Attention, Technology, and Creativity

In D. Graham Burnett & Justin E. H. Smith (eds.), Scenes of Attention: An Interdisciplinary Inquiry. Columbia University Press (forthcoming)
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An important topic in the ethics of technology is the extent to which recent digital technologies undermine user autonomy. Supporting evidence includes the fact that recent digital technologies are known to have an impact on attention, which balances "bottom-up" and "top-down" influences on cognition. As described in numerous papers, these technologies manipulate bottom-up influences through cognitive fluency, intermittent variable rewards, and other techniques, making them more attractive to the user. We further reason that recent digital technologies reduce the user’s ability to exert top-down attention due to the scale of the content—they provide far more content at a much faster pace than other technologies, which over time reweights the balance of attention in favor of bottom-up influences. After reviewing evidence for these effects, including their temporal duration, we consider their downstream effects on both autonomy and creativity. We find that while the impact of recent digital technologies on top-down attention may allow for more idea generation, that creativity also depends on control, which is undermined by these technologies. We are more circumspect with autonomy, reasoning that in certain cases it might not make sense to see user autonomy as harmed through these effects. We conclude with other ways that recent digital technologies may improve creativity, which may act as an offset to the detrimental impacts of these technologies.



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Carolyn Dicey Jennings
University of California, Merced

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