Civil Inattention

Posted: October 29, 2017 in Culture, Friendship, Manners
Tags: , , , ,

Here’s another interesting tidbit from Anthony Giddens’ book The Consequences of Modernity, which is the subject of a series of book blogs I’ve been writing. In his discussion of disembedding mechanisms, he introduces the idea of civil inattention (from Goffman, actually). This has partly to do with presence or absence (including inattention) in both public and private settings where face-to-face contact used to be the only option but modern technologies have opened up the possibility of faceless interactions over distance, such as with the telegraph and telephone. More recently, the face has been reintroduced with videoconferencing, but nonverbal cues such as body language are largely missing; the fullness of communication remains attenuated. All manner of virtual or telepresence are in fact cheap facsimiles of true presence and the social cohesion and trust enabled by what Giddens calls facework commitments. Of course, we delude ourselves that interconnectivity mediated by electronics is a reasonable substitute for presence and attention, which fellow blogger The South Roane Agrarian bemoans with this post.

Giddens’ meaning is more specific than this, though. The inattention of which Giddens writes is not the casual distraction of others with which we all increasingly familiar. Rather, Giddens takes note social behaviors embedded in deep culture having to do with signalling trust.

Two people approach and pass one another on a city sidewalk. What could be more trivial and uninteresting? … Yet something is going on here which links apparently minor aspects of bodily management to some of the most pervasive features of modernity. The “inattention” displayed is not indifference. Rather it is a carefully monitored demonstration of what might be called polite estrangement. As the two people approach one another, each rapidly scans the face of the other, looking away as they pass … The glance accords recognition of the other as an agent and as a potential acquaintance. Holding the gaze of the other only briefly, then looking ahead as each passes the other couples such an attitude with an implicit reassurance of lack of hostile intent. [p. 81]

It’s a remarkably subtle interaction: making eye contact to confirm awareness of another but then averting one’s eyes to establish that copresence poses no particular threat in either direction. Staring too fixedly at another communicates something quite else, maybe fear or threat or disapprobation. By denying eye contact — by keeping one’s eyes buried in a handheld device, for instance — the opportunity to establish a modicum of trust between strangers is missed. Intent (or lack thereof) is a mystery. In practice, such modern-day inattention is mere distraction, not a sign of malevolence, but the ingrained social cue is obviated and otherwise banal happenstances become sources of irritation, discomfort, and/or unease, as with someone who doesn’t shake hands or perform others types of greeting properly.

I wrote before about my irritation with others face-planted in their phones. It is not a matter of outright offense but rather a quiet sense of affront at failure to adopt accepted social behaviors (as I once did). Giddens puts it this way:

Tact and rituals of politeness are mutual protective devices, which strangers or acquaintances knowingly use (mostly on the level of practical consciousness) as a kind of implicit social contact. Differential power, particularly where it is very marked, can breach or skew norms …. [pp. 82–83]

That those social behaviors have adapted to omnipresent mobile media, everyone pacified or hypnotized within their individual bubbles, is certainly not a salutary development. It is, however, a clear consequence of modernity.

  1. “everyone pacified or hypnotized within their individual bubble” Yes. This of course is by design. Atomized and solipicized people are easier to manage. Less likely to think critically about the nature of their velvet barred cells. Less likely to notice the willful destruction of the natural world around them. More likely to mindlessly consume its content. Transfixed by curated realities presented endlessly on their devices. Being constantly conditioned to prefer convenient, truncated, easily digestible, controlled and attenuated forms of communication over unmediated more expansive forms. Its an interesting time we live in. I’ll be curious to see how the generations reared on screens turn out. Wall-E soon come.

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment. I’ve covered a lot of this ground in my previous posts and also cited Wall-E as one dystopian future, though I daresay many would accept the life depicted in the clip readily. In support of the idea that this is all by design, Tristan Harris (former Google design ethicist) covers this from the inside. Your other themes and remarks are quite familiar to me, and I agree entirely that we’re channeled by a “curated reality” transmitted over various media. However, I don’t think we need to wait to see how the experiment turns out. It’s already clear that society a whole, not just the millennials (and younger), has gone round the bend. It will get worse, I suspect, especially when the power goes out and everyone has to look up and look out.

      • Agreed. We don’t have to wait to see how it turns out. It’s turning out right now. It’s quite likely it will get worse, as many will clamor for more dystotalitarian lives of “convenience” mediated by ever proliferating screens and apps.

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