Tag Archives: philosophy

Distraction, “the Attentional Commons” and Birmingham


Birmingham New Street: the attentional commons colonized by commerce

It so happened that while I was reading about a concept of the “attentional commons,” I was staying right next door to a building that perfectly illustrated the problem that Matthew Crawford talks about in The World Beyond Your Head, as I’m going to explain below. But first, let’s take a few moments to deal with New Street Station.

I cannot think of an uglier, more monstrous, pretentious and dehumanizing building in contemporary Britain than Birmingham New Street Station. Not that you’d even know it was there at all now, because it’s been smothered by a gigantic steel tablecloth with all signs of movement, travel, public service, usefulness and even the name of the station itself hidden from view. Being inside it is no better: you cannot use your own judgement and vision to see where the trains are, or any local landmarks to get your bearings. I know roughly where the town hall, the cathedral, the Bull Ring, and the Hippodrome are, and I used to know where the station was, but inside Grand Central (as the place—whatever it is—is called now) there is no geography, no public space, no lines, no corners, no light and shade. It’s like being imprisoned in a light bulb.

The Station Street entrance to New Street station: a terrible assault on the attentional commons

The Station Street entrance to New Street Station/Grand Central, with its permanent TV screen of advertisements: abuse of the attentional commons

The people I pity most are those who live in Station Street, whose buildings are bathed 24 hours a day in the changing coloured lights of the enormous advertising “eye” over the front entrance of the building, where in the past, a moderately sized and lit sign with the name of the station and a British Rail logo should  have been. The eye is the biggest insult of all. Whereas human eyes move in order to take in aspects of the environment, this massive advertising screen fixes your stare, and is too big to be avoided by any regular eye movement.  High above it, John Lewis’s glass and steel gasometer dominates and obliterates the skyline.Everything of human proportions and everyday use is dwarfed and humiliated in its sight. It’s a kind of Stalinist monumentalism adopted by a department store, except I think a Stalinist would at least have built a park or something to give the building and the public some breathing space.

John Lewis, Birmingham: colonizing the attentional commons with a massive logo and an oversized building

Never Knowingly Undersized, John Lewis’s grandiose, vacuous gasometer hiding the wonderful civic architecture behind it.

Giving distraction a name: the assault on the attentional commons

I could not give a name to the visceral annoyance that Grand Central induces in me every time I see it, until I read Matthew Crawford’s  The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in An Age of Distraction, where he uses the term attentional commons. He begins by emphasising that human attention is a limited resource, continually at risk of depletion by the advertising that increasingly occupies every spare bit of space around us (on the side of buses, tickets, hotel key fobs, on televisions in departure lounges and post offices, for example).  Our attentional resources, and the “attentional commons”  are being plundered by private advertisers.

Airports are probably the worst example. Just once in my life, I was in the business class lounge at an airport, and experienced exactly what Crawford describes: what you get for travelling business class is the absence of advertising, and the freeing up of your attention for your own stuff. It’s what we used to expect of the outside world as a normal condition, but no longer: in one example cited by Crawford, adverts for l’Oréal in the bottom of the security trays at airports compete for your attention, so that you might easily miss the USB drive that you put in there.

I’ve got another example that involves humans.  I have only twice in my life left my debit card in a machine at a shop, and in both cases, it was because at the crucial point where I needed to focus on putting in my PIN and removing the card, the shop assistant started asking me whether I wanted the chance to enter a free prize draw, or get a two-for-one offer instead of the thing that I had bought.  In both cases, I was just about to leave the country on a trip, so my attention was already used up on all the other things I needed to do.  This is a claim on my attention, with disastrous consequences, and it’s at a point where I think the shop has an ethical obligation to observe what Crawford calls my right not to be addressed.  If you’re driving a car, and your passenger can see you’re negotiating a difficult situation on the road, they’ll shut up and let you concentrate. We have an ethical responsibility to be respectful of the limited attentional resources of others—and it’s that responsibility that is increasingly ignored in public life.

The right not to be addressed

Crawford’s point is that we take it for granted that we have a right not to be addressed in this way, but this right is being eroded in the form of advertising and noise (there’s an interesting parallel here with what Bart Kosko says in Noise about things like email spam, which constitute intrusive, unethical  “noise”).

I think we need to sharpen the conceptually murky right to privacy by supplementing it with a right not to be addressed. This would apply not, of course, to those who address me face-to-face as individuals, but to those who never show their face, and treat my mind as a resource to be harvested by mechanized means. (p. 13)


Out of place, out of proportion, and in your face: the steel canopy over New Street Station blocking light and assaulting the landscape.

And that’s what is so vile about Grand Central. Its enormous tent-like shape hides the station beneath it, and overwhelms and obscures the public space all around it. And as if that weren’t enough it has a permanent TV show of adverts on its eye-shaped screen, commanding and appropriating attention. Inside, everything about travel, trains, stations and information is dwarfed by the shopping centre. It’s the kind of station brilliantly described in a novel I can’t remember the name of where platforms and trains are an embarrassment that the architects have tried to hide away.  “Grand Central” is also another example of the insidious privatisation of public space, it’s oversized, inhuman proportions thrust up against the surrounding landscape with the lack of grace of an overweight giant taking over the seat next to you on a plane. It isn’t even elegant: the steel canopy gives up a few feet above the street, as if the designer couldn’t work out how to finish it off.  If a builder did this to your house, you’d sue them.


Corporate manspreading

It’s manspreading on a massive corporate scale, but we barely have a name for the rights that are eroded when so much public space is intruded by adverts and demands on your attention. Now we do. It’s a concept of an attentional commons, and the right not to be addressed. I’m not sure what we can do about it, but I hope at least that the residents of Station Street are going to give Grand Central hell until they turn that bloody TV screen off.


Grand central, seen from the Bull Ring. This is a building that has “f*** you” written all over it. Attention-seeking, narcissistic, and obsessed with dominating everything around it, it’s an architectural psychopath.

More about attentional commons and distraction

The Lost Chord


The Lost Chord is a nice page about the famous Victorian song.  All the words are there, along with some truly atrocious pictures from the period to illustrate the song. What is rather strange, given the usual gender stereotyping in music, is that the organist in the picture is female.  Perhaps to get so emotive over a lost chord is not something the Victorian gentleman could admit to.

Even better, there’s a recording from 1913 of the song. The singer’s diction is extraordinary – like a Norwegian speaking English while trying to pick his teeth.

Now here’s a question for the philosophically minded – do you think that if the church had CCTV, and the police could play it back and discover what the chord was, that the lady in the picture would have been any happier?  It seems like one of those Shirley Valentine moments to me, that your memory of the thing you can’t remember is far sweeter than the thing it is you can’t remember.  And that, possibly, is exactly why music is as poignant as it is, because it’s temporal nature means that its’ always a poignant memory or a future expectation, until the CD player gets stuck and plays you the same chord over and over again.   And only Wagnerites with their Tristan chord fetish could get excited over that.

Ten (not so random) books


The idea comes from a post by Simon Savidge over at SavidgeReads Reading me like a book (or ten) – see his post for where he got it from: pick ten books at random from your shelf and tell the world what those ten books say about you.  Ironically, since it was a post about reading, I misread it, and picked a clump of ten books from one of my shelves.  This will hardly be random, because I treat my bookshelves like a kind of two-dimensional Rubik-cube: every now and again, I half-heartedly put books of a kind on the same shelf. When one project or another takes over, I shift them by the shelf-load and put the most relevant ones nearest to my desk.  As a result, here’s ten not very random choices that nonetheless say something about me, I think (if nothing else, it says something about my cataloguing).  I’ll do the proper version another day.

Ten not very random books

Suzanne Langer, Philosophy in a new key:  I dreaded having to read this book for my philosophy of music module, since in my experience, seeing the name ‘Langer’ in any article about dance was usually the kiss of death, both to the enjoyment of reading or dance.  In fact, I ended up liking Langer a lot, and there’s much in her work that makes a lot of sense about music and dance, something that Mark Johnson picks up on in The Meaning of the Body.

Dermot Moran. Introduction to Phenomenology. If this is an introduction, God help me when it comes to the main bit. I didn’t understand a friggin’ word of this. Shame really, because I have a felt sense, as they say in phenomenology, that the ph word is something that appeals to me philosophically, but I can’t understand more than 1% of the books.  A very bright man I met the other day who’s got an MA in philosophy told me the only way he’d understood it was by reading Sophie’s World.

The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought. I think I bought this years ago when it looked like I’d have to write a module I knew nothing about. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. It’s been quite useful, but the thing about modern thought, or indeed any kind of thinking, is that you can’t get a book to think for you.  There’s no such thing as microwave philosophy.

Alex Moore, Teaching & Learning: Pedagogy, Curriculum and culture. I bought this as a quick read to get my head round the issues in the title, thinking it would be dull. Apart from the fact that it’s easy to understand, a great introduction to huge themes and topics, it’s got an openness and freedom about it that makes you excited about teaching and learning. The last chapter is called ‘Working with and against official policy’ – how do you deal with conflicts between your personal standards and an official curriculum, and being ‘subversive’ within the constraints. Fantastic stuff.

Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. I bought this from the Tate Modern bookshop (which I love)  after I saw it referred to in Wolfram Fleischhauer’s Der gestohlene Abend. It’s one of those books that you’ve seen referred to so many times that you think you’ve read it, whereas in fact, you’ve only read a two-sentence distillation of the ideas.  Why couldn’t they have given us this to read at school instead of Future Shock and Twelfth Night? Benjamin seems to explain  the 21st century from his 1930s viewpoint as well as any contemporary theorist, and is much more fun to read.

Milan Holas, Hudební Pedagogika. (Music pedagogy). I don’t speak Czech, but having once been fluent in Russian and Croatian, I can kind of guess my way through books in other Slavic languages, as long as they’re on a subject that I already know something about.  From my time as a student in Zagreb, I’ve always had a penchant for  no-nonsense Central European text-books that might not be cutting edge fashionable scholarship, but they sure as hell are choc-full-o’facts and get the job done. What constitutes musical knowledge, teaching and learning is a lifelong obsession (I’m beginning to discover) so I like flicking through books like this to see how other people and nations frame the topic.  Having said that, I bought this years ago, and I’m only flicking through it now for the second time. That says a lot about me.

Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things. Probably one of my favourite books of all time, because it explains in design terms why my parents’ gas hob was so darn stupid, and why I could never work out which knob operated which gas ring, and why it’s so easy to push a door that should be pulled. Donald Norman takes those everyday annoyances in life, and makes you realise it’s their fault for designing it so badly. God bless him.

Paul White, Basic Digital Recording. This came as a freebee  introductory reference text on the music technology module of my MA. One of the great things about doing an MA is that it gives you an excuse to spend even more  time taking your hobbies seriously, and then be given credit for it. What’s not to like?

Ellen Bouchard Ryan & Howard Giles, Attitudes towards Language Variation: Social and applied contexts. Once upon a time, I started a doctorate in sociolinguistics, with the working title Lexical variation in the cooking vocabulary of Serbo-Croat. No, that’s not a joke, I really did. Back in 1982 (for that’s how long ago it was) this was one of the key texts. Language variation and socio-political aspects of language still interest me, and I smile very wryly to myself when I see it at work in everyday contexts. I often wonder if one day I’ll swap directions and do a doctorate in linguistics after all.

Bennett Reimer, A Philosophy of Music Education (2nd edn). I fully expected to hate this book (if you see some of the reviews on Amazon, you’ll hate it without reading it) but in fact, when I came to write my first MA essay (on the philosophy of music education) about the spat between Reimer & David Elliott over aesthetic education and praxial music education, I ended up defending Reimer totally against my own expectations.  As much as Reimer is annoying at times, I find his enemies even more so.  That’s quite something to have learned from a course in educational philosophy, I reckon.