The Principle of Joint Attention

“… it would seem that children apply the principle of joint attention to the self and assume that for somebody to be perceived, experience must be shared and mutually known to be shared, as it is when two pairs of eyes meet…”-BPS Research Digest, Why Do Children Hide by Covering Their Eyes?

When I read this quote, I found it to be unintentionally poetic. If the eyes do not meet, if two people are not aware of each other, do both of them fully exist?

The baby is wrong, of course, I do not disappear when her eyes are covered. On the other hand, there are parts of me that do not exist except in relation to others. When an experience is not mutually known to be shared, there is something less real about it.

In my first novel, Angel, the character Paul, a former minister working as a tour guide, observes: “People take photographs so they will not feel lonely. They take them for the absent friends they wish were there to share the view. There are few things more melancholy than looking out on a truly sublime landscape and realizing you are experiencing it all alone.”

We live in an interesting age. It has been estimated that in the medieval world the average person saw one hundred other people in the course of a lifetime. Even letter writing was a rarity reserved for the elite until the Victorian era.

So until quite recently nearly all interactions were personal, involving joint attention. Now the average American watches five hours of TV per day. When we’re not doing that (and sometimes when we are) we spend about 23 hours a week online and texting. Psychological studies show that we have a terrible time discerning reality from what we see on TV. Our brains interpret what we see and hear as actually being in the world because for most of human history this was true. Where else could an image be generated except in the real world?  We are all hanging out with celebrities on a daily basis, at least somewhere in the uncritical emotional part of our minds. And they don’t know us, or care about us, at all. That can become quite isolating.

If I see the rock star but he doesn’t see me, do I really exist?

In my new novel, Identity Theft, the main character Candi has an online flirtation with a person she believes to be her favorite rock star. Initially this makes her uneasy. Wanting to meet a famous person is generally considered to be immature. Women are supposed to grow out of their fan-girl stage when they leave high school. But wanting to know the people who intrigue us, and wanting to be respected by those we admire, is a natural impulse. Candi’s co-worker, Lydia, reassures her by saying, “Just because something makes you feel vulnerable doesn’t mean it’s a character flaw. When you appreciate someone you want them to appreciate you, too. I mean what if you didn’t? I think you’d be a psychopath.”

It is an inevitable part of growing up, a bittersweet one (or perhaps just bitter), to realize and eventually accept that the people who hold your interest will not generally be the same ones who are interested in you.

Yet we retain a bit of our infant selves, expecting and longing for joint attention. We want to know and be known, to love and be loved, to lock eyes and be in the same moment together.

In lieu of that we buy autographed photos on ebay.

Quote of the Day: With No Audience I was Just There…

“I did examine myself,” he said. “Solitude did increase my perception. But here’s the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn’t even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.”-Christopher Thomas Knight, who lived as a hermit in the Maine woods for 27 years, quoted in The Strange Tale of the Last True Hermit.

In Praise of the Boring

“Few have cared to think or talk about the uninteresting.”-Lord Alfred Douglas

This was the premise of an article Lord Alfred Douglas wrote when he was an undergraduate at Oxford University.  An essay in praise of the boring has comic potential. Potential, it must be said, the young man failed to realize in his Spirit Lamp article. He chose, instead, to complain about the tediousness of Oxford dons, as students are wont to do.

But I think he was on to something. He lived at the beginning of the era of the media celebrity. Oscar Wilde, himself, might have been the prototype of today’s stars. He sought attention and headlines for his personal traits– his bon mots, his manner of dress– before he had achieved much of anything. He used being known as path to a career rather than becoming known for having done something notable. That is the modern way.

Alfred Douglas, however, represented the old world. It was a world in which honor and dishonor were the main measures of a man.  Oscar Wilde always tailored his speech to his audience. Alfred Douglas said whatever he thought without much regard for how it would come across. “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth,” Wilde famously said. Douglas had no mask. He was, as Bernard Shaw would say “unpoliced.”

Oscar Wilde would have done well on Kickstarter. Lord Alfred Douglas, probably not. And perhaps one of the tragedies of his life was that he was so ill-equipped to navigate a world of fame.

I have noticed that people instinctively give money on Kickstarter to the thing that entertains in the moment even if, in the case of Bunch O Balloons, it has already achieved 800% funding.

A case in point is Nothing in a Bottle, in which a guy from Michigan named Dave, promises to send you a bottle of nothing.

nothingIt is a clever little post, he’s not asking for a lot of money, and he has nice lettering on the tag of his bottle of nothing. So he reached his goal.

The reason the famous “I’m going to make potato salad” Kickstarter went viral is that it made people laugh. People said, “Yeah, that’s funny, I’ll kick in a few bucks for the smile it gave me.”

Why not? But note the past tense. “It made me smile.”

Kickstarter was conceived to take potential energy of ideas and turn them into kinetic energy through financial backing. It is about supporting unrealized potential.

All of the entertainment value of the potato salad project was already realized in the Kickstarter post itself. It aimed to entertain, and it did. The people who support it are not actually paying because they hope the guy can pull off a potato salad.

This brings us back to the Alfred Douglas question. How do we support the uninteresting? That is to say, how do people and projects with an entertainment challenge make a go of it in a hype centered world?

Some projects are uninteresting because they cannot promise specific results and do not lend themselves naturally to clever premiums. Investigative journalism falls into this category. People generally recognize that investigative journalism is vital and in the public interest. It has also come into hard times as news organizations prune their budgets and 24 hour cable news channels compete against America’s Got Talent for eyeballs. Big news is a bottom line business, driven by ratings, and so the most sensational (and easy to cover) stories will lead.

Many people have suggested crowd funding as a means to support this important journalistic work, but it tends to fail and for the same reasons that big news organizations cut funding for long-term, high risk, no-guarantee investigations. There are no immediate results to show. Much of the research cannot be announced before the work is done. It is hard to hype and hard to make entertaining– even if the end result has the potential to be explosive down the line.

I looked up “investigative journalism” on Kickstarter and the first project that came up in the list has no backers.  (Admittedly in this case it could be because there is so little biographical information about the reporters. Potential backers can’t judge whether this team can carry it off or not.)

Research is another area that lacks entertainment value. Research is all potential energy. It should be, in theory, exactly the type of thing that Kickstarter would do best. It is not. When I looked up “research” four featured projects came up. All of them are 0% funded right now.

(The projects are for the creation of a platform for crowd sourcing cancer research— a kickstarter for cancer research if you will, research on humpback whales, a tiny house research project, and a guy doing genealogical research.)

Fixing a theater’s roof will always be less entertaining than videos about a new theatrical production even though the roof is necessary to allow those productions to take place.

So perhaps we should start to talk more about the uninteresting.

Witnesses to Creation

“There is always a host of us exploding with joy at the first moment of creation, which has never ceased happening.”

This line from Stephen Mitchell’s Meetings with the Archangel is spoken by the angel Gabriel to the novel’s protagonist. Gabriel is trying to explain, in human terms, what heaven is like.

Stong’s Concordance defined a host as “a mass of persons or things especially organized for war, an army.”

Creation has many witnesses. We project our human limitations onto our angels. They are individuals who must come together to share in the joy of creation rather than having one’s experience of joy become the experience of all.

Experiences on this earth do not seem entirely real, they lack real emotion, unless they are shared.

Have you ever seen a mother pushing a baby in a stroller when the child is at just that age, she can engage with the people around her, but she does not yet have words. She rides in her buggy with her finger constantly in the air. She points to the dog, to the dandelions, to the boy on his bike, to the mailbox. Everything catches her interest. Everything in amazing. She wants mom to see it too.

It never really changes. When we see funny videos on Youtube we click send and share, we post them on Facebook, because it is no fun to experience it on your own. When we come back from vacation we want our friends and family to look at the photographs.

Maybe it is a cry for reassurance. I need to know that what I have seen in the world exists, that you see it too and it is not my imagination.