accelerating your current rate of motion and let it carry you across expanded boundaries you wish to explore. Fire the old script editors who have been running your performance. Take off on a journey where the editors no longer direct how and where and to what you can pay attention. This possibility of freedom may not survive the cyberworld a decade into the future. While social relations and political control will be less geographically bound; what comes next may impose even greater filters. The number of daily steps may continue to plunge. Our forward motion that brought us to this point in civilization may stall. The controls over how we our minds pay attention may define our brave new world where the Hadza, with their 11.2K daily walk, will take pity on us.
A Hadza Hunter Paying Attention.