Category Archives: The Greater Attention System

Earth, Wind, Fire, Water…Fire wins for attention.

Campfire with sparks in Anttoora, Finland.

Image via Wikipedia

Last weekend when I was camping with some friends I was noticing how the layout of the campsite directed people’s attention.  It seemed as if no one paid attention to the surrounding scenery (the forest, the lakes, the mountains) because the focal point of the campsite was the fire pit.  Everything in the campsite oriented around the fire; even the way we chose to set up camp centripetally focused on the fire pit.  Tents faced the fire. The camp table faced the fire.

I found this directed attention kind of odd because intentionally, the fire pit was placed so that the background scenery would be the lake and the mountains across the lake.  But instead of attending to the scenery, everyone was rapt in attention and staring at the flames.  Fire mesmerized us all.

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Making eye contact as one form of coordination between store clerks and shoppers

Yesterday (a busy Saturday at 4pm) I went to a clothing store with my wife. While I was shopping I was almost run into by 4 employees who I felt were not looking where they were going. Two other employees were standing with clothing racks such that they blocked the entire aisle (these were main aisles too) and I had to weave my way through a maze of aisles to effectively navigate around the workers.

This struck me as odd.

Before I go any further, let me say that I have participated in other cultures where eye contact is dispreferred and this is not one of those situations.

I mentioned to my wife that no one was looking up to see where they were going and that no one had made eye contact with me. She said “maybe they have other ways of seeing where they are going.” I responded that I was not talking about whether or not they were able to sense obstacles in their paths, but it was more a matter of coordination.

I don’t meant coordination in terms of a person’s ability to balance or juggle or chew gum and walk; I meant coordination in terms of the social performance of a joint activity, in this case, negotiating aisle-etiquette between two people (let alone the fact that this incident was between store workers and a store customer). This is a matter of whether or not two people are able to jointly indicate to each other that they are aware of the presence of the other person so that mutually informed decisions about walking and passing can be established. As it stands, even if those employees sensed my presence their posture, lack of eye-contact, and aloof busyness prohibited them from confirming to me (and probably other shoppers) that they were not about to run me over.

Had they taken the brief 500 or so milliseconds to make eye contact with me, we both could have coordinated our actions any neither of us would have had to sacrifice energy to avoid the other.

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On walking and mediated embodied experience in ethnographic map making

Girl walking in a beach. Porto Covo, Portugal.

Image via Wikipedia

Recently I’ve been thinking about my spatial experience of my contextual environment and about what I have learned over the years in consciously encountering space as a user of space, a creator of space, and a participant in community through space.  I am thinking about this as I am getting ready to do some tutoring on domain mapping in ethnographic research.  Here is a summary of my spatial experience.

As a child most of my experience with space was either moving through it on foot or by being driven around in a car.  Toss in the stroller, occasional plane ride, boating, crutches, sledding, riding a bicycle, but by and large WALKING and RIDING dominated my childhood experience of space.

As an adult I would live in cities like Chicago and Honolulu, places where the infrastructure encouraged walking.  This changed my understanding of terrain, and walking became my primary vantage point for my movement through space, although each place did have new modes of movement; Chicago had a train, Honolulu had surf boards.

Doing fieldwork in West Africa I would never drive; I saw most of sub-Saharan Africa in a van, or a Volkswagen, or a Renault, but I was always the passenger.  At least I could stare out the window and imagine what it was like at a walking pace.

Where I live now has a walkability score of 25 out of 100.  Where I lived in Chicago had a score of 98, Hawai’i had a score of 78; clearly my current 25 is pitiful in comparison.

To be fair, where I live now there are some residents with a score of 82, so, it is not like walking is precluded by living here, just that it is not easy for everyone (like me).  I walked home from work once and it took me three hours.

This has restricted my daily routine movement to driving.  These days I experience my landscape from a vehicle (much like my Africa passenger days), but this time I don’t even get to look around and pay attention to what zooms past my face; no, I only pay attention to that which is necessary to avoid collisions.

Driving has seriously hindered my sense of place.  I used to spend a lot of time walking, exploring, noticing things at street level, at a pace that let me participate and observe; being a car driver has forced me to give up participation with a place in favor of being a consumer of that place, the road is just a conduit.

Instead of participating with the place I now participate with my driving peers as we consume the street on our way to our various destinations.  The interactive dynamic is not with the people who reside in a place, but with people who routinely pass through the place.  This is like the boat that is moored to the riverbank, the boat might not move but the river has certainly changed.

Compared to the speed with which I now drive through my neighborhoods, walking is practically standing still.  Walking is being the boat moored to the bank; driving is the rushing river.  And the places I drive through do not really change either, but I have nothing to do with the neighborhoods which I zoom through, not the shops, not the landscape, not the people.

I need to stop driving so much.

I need to learn to walk, again.

I need to experience the physical crust of earth and to encounter a place with my feet, unmediated by round rubber tires and a gas pedal.

Being a driver has abstracted my encounter with a place by removing the minutia and patient tiny details made visible to the walking man.  I say “man” because I speak of myself; I was a walking man, like James Taylor, but now, where I live, if you walk expect to be stared at, honked at, yelled at by crazy fun-loving child-drivers, and occasionally the target of someone’s empty sodacan/coffeecup/waterbottle hurled out the window with an insult.  I am serious; walking is stigmatizing, and dangerous.

This is partly why I drive places.

My level of attention to place as a driver does not decompose into lower level experiences with place like it does on a stroll where those small experiences gradiently build up to become a walking journey, instead I pay more attention to how many red lights have impeded my progress.

Walking for me does more than serve the function of travel between places; I walk to know a place.

When I move somewhere new (or even visit from out of town), the first thing I do is walk around a place, in an ever widening gyre, a scroll stroll uncurling through a city emanating away from my apartment or hotel room.  I walk around and I get a feel for what surrounds me.  I don’t even look at a map until I have learned the map through my feet.  By doing this I start to learn my place in the broader context, and this is where you encounter the joys of a place, its people, its vitality, its curiosities; by walking you learn the identity of a place.

This afternoon I thought about how walking is natural for me as an ethnographer; in fact, walking is essential.  And one of the reasons it is so important is that it helps in making maps of a place, in mapping the domains and the various spatial relations found in that place.  Sure, you can sit somewhere and draw a map of everything you see, but I promise you, if you walk around a place and look first with your feet, your map will be more detailed, more accurate, and more relevant as you come to capture the reality which each participant experiences as they use that space.

I might have seen a lot of sub-Saharan West Africa, but it doesn’t mean too much to me, and I certainly could only attempt to map it out from an approximation of the various landmarks I happened to have noticed from the window.  This is because the dynamic and progressive movement of a vehicle is that your sense of figure-ground organization is constantly shifting, and it goes as fast as the driver feels is necessary.  But when you walk around, if something becomes figural in your field of vision, and you feel it is important, you get to pause for a moment and reflect on the significance of what you have seen.  This kind of intentional embodied experience is vital for making sense of a place.

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On Failure & Resilience in Optimization of Human Systems, Ecological Systems, and Networked Systems of Systems

I was recently watching Eleanor Saitta’s talk called “Your Infrastructure Will Kill You“.  Part of her talk outlined how optimization equals fragility (more or less).  That to the degree that something is cleaner, more elegant, or more efficient, it is fragile, and a break in the system can be potentially catastrophic.

In thinking about her comments I thought of a few examples where I have observed optimization creating a state of fragility, here are a few of my thoughts:

  • This has interesting considerations for general principles of design, specifically the form/function aspect of design. Probably the point at which form begins to extend beyond the needs of function the focus on form becomes gratuitous and potentially even hazardous (depending on the type of system).  Ironically, optimization in this case is not absolute optimization, but only optimization considering a specific set of requirements: when things are running smoothly then the system is optimized.
  • Another place for failure is when relationships are optimized; when the dispersal of information through a system relies on optimized relationships it only takes the breaking of one of the nodes in a network to create a chain reaction of subsequent nodes being uninformed.We think about how a well-connected network effectively distributes information, specifically in recent thought this informed an analysis of William Dawes vs. Paul Revere – showing how Revere’s relationship of network brokers enabled him to broadcast more extensively than Dawes’ impoverished closed network.  This is good thinking, except that it misses the point of threat: Revere was a weak link in that optimized chain of information; had he been eliminated his message would have been eliminated.  Revere and his network, although connected and optimized, were fragile.
  • In generative linguistics there is an optimization of the lexicon. Economy in space is valued above economy in processing; if this is opaque to you, I mean that generative linguistics tries to minimize the amount of information that it stores as unique units.  It is called “generative” because it generates complex utterances from values stored in the lexicon through recursion, instead of storing those values as wholes.  But there is a weakness; in optimizing the lexicon the generative power of the spell-out rules of Universal Grammar are fragile when it comes to dealing with actual language usage (which is the test of a linguistic theory, is it not?), and the rules fail to account for some foundational constructions of language (like idioms for example).

Ok, so there are lots of places where optimization leads to failure, but what are some ways in which optimization leads to resilience?  What are some solutions to these problems?

Redundancy is a great solution, but it is bulky.

  • When function is optimized it allows you to work backwards in the process of making things have better forms. This is actually how a lot of design progresses.  Think about how every piece of electronic technology that we have today had a larger predecessor.  Think about those clunky mobile phones from the eighties with the handset, base and cord in a leather bag, now look at the mobile phone you carry in your pocket.  Functionality was concept proven in the clunky design, and the form was optimized to enhance the function.
  • It seems to me that the optimization weakness in the Revere incident was that Revere was the weak link.  Instead of depending on the optimization of Revere’s relationships, perhaps the message itself needed optimization. One possible way to optimize the information load of a message is to abstract it (as was done with the signal of the hanging lanterns to indicate the route of attack), and another way is to reduce dependence upon a single messenger exploiting a network (In 1775 the sexton who hung the lanterns was a single messenger, Revere was a single messenger, et cetera).  Flooding a network with messengers bearing an abstracted signal would have been less fragile (put aside for the moment the need for secrecy in the 1775 incident).  In situations where secrecy is not vital, consider how this kind of network flooding would communicate the coherence of the message; when you hear the same thing from five people you at least start giving some credence to the constancy of the message.  In such cases what may have been unknown or even background information becomes salient and foregrounded through repeated exposure. Also, consider other types of signals that can be exploited to prompt a response of crowd mobilization, noises work particularly well.  Sirens and loud noises alert and orient people’s attentional systems toward the source of the signal, and that source becomes figural in the contextual noise of that signal.
  • Optimization can lead to resilience in online processing, like in a maximized lexicon that places the task of optimization on the processing skills required in the selection and extraction of form-meaning elements from the inventory.  Cognitive approaches to the lexicon seek to preserve economy in processing; instead of having a minimal lexicon with lots of processing rules, the cognitive approach has an ordered inventory of form-meaning pairings (including monomorphemic elements, constructions, and phrases that are learned whole), with an optimized processing system of constraints, schemas, and other elements of cognitive processing (see this week’s post on emergentist vs. universalist view for understanding the contrast in general cognitive processing vs. modular mind).
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Intention Directing, Self-Reporting, and the Transitive Constructions in Early Childhood Grammar (preschool, 2-5 years old)

Group of children in a primary school in Paris

Image via Wikipedia

Since constructions are learned through usage, constructions are accumulated as individual entities that begin to form collections and these collections of constructions begin to exhibit type frequency.  I think that this type frequency represents an aspect of the nature of child conceptualization, and indeed, it enables the communication of conceptualization in relational behavior from early ages.  This post explores a little about my extension of Tomasello’s analysis of the abstract transitive construction from his book Constructing a Language.

Tomasello divides a list of verbs used in the transitive constructions into four categories: Having Objects, Moving or Transforming Objects, Acting on Objects, and Psychological Activities (150, Tomasello: 2003).  These are not productive constructions until around 3,5; at which point children begin to use the transitive construction with verbs outside of the list presented by Tomasello.  Children use the verbs to indicate Agent and Patient roles in the [Trans-SUBJ Trans-VERB Trans-OBJ] transitive construction.  Looking through the list of verbs presented in Tomasello’s text it is easy to see that children have subjective conceptualizations and are able to begin articulating these ideas.  Verbs like: mean, know, like, help, need, and want represent a complex internal awareness of the interface between the physical/objective world and the mental/subjective world.  This understanding of the descriptive functions of the transitive construction enable the child to foray into relational transactions that involve intention-directing and launch the child into participation in the social world with the means to assert their identity as communicative entities in conversation.  These constructions allow self-reporting of internal states and an articulation of desire that transcends the physical environment.  The child can now make declarations, but also utter imperatives regarding subjective concepts to effect changes in the concrete world.

Interestingly, the early abstract transitive constructions allow the child to place varying degrees of focus on the elements used in the construction.  This is a salience-determining skill that allows the child to manipulate meaning in relation to the Agent and Patient roles, which may be a precursor to learning other constructions like the Passive construction.  Additionally, the emergence of this ability may represent the manifestation of figure-ground distinctions in early child grammar.

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Foundational Cognitive Skills that Babies Need in Language Development

Reading on a Friday night

Image by mr brown via Flickr

As mentioned (yesterday’s post) three skills emerge from this acceptance of the triadic perspective:

1) Joint Attention Frame; 2)Intention Reading; and 3) Cultural Learning (Pattern Finding).  Joint Attention is the ability to coordinate attention with another individual on a third entity.  These third entities move from strictly concrete entities to more abstract entities as time goes by.  Without the ability to have a joint attention frame the transfer of knowledge would be impossible and the ability to converse with others in a meaningful way is equally impossible.  The process of intention reading is critical to understanding how others can have their behaviors influenced and likewise how the self can be influenced by the intentions of others.  Although not explicitly stated in Tomasello’s 2003 text, this particular cognitive skill would seem to be the foundation of basic relational strategies like the establishment of trust and credibility.  The final skill is pattern finding which enables cultural learning as the infant observes behavioral, intentional, and relational patterns in the contextual cultural community.  The child develops a sense for how things are done by intentional agents as the child attends to the patterns demonstrated through the everyday lives of those intentional agents with whom the child relates.

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Baby Behaviors Around 9-12 Months Enable “Conversation”

Joint Attention

Image by jeanbaptisteparis via Flickr

Infants move from a strictly dyadic sort of attentional phenomena to a triadic behavioral attention at around 9-12 months of age.  This opens the world for infants to allow them to consider other people as intentional agents with whom it is possible to interact.  This provides a platform for the infants to begin engaging in a relational way as a precursor to conversation including new ways of referencing the world around them and new ways of coordinating attention of the outside intentional agents.  Without this development into the capacity for accessing a triadic perspective children would be unable to operate in a joint attention frame, would be unable to read intention, and would not maximize cultural learning – all of which depend on recognizing the other-than-self as self-motivated.

I added this picture because it represents Joint Attention…now, substitute the three adults for an adult and an infant – this represents the ability to focus in a joint attention frame so as to develop a sense of common ground.  Stay tuned…more to come.

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Sample Sentences Using Spradley’s Nine Semantic Relations from The Ethnographic Interview

Cover of "The Ethnographic Interview"

Cover of The Ethnographic Interview

I love James Spradley’s work on ethnographic interviews, componential analysis, taxonomic analysis, and participant observation, but Spradley’s work on semantic analysis has been the most thought-provoking for me theoretically.  Here I list out his nine semantic relationships and give some sample descriptive sentences to show you how the semantic relation describes the two elements in the relationship.  I have to say, however, that none of these sentences are very natural in a natural language kind of way.  In fact, the one concern that I have with Spradley’s view of semantics (from my usage-based cognitive view of language) is that it does not adequately lend itself to a straightforward modeling of the semantics of a natural language sentence.  Instead, if you want to use this for natural language, it has to be on a propositional level.

These semantics are best for modeling culture and the dynamics of a culture.  After all, they were drawn up in a methodology for ethnography.  In the sentences I present below you will find that they have a rigid and non-human sound to them; in fact, I think (and this is my opinion), that if you want to use Spradley’s semantics for anything other than modeling culture, that they are best used in formal system modeling, such as an expert system. Continue reading

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