More about the Importance of Context

As a follow-up to the last post, I just read this op-ed piece by Timothy Egan, Egan is bemoaning the drastic shortening of human’s attenuation span.

In the information blur of last year, you may have overlooked news of our incredibly shrinking attention span. A survey of Canadian media consumption by Microsoft concluded that the average attention span had fallen to eight seconds, down from 12 in the year 2000. We now have a shorter attention span than goldfish, the study found.

Attention span was defined as “the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted.” I tried to read the entire 54-page report, but well, you know. Still, a quote from Satya Nadella, the chief executive officer of Microsoft, jumped out at me. “The true scarce commodity” of the near future, he said, will be “human attention.”


As we shift our attention from one focus to another in rapid succession, two outcomes limit our ability to add meaning and context to our lives, and, consequently, to create a way of living that can produce flourishing. Context can be conceived as the filter by which we are able to make something distinct against a meaningless assemblage of phenomena. Meaning comes with context, and context is created by pauses in the rapid flow of information on the sense, during which the actor stops and related a story about what just happened to the brain where is it stored for some future time when it is recalled during a meaning act. Consciousness and attention are coupled. Consciousness is always consciousness of something that has currently captured our attention; whatever that is, it has been filtered out of the other sensory perceptions that were impinging on the body at that moment of consciousness.

If we lack context, we cannot build up meaningful stories when we decide to act. Meaning allows us to connect past experiences with our values. We can associate love, trust, admiration or any other quality with the immediate awareness of whatever has come into focus. Many of these qualities obviate the need to make instantaneous assessments of some utilitarian nature. When we do act in such context, we continue telling the story and enrich the meaning even more. Not all such actions will turn out positively but, in every case, we will add new chapters to the story already in our memory.

As I wrote in the last post, actions that arise from a contextual basis are meaningful in the sense of caring. They are based on a sense of prior engagement and a sense of connection to the other involved in the action. That other can be other humans, parts of the non-human world, the actor as a distinct human being, or images of a previous transcendent experience. As fundamentally social animals, we spend most of our times with other human beings. In our earliest days as Home sapiens, life was always entirely devoted to caring. It was a time that we created language as a tool to facilitate such interactions. Words and linguistic structure were means to tell stories to others as instructions for coordinating action. If one wished to act, it was necessary to provide a meaningful context: who should be involved, what was the intended outcome, why that was important, and so on. The richness of context and, consequently, meaning deepened as more words were added. Human beings have been often described as meaning-seeking animals.

Jumping a few dozen millennia to today, Egan’s article is one more in what I see as an increase in commentary about the thinness of modern life and the increasing pathologies that threaten human and non-human flourishing. In the last post, I pointed to dangers inherent in the growth of 1) markets as the appropriate means to coordination actions, and 2) technology as the medium for communication. Both fail to produce meaning in engagements with them, which failure can be attributed to the absence of reflective consciousness, the process by which we add to the stories in our brain.

Egan proposes a couple of remedies.

The first is gardening. You plant something in the cold, wet soil of the fall — tulip bulbs or garlic — and then you want to shout, “Grow!” Eight seconds later, nothing. Working the ground, there’s no instant gratification. The planting itself forces you to think in half-year-increments, or longer for trees and perennials. The mind drifts, from the chill of a dark day to a springtime of color. Hope, goes the Emily Dickinson poem, is the thing with feathers. But it’s also the thing that rises from a tiny seed, in its own sweet time.

The second is deep reading, especially in the hibernation months of winter. I’m nearly done with the second volume of William Manchester’s masterly biography of Winston Churchill, “The Last Lion.” (O.K., I’m late to the book, Churchillians.) It’s zipping by. Next up is a new history of the Roman Empire.

The first is a marvelous thought. I often have used gardening in connection with complexity, a topic intimately related to the discussion above. Gardening requires that one build a context that informs actions along the way from seeding to fruition (flourishing). The same is true when dealing with any complex system and its challenges. Its outcomes come in, as Egan writes, “in its own sweet time.” Technological fixes tend to fail because those who would apply them fail to understand exactly that characteristic of complexity.

The second is also very thoughtful. Written texts are stories on paper that arise from the stories in the author’s bodies. The flow of words is produced by a continuous reflection of meaning in the author’s conscousness that is mirrored by the reader. Hermeneutics, the study of meaning in texts, aims at matching these two streams. As we read we attribute meaning, whether or not it matches the authors, which meaning then affects how we will interpret the next passage, or what we have previously read. If we are to get into a book, we must be able to focus attention for periods long enough to establish a continuing sense of what is on the pages. If we flit from one part to another in the sense of the short attention span that Egan bewails, the possibility of finding meaning is virtually nil.