Attention blindness is the fundamental structuring principle of the brain, and I believe that it presents us with a tremendous opportunity. My take is different from that of many neuroscientists: Where they perceive the shortcomings of the individual, I sense an opportunity for collaboration. Fortunately, given the interactive nature of most of our lives in the digital age, we have the tools to harness our different forms of attention and take advantage of them. It’s not easy to acknowledge that everything we’ve learned about how to pay attention means that we’ve been missing everything else.
It’s not easy for us rational, competent, confident types to admit that the very key to our success—our ability to pinpoint a problem and solve it, an achievement honed in all those years in school and beyond—may be exactly what limits us. For more than a hundred years, we’ve been training people to see in a particularly individual, deliberative way. No one ever told us that our way of seeing excluded everything else.
I want to suggest a different way of seeing, one that’s based on multitasking our attention—not by seeing it all alone but by distributing various parts of the task among others dedicated to the same end. For most of us, this is a new pattern of attention. Multitasking is the ideal mode of the 21st century, not just because of information overload but also because our digital age was structured without anything like a central node broadcasting one stream of information that we pay attention to at a given moment. On the Internet, everything links to everything, and all of it is available all the time.
Unfortunately, current practices of our educational institutions—and workplaces—are a mismatch between the age we live in and the institutions we have built over the last 100-plus years. The 20th century taught us that completing one task before starting another one was the route to success. Everything about 20th-century education, like the 20th-century workplace, has been designed to reinforce our attention to regular, systematic tasks that we take to completion. Attention to task is at the heart of industrial labor management, from the assembly line to the modern office, and of educational philosophy, from grade school to graduate school.