Generalism is often associated with things like multitasking and info surfing — generalist as dabbling dilettante — and these habits are regularly linked with lack of concentration and even Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Is this a fair connection? Citing Columbia University art historian and author (The Technique of The Observer and Suspensions of Perception) Jonathan Crary, MFA instructor and author Véronique Vienne ponders the pros and cons of a short attention span as it relates to Théodore Géricault‘s highly detailed painting The Raft of The Medusa. She observes how people visting the Louvre actually study the painting and remarks at how each tourist “was alone in a private world, too busy consuming information to look around and partake in the often cathartic experience of shared art appreciation.”
Paying attention, according to Crary, is a learned behavior, the result of an economic imperative whose origins is the industrial revolution, a period during which a vast number of workers had to be trained to pay attention to the machines they were operating. Attention Deficit Disorder, then, is not a physiological disorder, as the medical profession would have us believe, but a reaction against the increasing pressure of a system that requires we put our natural ability to perceive at the service of productivity.
Crary’s historical perspective on the manufacturing of attention helps explain the reason for my short attention span, and for that of many of us suffering from information overload. Our absentmindedness is a defensive technique, a direct reaction against a practice that attempts to discipline the natural rhythm of human perception, characterized by ebbs and flows.