Attention Gardening

In summing up the unlikely, 30-year story of how Yellowstone’s algae inspired the invention of PCR (the biochemical technique used for COVID testing), Clive Thompson writes:

I think I’m so smitten by this story — with its mix of deep curiosity into seemingly pointless subjects, followed by the discovery that this “pointless” material is wildly useful in a new domain — because it dovetails with my interest in “rewilding” one’s attention.

I’ve written a bunch about “rewilding” (essays here), which is basically the art of reclaiming one’s attention from all the forces that are trying to get you to obsess over the same stuff that millions of other people are obsessing over. Mass media tries to corral your attention this way; so do the sorting-for-popularity algorithms of social media.

Now, sometimes that’s good! It’s obviously valuable, and socially and politically responsible, to know what’s going on in the world. But our media and technological environment encourages endless perseveration on The Hot Topic of Today, in a way that can be kind of deadening intellectually and spiritually. It is, as I’ve written, a bit like “monocropping” your attention. And so I’ve been arguing that it’s good to gently fight this monocropping — by actively hunting around and foraging for stuff to look at, read, and see that’s far afield, quirkier, and more niche.

This “rewilding” is the same sort of shift in attention away from commercial platforms that Jenny Odell argues for in her book. She uses the exact same analogy to “monocropping”:

It’s important for me to link my critique of the attention economy to the promise of bioregional awareness because believe that capitalism, colonialist thinking, loneliness, and an abusive stance toward the environment all coproduce one another. It’s also important because of the parallels between what the economy does to an ecological system and what the attention economy does to our attention. In both cases, there’s a tendency toward an aggressive monoculture, where those components that are seen as “not useful” and which cannot be appropriated (by loggers or by Facebook) are the first to go.

A monoculture is an illuminating frame for considering attention. Created in an attempt to achieve economies of scale, monocultures reduce biodiversity and exhaust their soil. To make up for this, they’re covered in heavy amounts of fertilizer and pesticide to maintain their productivity. The analogs to commercial social media are clear. Whether they’re lying about their metrics, unfairly compensating their creators, or simply moderating your timelines without explanation or accountability, commercial social media companies create toxic social conditions in order to establish themselves as places for huge numbers of people to sink their attention. Once they have it, they turn the screws to maximize value for their owners despite the damage it does to their ecosystems.

In resisting this monoculture, I think Thompson misses a helpful middle-ground between a monocrop and a wilderness. In-between lies a garden: small-scale, intentional, low-impact cultivation of attention. A great garden takes time to establish, but once it does it can live by itself, supported by its rich diversity and interdependency.

When I think about the ways I focus my attention, I’ve already established a few gardens. My library of books. My collection of RSS feeds. My relationships. My actual garden! All of these contribute to a diverse, interconnected space of shared ideas that help me understand and appreciate the world in new ways.