Demands on our attention.

Several serendipitous events have started me thinking about the demands made on our attention, and how simulators of all types compete amidst these demands.

Its a truism that we are overwhelmed by facts and informtion competing for our attention. TV, computers, advertising, etc etc., a constant stream of words and images. This is why we shuffle along city streets with downcast eyes, locked in to our iPods: a desperate attempt to create a private world in which we can slow the incoming stream to a trickle, and a familiar trickle at that, one that we choose and control. Its why we have RSS aggregators, spam filters, laws about junk mail, and so on.

I came across a report the other day, produced by Frontend, on “Why people can’t use eLearning”. This concludes that many e-learning packages fail because:
“We found that some serious usability problems were common, including;
• Counter-intuitive reading order of on-screen material.
• Failure to relate to the real-world experience of the user.
• Poor presentation of key information.
• Lack of accessibility, even in the most basic sense.”
(the last point includes things like keyboard only control, for those who cant use mice.)

Most people who are doing training are highly motivated. Either they want to develop themselves, or they are doing it because an employer told them to. So if its tough, they try harder. (Of course they shouldnt have to, but thats not my argument).

Im thinking about the nature of the demands that any simulation or package makes on our attention as users (or players or viewers.)

Game designers are more conscious of the need to seduce and hold the users attention. They succeed – gamers spend large amounts of time on their game activity, and successful games have been compared to operant conditioning: they offer easy rewards at first, but then as the game develops the rewards are more difficult and take longer to reach. This sort of Skinnerian psychology is consciously used in game design.

Military simulation designers also spend time thinking about the way users respond and trying to make the experience more seductive: eg responding to cognitive states, or preventing simulator sickness, or even introducing the smell of death.

I spent some time yesterday looking at the works of Marcel Duchamp in the Tate Gallery, and in particular at his Large Glass as rebuilt by Richard Hamilton. I feel that this piece somehow doesnt quite work – even Duchamp formally declared it unfinished in 1923, after working on it for eight years. (My private theory is that Duchamp could have made it work if hed been an internet artists, but this possibility was not of course available to him. Paint etc on glass just cant do as much as trained electrons. See the excellent animation on Understanding Duchamp which shows what you can do with modern technology. Incidentally this website is one of the best Ive seen for a long time – a brilliant marriage of good technology with clear purpose.)

Reading that the Large Glass comes with three boxes of replicated notes, which are said to be essential for understanding it, started me musing about other huge, unfinished or flawed, epics started around that time.
Ezra Pounds Cantos, (1915 – 1962) of which the poet is reputed to have said Yup, I botched it.
James Joyces book Finnegans Wake, 1923 -1939. This is a work so long and complex that, although academic careers have been built around it, few ordnary readers will ever finish it. I obtained an MA in Eng Lit, and Ive never read it. (Talking of simulations, there is a font based on James Joyces handwriting, available fee here.) Joyce said “The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works”, but then he was like that.
David Joness works, like Anathemata, published in 1952 and meant to be part of an even longer work which was never finished.

In these cases, as perhaps with Duchamp, the amount of attention required to elucidate every pun, every reference is considerable, and the work demands that you read it as a whole in order to see some overall pattern which may (or may not) be there. Now therell almost always be someone who tries to devote this degree of attention: but it can really only be done if you have enough time, ie if you dont have anything else to do, eg because youre an academic. Or if youre a devoted hobbyist. People do spend amazing amounts of time on a wide range of hobbies and spare time activities. Some of these activities are socially useful – eg Im enormously grateful to the Scoutmasters who spend a lot of their own spare time providing wonderful and educative epxeriences for my own boys. Some are pretty pointless – eg people who model railway environments. But the fact is that there are always a small number of people who will find fulfilment in this sort of thing. (And, some would say, in blogging.) Good luck to them.

At least in theory you could assimilate and understand all of Finnegans Wake. But some works of internet art are deliberately made in a way that it is impossible to completely experience them. (Eg this would take too long, like Every Icon, which would take several hundred trillion years to runthrough every possible combination, or Free Radio Linux, which consists of a text-to-speech application reading the source code for Linux – “The Linux kernel contains 4,141,432 lines of code. Reading the entire kernel will take an estimated 14253.43 hours, or 593.89 days.”

Theres been a lot of discussion about the nature of our attention, some of it covered on this blog – eg Linda Stones timeline of attention types:
1965-85: “me and self expression”: willing to fragment attention (ie listen in to two telephone calls at the same time) if it enhances our opportunity
1985-2005: “network centred”: “Trust network intelligence. Scan for opportunity. ….Continuous partial attention isnt motivated by productivity, its motivated by being connected.”.
2005 – ??: “now were overwhelmed, underfulfilled, seeking meaningful connections.”

Increasingly, we have developed a new paradigm of attention, which broadly says that it doesnt matter how long it takes me to read something, the question is how long does it take Google? Whereas before I spent time reaching a library, time finding the right book, and time finding the reference within the book – maybe even reading the whole book and appreciating the context – now I simply google the phrase I want and the reference pops out for me. Or if Im a policeman, I can safely accumulate hundreds of millions of facts about vehicle movements in the UK, becaue I trust a search engine to instantly pop out the half dozen Im interested in at any given time. I have sets of tools (RSS readers) to help me cope with everyday life.

Note that, in the cases of Every Icon and Radio Free Linux, the artist is not doing the work himself: he has simply set a machine in action, then gone off to do what artists do best. (Drink, argue into the night, pursue amorous liasions, how would I know?)

It raises questions about the social context of art. Is it the preserve of the hobbyist and the academic? Or is it meant to have a broader appeal? You cant generalise, of course: most visitors to the Tate probably pass by the Large Glass withut interest, but it has been very inspiring to some artists. There are different levels of audience, and its OK for a work to reach one, but not others.

Art doesnt have to sell, like games, or deliver a result, like military simulations or e-learning packages. When it does sell at inflated valuations, the effect is often disturbing and faintly ridiculous. On the one hand, what artists do is often at the forefront of the way we use possibilities, so it should be challenging. On the other hand, it would be a shame if all modern art was outside the reach of ordinary people, or even the ordinary elite. (Say, anyone with a university degree or similar.)

Radio Free Linux is particularly interesting because your participation almost doesnt matter. The fact that you know it is there – even know the little I have said in this blog – is probably enough to appreciate it. If you listened to it for a few minutes, would it make any difference to your understanding of the point the artist wants to make? (This is an unanswered question for me, as its an Ogg Vorbis file and my PC doesnt seem to read them.)

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