The Attention Economy & Historical Significance: Conclusion

In Now You See It, Cathy Davidson relates an informal experiment conducted in a public presentation. The speaker informed the audience he would show them a video and instructed the audience to count the number of times a basketball was passed among the players in the video. He started the video and most audience members began to count. Davidson, who finds such exercises all but impossible, quickly gave up and just watched the video until it ended.

After the video, the speaker asked participants for their counts. Audience members rattled off numbers, hoping they were somewhere near the right answer. But then the speaker presented them with an unanticipated question: “Who noticed the gorilla?” Davidson, who utterly failed to keep count of the passes, was the only one who saw the person in the gorilla suit walk across the screen.

For Davidson, the video is evidence of the need to consider the attention economy as a collective effort; not all of us will see the gorilla, but if at least one of us does, then we can work together to craft a fuller understanding of what we’re looking at or for. The exercise is also useful in terms of considering how educators and students might approach the attention economy in the classroom: once we’ve seen the gorilla, we can’t unsee it. Our awareness of the gorilla gives us a chance to decide how we want to interact with the creature.

Framing a history classroom as an attention economy gives educators and students good reason to be concerned but hopeful. While students had little control over attention in their tweets, they displayed power over the attention economy in their blog posts. Though their explanations of significance were conditioned by the attention economy, students used curiosity and the “helps me” trend to further their understanding of history. The content I chose to communicate in our course limited students’ choices, yet they displayed remarkable capacity for independent thought in their reflections on the personal relevance of course material.

If students were able to exercise a degree of agency without full awareness of the external forces acting on their attention, how much more might they do so if they were more cognizant of the attention economy? Just as awareness of affect could increase students’ practice of empathy, recognizing the impact of attention on perceptions of significance has the potential to increase students’ abilities to determine what is attention-worthy in history and in their online lives. Awareness of the attention economy allows both educators and students to anticipate unexpected pulls on our attention and provides an opening to consider whether or not we want to utilize attention-grabbing practices. Noticing the gorilla wandering through empowers educators, students, and researchers to decide which elements of the attention economy we wish to engage, appropriate, question, or disrupt.