sherry turkle

Embodied perception in the age of the attention economy

Technology is increasingly personal. Do you understand how this impacts you? Feeling more distracted? That’s intentional. Confused by too many options? That’s human. Overwhelmed by information? That’s innate limitation.

First, how did you we get here? More importantly, what can you do about it? In this age of intimate and intentional tech, embodiment promotes the antidote: empathy.

Intimate tech

With the introduction of tactile interface, the hardware of our digital devices is self-adjacent and the software is immediately responsive. These two points have changed our relationship with technology. Touch is a sense that can signal safety and familiarity. For you to touch something in a manner that is nonviolently interactive implies to your nervous system that you trust this thing enough to engage with it in your peripersonal space. As it continues to become more personal, the natural evolution of intimate tech is for it to become embedded in you or an extension of your physicality.

Intentional behavior

Software becomes smarter every day: it has troves of information and its processes are self-learning and generative. Artificial intelligence has reached a point where it is not transparent, even to the developers who designed it. Big data and deep learning are upending what psychologist Daniel Kahneman terms ‘slow thinking’. Artificial intelligence (AI) has made the slow deliberation of cognitive analysis a fast but disembodied process. With no need to consult and check gut instinct, AI can process data more consistently and more rapidly than human capacity.

As a data point, you are identified, profiled, and targeted in ways previous generations have never seen. In order to persuade you, understanding motivational psychology for manipulation through technology has become a dedicated school of academic study. In many respects, tech is exhibiting a type of intentional behavior.

In the information age, what is the limited resource? Information is free-flowing and easily accessible. Your attention, however, is something that you have in limited amounts. The intention for many tech companies is to capture your attention and accumulate your data for precise targeting. The perfect product in this age is not what they sell to you, but the vehicle with which you give your resource to them. In exchange for searching a free library of information or a free way to share your personal stories, in the attention economy you have become the product. Tech is consuming your attention, tracking your activities and movements, profiling your purchasing patterns, driving you to more extreme sources of information, and manipulating your vulnerabilities.

Empathy through embodiment

In this context of intimate, intentional tech that is changing how we perceive and interact, it makes sense to educate yourself on what creates your experience of the world: what is universal, what is specific to my family, what is specific to my culture, what is unique to me? If you investigate what creates your deepest experience of the world in terms of your own universally human functions, you’ll start to understand what others experience as well. This is the basis for empathy.

Cultivating empathy starts by tuning into yourself. Intimate and intentional tech has revealed what is largely unconscious in our daily action. It is a wake-up call to expand skills of perception and to elevate intentional behavior. Social psychologist Sherry Turkle puts forth conversation as a key way to learn the social dance of accommodating to another person. The back and forth that she describes is grounded in mirror neurons, receptive listening, and sensing into the felt impact of words. Literacy researcher Maryanne Wolf studies the generative power of reading to spark imagination and an expanded experience of self. Perception in this case is happening in your mind. Can you allow yourself to get swept up into the story and characters? Good writing helps take you there, but reading for deep experiential impact is a skill that requires practice.

Both of these avenues of empathy-building can be amplified when you understand yourself from a bottom-up approach. That means you examine the very nature of your sensory experience. Do you understand how you relate to the experiences of gravity, sound, and light? It’s something you can learn with guidance and intention, over time, but you can start right now by understanding the characteristics of these forces.

Gravity is a force that is constant and present at all times. It is steady, reliable, and powerful. Working with gravity through posture, walking, and physical challenge, you develop an internal experience of support and power.

Sound is essentially tactile. It is vibration of the eardrum, of the bones, of the skin. Sound perception lays down the emotional foundation for communication and is the core of social engagement. Perceiving sound well organizes your posture for receptive listening.

Light is processed through your visual system on multiple levels, but ultimately interpreting light to form visual input that is meaningful is an experiential and constructed process.

Steady, emotional, constructive. These phenomenal experiences of gravity, sound, and light integrate within you as a scaffold for the more complex skills of social interaction. The complexity of the world that is revealed by intimate and intentional tech is what we have yet to examine deeply within ourselves. The most fundamental dynamic of our human experience is understood through the deepest layers of embodied perception.