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Reclaiming Attention in the Digital
Lauren A. Newell
Editors’ Note: So many successive generations of people have remarked on how they don’t understand the next generation that it’s now become a cliché. Yet the “digital generation” does represent a departure from years of assumptions of how people will typically get and process information, how they understand the world, and how many different things they ought to expect to do at the same time. Newell reviews the research on the digital generation’s ability to maintain sustained attention over time, and finds that, yes, there is a difference. Multitasking—defended by many as an efficient way to process multiple concurrent streams of information—has been exposed as something of a myth. And there are other prices paid for assuming that one can handle multiple digital forms of communication, from cognitive overload to neurological changes. Yet communication technology is here to stay, Newell says: we have to learn how to handle it. She offers a succession of techniques for reclaiming and holding attention.
Complaining about youth is a time-honored tradition. The basis for complaint changes—whether it is dancing the waltz, playing chess, or writing with ballpoint pens1—but the underlying sentiment does not: There is something wrong with “kids today,” and the future will suffer because of it.
Complaints about today’s youth—a group I refer to as the Digital Generation2—stem largely from the Digital Generation’s affinity for technology. The ubiquity of cell phones, computers, tablets, mp3 players, and other forms of information and communication technologies (“ICTs”)3 in the Digital Generation’s lives has given rise to many accusations. Perhaps the most popular of these is that the Digital Generation’s constant ICT usage renders them unable to pay sustained attention to anything. Concerns about the upcoming generation’s attentional capacity are especially salient for those in disciplines that demand strong powers of attention, such as negotiation.
This chapter considers the relationship between ICTs and attention and the consequences of this relationship for the Digital Generation negotiators of the future. It proceeds in three parts. The first part explores the mechanics of attention and the importance of attention in negotiation. The second part, directed to elder generations of negotiators, aims to help these negotiators understand how ICTs affect the Digital Generation’s attentional capacity.4 The third part, directed to Digital Generation negotiators, offers practical suggestions for improving their focused attention.
Understanding Attention and Its Role in Negotiation
It is difficult to provide a precise definition of attention because attention is not a unitary concept. Rather, it is a property of multiple different perceptual and cognitive operations that are in extensive communication with each other. In fact, attention has become “a catch-all term for how the brain controls its own information processing” (Chun, Golomb and Turk-Browne 2011: 74). While recognizing that attention means different things to different people, this chapter adopts a narrower, more functional definition, namely “the ability to attend to desired or necessary stimuli and to exclude unwanted or unnecessary stimuli” (Jacobson 2010: 421). This section describes the anatomical bases of attention and the mechanisms of attentional control.
Where Does Attention Come From?
One influential theory of the source of attention envisions attention as an organ system composed of at least three constituent networks. Dr. Michael I. Posner, a leading researcher in the field of attention, refers to these networks as the alerting, orienting, and executive networks (Petersen and Posner 2012; Posner 2012). All of these networks work in concert together in our everyday lives.
The alerting network makes us sensitive to our surroundings and ready to take in information from the environment. It is akin to vigilance. For instance, when a loud noise startles us, our alerting network heightens our alertness as we try to determine what the sound was, where it came from, and whether it is significant.
The orienting network helps us to allocate attention to a particular sense or location in order to prioritize what our senses take in from the....
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