Local civic engagement is an outcome of local attention.
When people engage in their neighborhoods they are paying attention to their neighborhoods amidst the myriad other things to which they could be paying attention. They are stopping to engage in a local group, a process, or a meeting, and for that brief period of time, turning their focus towards their local geographic space. So, the problem of waning civic engagement, so thoroughly documented by scholars such as Robert Putnam, is not merely a disenchantment with group processes, but can also be considered a problem of attention. And, if we consider attention as something that is multiple, rather than binary, civic engagement (local attention), is not undivided. In other words, we have the capacity to participate in affairs through many avenues – joining a neighborhood listserv is one; attending a community meeting is another. Civic multitasking is a viable form of participation and it in no way compromises the value of that participation. It is similar to what N. Katherine Hayles describes as hyper attention – “Hyper attention is characterized by switching focus rapidly among different tasks, preferring multiple information streams, seeking a high level of stimulation, and having a low tolerance for boredom.”
Civic multitasking does not presume shallow focus
Instead assumes multiple foci, with each capable of depth. And with most instances of hyper attention, deep and momentary focus bleeds over into other foci. For instance, seeing a powerful film will influence the way you see other films, engage in fan communities, etc. Just because the focus is multiple, it does not mean that it is equally distributed. So I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the participatory Chinatown project. We have built a game to engage residents of Boston’s Chinatown in that neighborhood’s master planning process. The game is intended to provide a deep and meaningful engagement in the neighborhood’s issues over the course of a two-hour meeting. It is to, through the process of augmented deliberation, create a deep and lasting experience. It is clear how the game can create a deep time-consuming – it provides a scaffolding of interaction that quite literally captures the user’s attention and focuses participation onto the local context. However, how it provides a lasting experience is less clear.
The game is intended as a reference point for civic multitasking
It becomes a powerful reference within the multiplicity of a user’s attention. Through the creation of deep experience, it draws attention back to the locality, when attention might otherwise have gone elsewhere. We have devised many, less time-consuming mechanisms of paying attention to the game space after playing it, without playing it again. Users can consult the website for continued updates on the process and on their own contributions to the game. Paying attention to the game’s website, if only periodically and momentarily, is precisely the kind of civic engagement we are seeking. The game provides an attentional reference point that can be continually called up within a psychological and social environment of multitasking. In order for a game like this to be meaningful and effective, we have to adjust our terms of assessment. The game will not result in a return to focused civic engagement; however, through the lens of civic multitasking, the game will hopefully provide that moment of deep attention that will ground the hyper attentional realities of civic life. Our goal is to get people to pay attention to their local communities; but, likewise, our goal is to reorient expectations of attention and to discover and develop new platforms for civic multitasking.