Even before the rise of mass media like film and television, media technologies have aimed to modify, increase, and manage attention. Early on in this development, attention became reconceived as a complex and temporal process: distraction was now considered to be a constitutive part of an unavoidably distributed form of attention. This ambivalent relationship between attention and distraction has been one of the key concepts for the application of new media technologies. Since the early-21st century, what looks like the danger of distraction at one moment, in the next, becomes a new form of attention. The contemporary multiplication of screens and gadgets is yet another decisive turning point in this history. The simultaneous use of different media intensifies both the menace of constant distraction and the promise of micro-managed attention.
The dangers of mobile screens’ distractive potential are most dramatically expressed in the context of driving. In many countries, public awareness campaigns—with taglines such as ‘don’t text and drive’ or ‘keep your eyes on the road’— often sponsored by car manufacturers, aim to convince drivers not to be tempted to use their smartphones behind the wheel. A spot produced by the car manufacturer VW fuses movie-going and driving: in a Hong Kong cinema, watching a film shot from the viewpoint of the driver, audience members all simultaneously receive a text message. Grabbing their phones to read the message, they miss the moment in the movie where the driver has an accident—looking up from their mobile screens, all they see is a shattered windshield on the big screen. In driving as in movie-going, the mobile screen is depicted as a problem of distraction— annoying at best, life threatening at worst.
While many cinemas ask their audiences to switch off their mobile devices before the start of the show, the case of multiple-screen use has become much more ambivalent (and therefore productive) in recent years. In contrast, television has begun to harness rather than ban the second screen—both to safeguard attention and to augment the experience. Before ‘complementary simultaneous media use’ could become a plausible concept, however, the alternating use of media and the mere accidental simultaneous use (multitasking) had to be molded into a densely interrelated and manageable assemblage.
Compared to the cinema, television is notorious for affording a less focused but also more mixed mode of perception. Partly passively following the ‘single irresponsible flow of images and feelings,’ partly distractedly flipping between channels or between watching television and other domestic activities, the viewer’s attitude towards TV has been described as working through ‘glance’ rather than cinema’s ‘gaze.’ Since television’s beginnings, people have read the newspaper, cooked dinner, or played board games while watching (or at least sometimes glancing at) a television. Applying a somewhat more extended concept of media, the distraction of the second screen is thus nothing new. The industry constantly had to develop strategies to guarantee that the audience would at least pay attention to the commercials; the soundtrack of television—which can more easily be followed while doing other things than the images being displayed— was adapted to the need to ‘call the intermittent spectator back to the set.’ The growing presence of digital media in the domestic space during the 1990s and the heightened danger to the already fragile attention levels the TV industry had to contend with is not unlike the supposed threat of the second screen today. As was the case then, it may well be possible that the second screen will ultimately be an opportunity for more attentive TV consumption.
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