Neuroscientists tell us that, physically, the brain cannot focus on more than one thought (or "attention-rich input") at a time. When we appear to be attending to two things at once, we are actually attending to them in sequence.
The state of being distracted, as when one is constantly 'notified' by new messages, new emails, updates, software alerts, app alerts, news alerts, is not a state of keeping several balls in the air. It is a state of continuous, time- and energy-consuming shifts from one object of focus to another. You deplete attention when you pay it. The state of distraction that we idealise as 'multitasking' is, in fact, a form of squandering. To pay attention is to deplete the attention that one has available; to pay attention in this distracted fashion is to waste it. It is worth asking what we would attend to if we weren't distracted.
There are other ways of thinking about attention, and other ways of attending to things. In a waking dream-state, attention depends a sort of soft-focusing of the world as one wanders into reverie. The world is still there, in the sense that one still senses. However far your thoughts wander in your smartphone bubble on the Underground, you rarely miss your stop. If your mind goes astray during a meeting, it is usually possible to retrieve the last couple of sentences spoken when you are abruptly snapped out of it, in order to appear attentive. So you continue to attend to certain things, even as you divert your attention elsewhere.
The reverie is a dream, and the dream is a wish-fulfilment; a momentary pleasure wherein a desire is partially satisfied. This is something to be cautiously optimistic about. If desire, as opposed to need or an instinctual programme, is distinctly human, then so is the ability to satisfy it indirectly, through fantasy. Indeed, since most desires can't be satisfied in any other way, reverie seems to be essential to a pleasurable life.
It is therefore no small matter that the reverie occupies such a salient role in the emerging economies of attention. The smartphone bubble is a meet exemplar of this tendency. Over the course of a decade, smartphones took the place of cards, keys, personal stereos, gaming devices and other objects routinely held about the person. Smartphones are the main technology through which we organise our reveries in transit, on the toilet seat, in the cafe. Whether we are creating sonic bubbles, manipulating blocks of digital candy, or swimming in sprawling feeds, our attention is organised in such a way as to enable, sustain and reward reverie.
Attention, justifiably, has been drawn to the way in which social media platforms are making users depressed. As Jaron Lanier points out, this is what the platform researchers themselves have found. Yet, as Alfie Bown has suggested in his writing on gaming, depression is not what makes the emerging affective technologies so dangerous. Pleasure is. It is the fact that the technologies are so good at harnessing and directing this satisfaction known as reverie, and turning feelings of depression, isolation and uselessness into feelings of productivity, connection and empowerment. Indeed, the mere fact that enjoyment is linked to productivity in this way -- and indeed, this sort of detached enchantment, this low-mental-budget gaming, does seem to help with workplace productivity -- is reason enough to be suspicious.
As with Walter Benjamin's arcades, today's virtual arcadia is a dreamspace in which we deliberately get lost. As Bown quotes Benjamin in The PlayStation Dreamworld, this space is "a phantasmagoria in which primal history enters the scene in ultramodern get-up", a "world of secret affinities" in which history collapses into uncanny hybrids of past, present and future. In the worlds afforded to us by these emerging devices, real ideological power rests in the way that the pre-determined choice is experienced as the freely and pleasurably chosen. From games to feeds, we find our capacity for reverie riveted to someone else's dreamspace, our free-floating attention guided down channels strewn with positive reinforcements that we don't even notice are there. Naturally, these channels, the choices available to us, and experienced as free choices, are ideologically saturated.
It is, of course, useless to scoff at the dumbed down waste of time that platforms and gaming apps ostensibly represent. We all have ways of wasting our time, and to say that something is 'dumbed down' is just to say that it is undemanding enough to allow people time to think. It is thinking as leisure-time, something we may actually want and need. However, we are permitted to ask, given the dubious politics of tech and the worrying power this sector is accumulating, what other opportunities, what other technologies for reverie we might find in modern life.
What would happen if your reverie was not productive? What if you sat in the park with a notepad and a nice pen? What if you sat in a church and closed your eyes? What if you merely lay back on a lily pad, with nothing to do? Could you stand the tension? Would someone call the police?