Media Theory for the 21st Century

February 5, 2008

Looking for the Solid Ground of Attention in Poundstone’s *Tachistoscope*

Filed under: Discussion,New media art — P.J. @ 10:45 pm
Tags: , , , ,

While this post may not arrive in time for some of us attending seminar this afternoon, I still hope to offer this as a supplement and introduction to my exploration of attention and executive function in William Poundstone’s “Project for Tachistoscope” today.

Kate’s already-posted article on “Hyper and Deep Attention” constructs the range of attention along an axis where the behaviors associated with AD/HD align with instantiations of hyper attention, while normative attention more closely resembles what she calls “deep attention.” My own experience and research provides me a different perspective on the issue – especially given more recent developments in the definition of AD/HD. Increasing attention (as it were) to executive function has produced a model of AD/HD that manifests not so much as the “attention-deficit” that is part of its name, but rather an inability to regulate, in either direction, the executive function which moderates attention in the normed population. (Important here is the recognition that executive function is not a clearly identified and observed cognitive process, but the latest in a series of a theoretical construct attempting to model brain function.)

Particularly relevant to understanding this view is the phenomenon of “hyperfocus,” as it is called in AD/HD literature. Hyperfocus, the ability to focus intently to the exclusion of all other stimuli, is increasingly considered to be an AD/HD trait just as much as the widely-documented distractability associated with it. These two phenomena are now considered to be two sides of the same coin, a coin uneasily exchanged in an attentional economy that still favors a balanced response to environmental and internal stimuli – in other words, those who show normal executive function. Hence, where Hayles describes “hyper” and “deep” attention, I recognize, at least in part, these extremes of attention now currently attributed to AD/HD.

Even if generational deployment of media and other technologies might favor more of a shift toward these extremes of attention, I would assert that the shift is not significant, and that the culture generally still rewards normal executive function far more than unregulated, oscillating executive function – and thus those who are diagnosed with AD/HD must still cope within a culture in which their cognitive approach is defined as disordered and pathological.

At the same time, my increasing familiarity with Project for Tachistoscope is leading to even deeper questions about the nature of attention and executive function, and the degree to which language processing and other pattern recognition – particularly when dealing with a multiplicity of data input – is entangled with our understanding of attention generally. Poundstone’s deliberate evocation of aporia through his rapid-fire juxtaposition of linear narrative and random iconic presentation produces beautiful coincidences at certain moments, yet confounds any deeper sense of connection between the text and its “subtext,” while still compelling the reader to attend to both. What sort of “reading” strategy must be employed to engage this work? And given the points of conflict that seem to coalesce at the user interface, exploding into phenomena that range from the ergonomic and workplace trauma of carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive motion disorders, to the profound threat of extinction that attends a Deaf culture contending with the increasing deployment of the cochlear implant. Even in this indirect way, attention to/at the interface is implicated in media issues of embodiment as well. These issues look promising, and I hope to discuss these matters further in class today.

Blog at