Since the publication of my book —Radical Attention, I’ve been asked a lot—at online events and talks: why radical? As a postscript to that essay, it’s interesting to consider how much more amplified our dependence on technology has become since the book was published. Maybe it’s hard to stop now that I’ve started, but I now find it difficult not to notice how technology has made many aspects of my life both more complex and more unnerving.
The pandemic has forced us all online in ways that were not even imaginable in 2019. It’s changed the way we teach, work, conduct business, order goods and services; it was already changing, but the pandemic has accelerated that shift. We are suddenly organised by technology in ways we weren’t in the past. Perhaps it’s the organisation bit that is most visible to me now, in the way technology made possible my continued my work life, while at the same time creating a whole new set of problems. I am expected to suddenly be expert in many different modes and platforms. Slack, Swiftfoot, Tableau, ASK, Moodle, Teams, Collaborate, Sharepoint, Zoom. I am asked to be literate in administrating all of these platforms with all their various buttons, options and functions. Sometimes I feel as if I am responsible not to a classroom, but to an online form. The more centralised the systems have become, the more complex it seems to be for them to function at an individual level. The same old human problems remain—failures of oversight, or foresight, overcomplications, the demands of the bottom line. We are still very far from an intuitive AI which can act as a smooth one-size-fits all personal assistant.
Other visible evidence proliferates: branded vans clogging the streets, the doorbell going constantly with deliveries, the need for me to give information so I can be tracked and traced, to scan QR codes and give out my data to order a beer; meanwhile, actual physical shops are disappearing, ceding to the online marketplace, and everywhere around me I see the trend for shiny new Instagram faces, plumped with filler and frozen with Botox—copies, not of a natural physical beauty, but of the distortions of the Facetune app. It’s now almost completely impossible to exist and function without access to technology. As if to prove this, I read that in Spain a man dies, trapped inside a dinosaur sculpture—police think he climbed inside the statue to retrieve his phone.
Radical is both an adjective and a noun. A qualifier and a state of being. In attaching radicalism to attention, I’m asking the reader to consider whether their attention has value and agency, because in our new social economy it certainly has a price. What we search for, what we share on social media platforms, the apps we use, the things we buy, all provide information to the technology, which in turn trains its access to big data on analysing us. In such a brave new world, being mindful of our thoughts and consequently our time becomes a way of pushing back against the predictive tendencies of the algorithm. I think of Donald Trump, the strange miasma of Brexit, the dead man in Spain. I have always prided myself on knowing my way around technology: did I just get older, or did the tech just get darker, glitchier, more borderline malevolent?
Everyone wants a “how-to”, a guide, as if there were a fool-proof method to resolving this state of affairs: ten steps to quitting your phone, or your social media accounts, but it strikes me that even wanting these how-tos also exposes a part of the problem. We want new methods to undo the old methods which have been used against us, as if it were that simple to undo. As if our behaviour simply needed systematising, rather than understanding. But we are facing a revolution in our experience of subjectivity, of being. Tech isn’t going to go away; we’re going to have to learn to live with it, and how to think about it. As Richard Seymour points out in The Twittering Machine, we’re up against a machine which “can defeat any opponent by calculating, with sufficient data, the unconscious axioms that govern a person’s behaviour.” In such a world where the algorithms know us better than we know ourselves, where we are encouraged to stay on the surface rather than contemplate depth, interactions with the machine demand a level of self-knowledge and self-consciousness that we are unused to wielding if we want to stand any chance of being self-directed,. Hence, attention.
Attention is one of the primary muscles of creative practise, and for it to function, it needs to be switched on. If I didn’t notice things, I wouldn’t be alert to the world, or to myself in the world, and therefore to language, event, incident, story, possibility. I have in recent times used Simone Weil as a touchstone, because she understood that learning how to be attentive is “the object of all studies.” But this practise requires patience and persistence, especially in our current hyper-distracted world. Noticing stuff, in a context which wants you to only notice what it chooses, takes a kind of radical focus. Perhaps this is why I take such interest in technologies that would seek to undermine that subjectivity. In every interaction I have with technology, there are algorithms spying on my actions, operating on the premise that I can be reduced to a set of automated behaviours. Of course, these algorithms are sold to me as being helpful—designed to give me more of what I want. But in effect they trap the user (the user)—me—in an echo chamber wherein the act of discovery is already pre-determined. This is how we end up with echo chambers, doomscrolling, outrage bubbles and so on. This is how we end up knowing very little while at the same time feeling overwhelmed with information, finding ourselves often angry, outraged, or depressed after a long session in the grip of an internet-based rabbit hole.
To me a radical form of attention is one which acknowledges that consciousness is the product of a whole body. We are more than just disembodied brains in front of screens. While the machines might be good at predicting and prodding us, they can never really describe what it’s like to be us. A radical form of attention will understand this and perhaps begin to understand the relationship between the mind and the body, one mediated by the nervous system, and the way in which this system has been infiltrated and co-opted by technology. The tactile nature of the phone screen means that we are also attached to technology in a visceral, intimate, corporeal fashion, something which is only going to get more acute as the tech becomes more sophisticated and integrated with the physical nature of daily existence. But these technologies are emerging inside a version of capitalism that sees everything as an opportunity for profit—especially behaviour that occurs online. In the words of Jeff Hammerbacher, themselves echoing Ginsberg: “the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click on ads, and that sucks.”
The etymology of the word “radical” comes to us from the Latin word radix, meaning root—in fact, as a term, we still use the word “radical” to describe the base elements of a root system. But this idea of radicalism as a kind of rootedness was what I was going for in my invoking of the term. The idea of us being rooted in our subjectivity, interacting and gathering knowledge and information at our own pace, and on our own terms, rather than being nudged and pushed into groups and categories by profit-driven algorithms, is perhaps a more humane way to think about our relationship with technology. To foster and preserve a radical kind of attention demands that we first give our attention to our own rootedness, to our own soil, to the places of our own living; to our own bodies and to the bodies of others.
A radical form of attention, then, is one which acknowledges that interacting with the internet will stir up a lot of contradictory and conflicting feelings. A radical form of attention understands that social media is biased and driven by profit-seeking algorithms. A radical form of attention knows that not everything is true and that there are no perfect systems, and that the old Cartesian split between the mind and the body no longer holds, especially now that we understand more about the neurobiology of our nervous system which mediates between the two. A radical form of attention will attempt to reclaim subjectivity for its own sake, rather than ceding it to corporations who see subjectivity as a point of friction. A radical form of attention knows that in this climate, to learn to think for yourself is a profound act.
These were some of the issues I had in mind when writing the book. Rather than a “how-to”, it is more an invitation for the reader to consider how much of their digital lives they can claim truly belongs to them, and an attempt to defend subjectivity against the forces that seek to pacify or deny it. Writing the book was a way of asking awkward questions about our own senses of agency, and a way of defining some of the problems that technology has created in our society. We’re at the start of a seismic shift in the way our lives and societies are organised; not to think about it would be to admit defeat before the battle has even begun.
Julia Bell is a writer and Reader in Creative Writing at Birkbeck where she is the course director of the MA in Creative Writing. Her work includes poetry, essays, and short stories published in the Paris Review, Times Literary Supplement, The White Review, Mal Journal, Comma Press, and recorded for the BBC. Her most recent book-length essay, Radical Attention, was published by Peninsula Press.