Attention on the Net

Attention over the Internet — attention can be active or passive, and may be focused on the inner, middle or distant circles.

Active and passive attention — attention can be divided into two types: active, which involves will power, and passive, when a person is attracted by interesting objects involuntary.

Attention is one of the few life processes which can be controlled. This statement may seem an oversimplification of life processes, but on second thoughts it doesn’t appear to be far-fetched: you cannot control your heart rhythm, but you’re capable of turning your attention from the book to the window. Even breathing process runs automatically, without thinking. And to regulate the rate and depth of breathing, you need to focus on it. It is through shifting the focus from one object to another you manage your life.

Understanding attention mechanism and insight into how to control it acquire importance in the era of information glut. Psychologists of the West unanimously claim that today human loses the concentration skills and gets used to multitasking.

Working with attention is a core of the pedagogical management, acting techniques, meditation and relaxation.

Active and passive attention

Konstantin Ushinsky, the founder of scientific pedagogy in Russia, said that power over attention plays a big role in the mental development and in practical life. According to Ushinsky, there are two types of attention: active and passive.

Active attention differs from the passive to the fact that choosing an object involves our conscious effort, regardless of whether this object is attractive for us or not. Active attention is indispensable for concentration at work and learning.

Passive attention is an attention to interesting things. In this case, the interest is stirred up by the captivating features of the object. Information that entertains us, be it a swiftly changing video footage or video game — everything that involuntarily captures us — involves passive attention. Passive attention is not enough to delve into and grasp the object.

Konstantin Ushinsky writes, “Passive attention can turn into a painful state of soul, which becomes kind of a feeble, idle, and unable to do without constant stimulation with fascinating stories or absorbing reading, always leaves its door open, can’t dig deep into and be alone with itself, or just evoke anything independently, and therefore leads an utterly passive existence.

Better to say, passive attention is held not even by the object, but by the states of nervous system which are triggered by some phenomena of the external world. Social networks affect the pleasure center in the brain, and we want to turn our attention to them. Beneficial actions (such as language or music learning, theses writing) usually do not bring instant pleasure, they demand work and diligence. Their immense and existential effect will become tangible in the future. Unlike actions that are attractive right now (like web surfing), which in the future will not bring nothing but remorse for the wasted time.

It is of utmost importance for a person to have an option of choosing the things to think about and to break away from those which entered it forcibly. Kant ranks ‘the ability to be inattentive’, to tear yourself away from objects of our attention, above the ability to be attentive.”

“In the world of active attention it is not a human who owns a thing, but a thing that owns a human. I’m sick of rereading student notebooks, but I know that it’s my duty, and that it is essential to a success of the teaching I’m responsible for. At the same time, I feel deeply engrossed in a book in hand or conversation going in the same room; but I persistently focus on doing my duties. The more power I have over myself and my attention, the more effectively I achieve my goal, i.e. the more will power I have, the more of an active attention I possess.”


Alexander Amzin in his book “Бессистемные советы” [Russian edition, Eng. “Haphazard tips”] marks:

“Starting a new business, ask yourself — what kind of attention is being trained now? Do you want to hear, to see or read something interesting or to write, learn something useful? Unfortunately, the fact is that these two categories often do not coincide. Once you learn to separate active and passive attention, you will be able to notice it in your friends. All of these smokos, delays, reading social networks feeds, precious time waste reading second-rate books, — all that seeks to satisfy the passive attention daemon.”

Our most precious, irreplaceable resource is our time. For me personally, books are one of the wisest ways we can invest that time. A book is the direct transfer, mind to mind, of the thoughts of another human being. Today, we are assailed by a thousand distractions every hour, as various sources of information compete for our attention. Those of us who grew up in the pre-Internet era know the slow time experience of immersion in a powerful or moving book. And when we switch our attention to Facebook, or Reddit, or any of a million and one other potential distractions, we are losing our time to an insidious digital addiction.

The shallow accretions of Internet data doses are finely tuned to captivate our attention, titillating our minds with illusory promises of satisfaction which can never be fulfilled except by more of the same, in an endless cycle of meme, news flash and tawdry ‘human interest’ stories, optimized with click-bait headlines. What we gain in content, we lose in meaning.

We are also losing our privacy, our innocence and most importantly, we are losing the ability to think deeply about important subjects. As long as we embrace too-easy gratification, we will continue to remain in thrall to the digital domination of instant information. I am concerned that human beings are subjecting themselves to a new way to trigger neuro-chemical changes in our brains, that may ultimately lead to a decline in the quality of our human relationships.

I therefore advocate and support the message of entering slow time. Take a hike in nature. Disconnect from the constant digital flood. Interact with your friends. Share a meal together. Switch off from every external distraction, and embrace the flow of life beyond the digital fix. Your future may depend upon it.

Paul Gillingwater
Journalist & Filmmaker. Managing Editor at The Local Austria