x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Today it's easy to give or get attention - except in person

How rare face-to-face attention has become - and thus how valuable

As Eid Al Adha approached, the malls filled with people seeking gifts for their loved ones. Some of the Dubai malls remained open around the clock, in part to serve this gift-giving imperative of ours.

Behind the commercial and materialistic aspect of shopping for gifts lies the idea of caring, being attentive to the desires of special people in our lives. However, to use a well-worn play on words: it is our presence, not our presents, that truly counts. Many of us, unfortunately, can be so inattentive, even in the presence of our loved ones, that we might as well not be there at all.

Attention is one of the greatest gifts we can give each other. Companies around the globe spend billions every year on advertising to capture our attention for just a fleeting moment at a time.

Whole industries - media, entertainment, education - rely for their continued existence on the precious gift of our attention. An infant deprived of attention for a long time is likely to be psychologically deformed, or dead. Do I have your attention?

When we cannot give attention, a psychologist might speak of "attention deficit hyperactivity disorder - inattentive type". When we are prone to excessive attention seeking, overly-dramatic demands for attention, then the psychologist might mention "narcissistic" or "histrionic personality disorder".

But aside from these extremes, our drive to give and receive attention is perfectly normal, although poorly understood and rarely regulated.

Many of us meticulously monitor our diets and those of our families. But our attention-giving and -seeking is often left to its own devices.

In earlier times, both diet and attention could be left unregulated without major cause for concern. There were natural checks and balances: limited availability of food meant few got fat, for example.

Similarly, in bygone times we might have spent a few hours interacting with the village storyteller; today, watching an entire DVD box-set of a TV series, while speaking to nobody, is commonplace.

In traditional societies, with smaller groupings - lower population density - everyone would get a fair deal of attention. On many issues we might go see Grandma or Grandpa; now we have Google and Wikipedia.

"She just wants attention." This oft-repeated phrase tends to have a very pejorative ring to it, as though doing things simply for attention is outrageously unwarranted. But the truth is that human beings need attention, and reciprocal attention giving is, to a large extent, what human civilisation is based upon.

This perhaps explains the runaway success of social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. While we dress up the use of such sites in legitimising terms - "micro blogging", "idea dissemination" and "status updates" - the reality is that we are often doing no more or less than fulfilling our basic human drive for attention exchange.

I friend you, you friend me, I retweet you, you retweet me. We are like bonobo apes grooming one another - picking ticks out of each other's fur - on the forest floor. Some people explicitly woo this type of attention, with desperate-sounding promises to reciprocate. You often see "follow me, I always follow back" in Twitter profiles, for example.

The intoxicating ease with which we can now get and give attention is why many people appear overly attached to their smartphones. It is also a vicious circle. As ever more people are busy exchanging attention online, there is increasingly less attention to be had in the real world, which forces more people to seek their attention exchange online, or else risk attention-starvation.

The very nature of attention exchange is being rapidly transformed, and there is a danger some of us will develop unhealthy practices. Just as eating red meat every day is a bad idea, so too is excessive attention exchange. The biological consequences of our technological advancement in food production are highly visible; heart disease, diabetes and obesity. The consequences of our transformed attention exchanges will be psychological and social, and so may take longer to identify, but they will be equally damaging, and difficult to remedy.

Face-to-face attention is becoming rarer, and therefore more valuable. In a sense it is priceless. And it is a gift that can be given all-year-round.


Justin Thomas is an assistant psychology professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi