*In response to Craig Mod’s article “How I Got My Attention Back”
The debate about technology and our attention spans has been going on as long as I can remember. This article is not exactly covering new ground. I was interested to see what the author’s take on this longstanding problem was, but lo and behold, it was the same talking points I always hear in this debate.
I’ve found that when people are discussing this issue, they often find themselves asking if it is a problem with the people or the technology. They will often go down the road of explaining how the modern network is designed to hold our attention for as long as possible by bombarding us with rewarding feedback loops, and that all of us are just victims to the system. Like this article’s author, Craig Mod, people will often talk about needing to discipline yourself into disconnecting from the network, to slow down and get your attention back. I was waiting for Mod to drop a bombshell that really made me reflect, but it ended up being the same rehashed conversation I’ve been hearing my whole life.
My first thought was “this guy is full of shit”, so I went to find out who exactly Craig Mod is. I found he is also a photographer. This led me to another article of his, one for The New Yorker in 2013, “Goodbye, cameras”. This article is reflecting on Mod’s history as a photographer, specifically how technological advances have shaped his choice of gear throughout his work. He reflects fondly on the days of using a mechanical Hasselblad and developing film in his bathroom, and how those slowly got phased out for the low-resolution early DSLRs of the 2000s, then small compact cameras, and now the shift towards smartphones. He writes about how photography is becoming increasingly networked, which is made much easier by the use of smartphones and social media. Instead of waiting days to get your work back, you can snap a photo with your iPhone and immediately share it with others.
I wasn’t entirely sure what Mod was trying to convey with this piece. It seemed like he was just complaining that modern photographic technology wasn’t as engaging as it used to be. “So what?” I thought. If you like the older gear so much, nothing is stopping you from using it. Plenty of photographers still shoot with old cameras using film.
I found a third article of his that gave far greater context. This was his 2014 piece “Software is the Future of Photography”, published to his own personal website. He states that this article is meant to expand on his thoughts from the New Yorker piece.
This article really fleshed out the ideas he put forward in his other work. He puts forward the idea that advances in technology have inherently changed the purpose of photos.
“In fact, photography itself begins to split into two entirely different beasts: the networked image laden with metadata but possibly lower pixel density, and the silver gelatin print, a static, hidden artifact of high visual value.” -Craig Mod
This quote probably makes no sense without the context of the article. Mod writes how even if an iPhone photo has less data in the image itself (i.e., lower resolution) than something like a large format 8×10 photograph, it can convey more information than a traditional photo ever could. The advent of metadata means you can record things such as location, weather, and time to a photograph. Self-reported metrics can add even more data to these images, like tagging friends. There are so many old photographs whose metadata has been lost to time. We see old photos and we don’t know who this person is, where it was taken, or any other data that is recorded to every photograph taken by your smartphone. This is also the beauty of digital archives. You no longer need a physical location to store data. An archive can be a living, breathing networked contributed to by anyone across the globe.
“As more images touch the network, and as the information orbiting those images becomes more compelling, the archival value of the standalone picture as a social artifact — no matter the megapixels — will continue to diminish. If you view photography as a medium of record, then it’s hard to overvalue this shift.” -Craig Mod
His article with The New Yorker was not complaining about new technology, but instead it presented a tough decision for photographers: Do you embrace the old, comfortable ways, or do you take the plunge and adapt the arguably superior methods?
Mod writes that this is the choice a photographer must make. What do you value in your images? Do you take photos to document reality? To soak in every bit of information possible? Or do you take photos purely as a medium of visual art? To put it in his words: “To what service do I create images?”
At this point, you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with attention spans. Mod struggled with how he should interact with the network in a photographic sense, but I believe we can apply this thinking to our general lives. What is our individual motivation for interacting with the network? When we go online, what is our goal?
I think this is an overlooked issue with our modern usage of the internet. People just use it aimlessly without purpose. The internet was supposed to be a tool to provide knowledge to the masses, but how many of you are actually gaining new knowledge when you’re online? Are you researching new things, or maybe trying to further a craft of yours? Or are you mindlessly scrolling content as a way to pass time?
My issue with the attention span debate is everyone acts like it is a problem with the internet. I don’t believe it is. People’s attention spans are suffering because they’re not consuming content that is stimulating, most of the time it’s not even interesting.
People aren’t trying to accomplish any sort of goal online, that’s why they’re not interested. I’ve become very conscious of my own online habits these past few months. Obviously, I still scroll social media mindlessly like others, I won’t act like I don’t. But a lot of my time spent online is in pursuit of new knowledge. I’ve learned to appreciate just how spectacular of a resource for knowledge the internet is. I like to spend my free time looking into new information about things that interest me, specifically photography. I’ll research photographers, photography techniques, camera history, or anything else I find relevant at that moment. Even if it still is a mindless way to keep myself entertained, I’m at least gaining knowledge to help me further my craft. I don’t feel my attention span is suffering, as I can spend hours reading about a subject.
I feel this is why Mod had a hard time with his attention. In his articles on photography, he chose to use technology that will allow him to connect more to the network, as he wants his work to convey as much information as he can. I, on the other hand, prefer to take photos purely for the visual aspect. I prefer analog photography because of the lack of metadata. I want to post my photos to the network, but I don’t want to become entwined with it. I don’t want everything I post online to be tagged with my location or the date, I’d rather keep that layer of separation. I think this apprehension to fully connect is why I didn’t relate to Mod’s initial article. I don’t struggle as much with my attention as others might. Some of the best days are when I come home late at night and realized I haven’t even turned on my computer all day.
I believe people need to think critically about what they gain from being online. Use without intention will get you nowhere. The internet should be a tool, not just a dopamine button.