Attention, identity, and Google Glass

In a 2011 post on mobile identity, Rebekah Cox wrote, “In its most basic form, your identity is the product of how you manage your attention and others’ access to that attention. Those areas where your attention is focused assemble to form a set of experiences that shape and influence where you’ll direct future attention.”

Prior to reading this post for the first time a couple of weeks ago, I had never thought to define identity in this way. In fact, the things I typically associated with identity—an email address, password, Facebook profile—were precisely those things Rebekah called out as not identity in the preceding paragraph.

But once this new perspective planted itself in my head, I started to spot other expressions of the same idea. There’s this quote from a post by Etan Zapinsky on Snapchat’s recent iOS update: “More than anything else, the people we communicate with define who were are. A timeless phrase sums it up beautifully, “Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.”

And this observation from a Times adaptation of the commencement address Jonathan Safran Foer gave at Middlebury: “My daily use of technological communication has been shaping me into someone more likely to forget others. The flow of water carves rock, a little bit at a time. And our personhood is carved, too, by the flow of our habits.”

And finally, this excerpt from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyil’s Flow: “Each person allocates his or her limited attention either by focusing it intentionally like a beam of energy or by diffusing it in desultory, random movements. The shape and content of life depend on how attention has been used. Entirely different realities will emerge depending on how it is invested.”

If the things we pay attention to determine our experiences, our beliefs, and ultimately, our identities, it follows that the devices mediating so much of our communication with others, our consumption of information, our management of daily to-dos—in short, where and how we direct our attention—would end up shaping who we are.

Consider the way we talk about our smartphones: “extension of myself,” “intimate connection,” “a second brain.” They’re often the first thing we reach for when we open our eyes in the morning and the last thing we put down when we go to sleep at night. For some, the thought of being away from our phones for an extended period of time is enough to induce an anxiety attack. A glimpse of a stranger’s home screen would probably tell you more about them than you’d learn sharing a meal.

In this context, it becomes easier to understand the visceral opposition Facebook Home encountered when it attempted to not so much “wrap” as smother users’ phones. Facebook is a pervasive part of many people’s daily routines. But it’s not the only aspect of our identities, or the most accurate one (as much as it would like to be). The tidy and edited lives we lead on Facebook remind me of Ingrid Bergman’s request that cameras focus on the “good side” of her profile.

One of the promises of Google Glass and its successors is technology that gets out of the way and helps us experience more of the here and now. v1 falls short, but it raises an interesting question: What kind of habits do we want to encourage in our future selves and how can devices like Glass nurture those habits? Is it reasonable to expect that they would nudge us to be more mindful, more present? To focus attention on productive pursuits and avoid distraction? To develop empathy and compassion for others? There are no easy answers, but the alternative is to wake up one day and realize we’ve become strangers to ourselves.

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