/ Make it Now: QuickMuse and the Arrival of Fast-Track Composition


N. Katherine Hayles suggests that prolonged interaction with networked and programmable media may be tuning young people’s nervous systems toward hyper attention, a cognitive mode that manifests in preferences for high levels of stimulation and multiple information streams. This essay responds to Hayles’ call to examine interactions between hyper and deep attention, through an analysis of the poetry website QuickMuse.com. Focusing on relations between temporality and modes of attention, I argue that the site’s configurations of time foreground the role hyper attention plays in creative written expression, while simultaneously diminishing the role of deep attention. In light of Hayles’ pedagogical agenda, I conclude by proposing classroom-oriented “attention mapping” activities meant to encourage students to reflect on the styles of attention instantiated in and appropriate to different reading and composing practices.

For, the experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

In “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes,” Katherine Hayles suggests that prolonged interaction with networked and programmable media may be tuning young people’s nervous systems toward hyper attention, a mode of cognition she associates with “switching focus rapidly among different tasks, preferring multiple information streams, seeking a high level of stimulation, and having a low tolerance for boredom” (187). Hayles notes that the shift toward hyper attention creates problems at all levels of education, largely because classrooms and curricula are designed to expect and foster deep attention, which she associates with a propensity for ignoring outside stimuli and maintaining prolonged focus on a single information stream (187). Hoping to ease the potential cultural and educational incompatibilities brought about by this divide, Hayles concludes by encouraging educators and “practitioners of the literary arts” to consider the ways deep and hyper attention interact in print and digital texts.

Critical interpretation is not above or outside the generational shift of cognitive modes but necessarily located within it, increasingly drawn into the matrix by engaging with works that instantiate the cognitive shift in their aesthetic strategies. Whether inclined toward deep or hyper attention, toward one side or another of the generational divide separating print from digital culture, we cannot afford to ignore the frustrating, zesty, and intriguing ways in which the two cognitive modes interact. (197–198)

This essay responds to Hayles’ call to examine interactions between hyper and deep attention through an analysis of the website QuickMuse.com. QuickMuse is particularly suited for such critical interpretive analysis because it very clearly instantiates both cognitive modes; as an interactive website replete with images, animated texts, and multiple information streams, it tilts toward hyper attention. The site’s orientation toward the production and consumption of literary texts and attendant practices of reading and writing, however, incline toward deep attention. Focusing on the ways temporality comes to bear on these modes of attention, I argue that QuickMuse.com’s configurations of time foreground the role hyper attention plays in creative written expression, while simultaneously diminishing the function of deep attention. Analysis of the site’s aesthetic and functional strategies also suggests that the temporal qualities associated with hyper attention reinforce the commercialization of poetic forms, processes, and identities. A work’s configurations of temporality, I suggest, play important roles in narrowing consciousness toward either end of the attention continuum. Building on Hayles’ pedagogical agenda, I conclude by proposing classroom-oriented “attention mapping” activities to which sites such as QuickMuse.com are particularly suited.

As Hayles and others have observed, media content produced over the past few decades has increased in both volume and tempo of stimuli, while the amount of time it takes for users to access and respond to such stimuli has sharply decreased (191). Building upon these developments, Hayles cites anecdotal accounts from educators, a report on the media habits of youth, and medical evidence pointing to a rise in reported cases of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder to support her hypothesis that a generational shift toward hyper attention is underway.[1] Comparing behavioral manifestations of this shift, Hayles captures differences between hyper and deep attention with an image: “Picture a college sophomore, deep in Pride and Prejudice, with her legs draped over an easy chair, oblivious to her ten-year-old brother sitting in front of a console, jamming on a joystick while he plays Grand Theft Auto” (187). Those of us who have fallen under the spell of both books and video games understand that meaningful interactions with novels requires attention to a static information stream (the text affixed to the page), whereas a game like Grand Theft Auto requires attention to multiple streams conveyed as image, text, sound, and touch. Reading a novel well and playing a video game well could thus be said to require different modes of attention—the former oriented toward the “deep” and the latter oriented toward the “hyper” end of the spectrum.

The juxtaposition of reader and gamer not only contrasts behaviors associated with divergent modes of attention, but it raises questions about the very nature of attention—Does it exist in people, in objects, in the transaction between subject and object? Common sense suggests that attention resides within us, that it is something we possess and control—a narrowing of consciousness we apportion to best meet the requirements of different tasks. Hayles’ account, however, reveals an alternative conception, one that grants things—novels, video games, websites, and so forth—the power to “instantiate” different modes of attention through their aesthetic strategies (197). By Hayles’ measure, media do not simply channel users’ consciousness along an attention continuum; they also exist as accretions of attention. Attention is not simply something that humans possess, but rather a kind of material-semiotic field of which human consciousness (and biology) is a part. Though Hayles believes that our interactions with rapid-fire media, replete with multiple information streams may be rewiring our brains, her description of the way attention is instantiated in artifacts such as novels and video games suggests that she views cognition and attention as distributed. Cognitive modes, cognitive styles, deep attention, hyper attention—these concepts are not viewed as residing exclusively within people’s skulls and nervous systems; rather they emerge through one’s interactions with other people and things, interactions that are inflected by historically and culturally bound habits. Any object of attention—whether novel, video game, or website—thus can be regarded as a communal assemblage bound to socio-material and historical forces exerting greater and lesser degrees of influence on the narrowing of users’ consciousness.[2] With attention understood as both channeled by and instantiated in the digital artifact, I turn to my illustrative example, the poetry website QuickMuse.com.

About a year ago, regular visitors to QuickMuse.com encountered a different looking homepage. The burgundy book with gilded letters had been replaced by a rectangular box, which was subdivided into horizontal and vertical panels upon which the various contents of the “book” were now displayed. The new version of the website preserved the older design in a single panel, where the gilded drop cap “Q” continued to signal the site’s debt to the codex book and the earlier age from which bookishness emerged. Though just a blip on the ever-shifting digital textscape, the sudden transformation of the QuickMuse homepage invites consideration of three strands of temporality related to networked, digital artifacts. The first, which I call (re)articulation time, can be understood as those moments between the appearance and disappearance of various versions of the “same” website. It is difficult to quantify the interval between the two versions of the QuickMuse homepage, but from my own experience uploading alterations to web pages, I would guess that the switch occurred in a matter of seconds: QuickMuse 1.0 one moment, QuickMuse 2.0 the next. What is unsettling about such transformations is not the brute fact that things change over time, but rather the invisibility of the processes, mechanisms, and agencies that bring about such change. The transformation highlights the radical, mysterious, and all too familiar mutability of digital artifacts; without warning, a site can appear very different from previous incarnations, leading to users’ momentary, if not prolonged, disorientation: The purple link that was on the right side of the page is gone—wait, it’s still there, but now it’s black and on the far left. Such transformations speak to the way users’ interactions with digital artifacts are bound to the whims of website owners and designers who can change the way sites look and “feel” whenever they see fit. The shock of such change is an index of users’ patient status in relation to website designers and programmers pulling the strings behind the curtain.[3]

Another strand of temporality made visible through the transformation of the QuickMuse homepage—call it access time—has to do with the relationship between the interface and the speed/efficiency of navigation. The first version of the homepage required users to click on a link denoted by the word “Enter,” which opened to a more extensive menu of links. The new version obviates the initial mouse click, thus reducing loading time; with the majority of links available on the homepage, one is saved at least two seconds.[4] Two seconds may not seem like much, but it is significant when one takes into consideration the price often associated with such “upgrades.” The interval between computer price points often relates to the number of megahertz, or cycles per second, performed by microprocessors. For instance, when one upgrades from a MacBook to a MacBook Pro (approximately a $500 difference), one moves from a microprocessor operating at 2.4 GHz to one speeding along at up to 3.4 GHz.[5] The fact that $500 buys you a faster processor suggests that the access time compressed in the revised homepage is bound to the broader economic ethos of efficiency associated with technological enhancement.

The third strand of temporality made visible in the switch from QuickMuse 1.0 to QuickMuse 2.0 might be called representational time. By alluding to an earlier age, the burgundy book that robbed users of two seconds, offered a different temporal horizon than the link-laden boxes of QuickMuse 2.0, one with explicit reference (whether ironic or sincere, we’ll never know) to the codex book. Representational time, which is simply a broad heading under which we might place a work’s representations of time, deserves attention because such representations have the ability to instigate and channel the associations users make while interacting with different media. As an icon of print culture, the burgundy book that welcomed users to QuickMuse 1.0 signaled its ancestral origins. This website, the image of the book proclaimed, has a history despite its claims of novelty and innovation. Though quite obviously a digital node of literary production and circulation, the site’s original homepage laid claim to a papery past. The erasure of the book suggests that the owners of the site were ready to relinquish an icon meant to connect QuickMuse to the history of print culture and its fabric of tradition.

The hasty definitions I have posited for (re)articulation time, access time, and representational time, are simply meant to illustrate some of the ways a work’s instantiations of attention are bound to different temporal qualities—the suddenness of the site’s transformation, the speed of access, the temporal convergence suggested by the digital icon of an ancient book. Temporal suddenness, speed, convergence—these qualities associated with hyper attention inflect both QuickMuse.com and the larger programmable, networked assemblage to which the site belongs.[6] In addition to being bound to the World Wide Web and programmable media more generally, QuickMuse.com remains invested in the production and consumption of print-based literary texts—works that index the slower pace and single focus Hayles attributes to deep attention. Yet even literary texts—those bastions of deep attention—become inflected with temporal suddenness, speed, and convergence when produced, circulated, and promoted by QuickMuse.com. This is particularly the case with regard to the site’s most significant attraction—15-minute improvisatory poetry events called “Agons.”

Cast as “cutting-edge competitions” by QuickMuse creator Ken Gordon, Agons blend features of print and performance-based poetry; like improvisatory poetry slams, the audience witnesses poems composed in real-time, but like print-based competitions these poems are written rather than recited. The most distinctive feature of the Agon is furnished by the site’s Poematic poem-recording-and-playback system, which allows the real-time composition of texts to circulate over the World Wide Web. Agons make it possible to witness well-known writers’ bursts, backtracks, and droughts—sometimes minutes long—where the unfinished poem just hangs there like a broken daisy-chain. These “poem-events” (to use Hayles’ formulation) offer the audience an intimate glance of the poetic imagination at work, an intimacy bearing out the messiness and occasional magic of a first draft.[7] It is all preserved in the Agon archive, so anyone who has Internet access can watch David Kirby struggling for a minute-and-a-half to shape the first two lines of what will become a 35-line poem completed (Phew!) with 41 seconds to spare. By including buttons that cause the poem-event to replay at various speeds, the Agon archive grants users control over (re)articulation time; one can watch the same poem descend, line by line, in mock real-time, or accelerate composition to double or quadruple the original speed. Such opportunities for (re)articulation invite users to contemplate the influence of temporality on the performative aspects of reading and writing.

In an essay published in Poets and Writers, Gordon describes the genesis of the Agon emerging from his dissatisfaction with the long hours and protracted focus associated with writing.[8] He begins by recounting the difficulties he faced while revising his essay, the months of adding and deleting and reorganizing, how he labored over every word. “It has gone through so many minor and major tweaks,” he laments, “that I can barely recall what it looked like when I began” (1). Gordon supplements his reflections with a renowned chorus, drawing on Hemingway, Salinger, and poet Louise Glück to add credence to what is already a truism about the labor of revision. Hemingway’s famous quote about rewriting the last page of A Farewell to Arms 39 times is invoked as evidence of the profoundly deep attention great writers devote to their work. Reading these authors’ reflections on revision, one cannot help but accept the news that difficult, time-intensive revision is an inevitable occupational hazard for the ambitious writer. This truism, however, is turned on its head a quarter of the way through the essay, when Gordon asserts, “The real Prosperos are improvisers—the artists, musicians, comedians, and writers whose compositions seem to erupt fully realized from the mind or mouth or instrument” (1). Here Gordon replaces the potency attributed to time-intensive revision with the “purity” of spontaneous, unedited creative expression, a kind of wizardry epitomized by jazz musicianship, whereby whole compositions arrive, legend has it, out of thin air.[9] This comparison, which fails to mention the years of training that cultivate professional improvisational musicianship, leads Gordon to argue that real art is liberated from the drudgery of revision: “The artifice of most literary composition,” Gordon writes, “is, when you think about it, a little embarrassing when compared to what professional improvisers do” (1). Those who agree that composition involving extensive revision is embarrassing cannot help but conclude that the cheeks of many professional writers and teachers of writing should flush—which begs the question: As a writer and editor who admits to “the same labor-intensive approach” as Hemingway, why does Gordon associate revision with shame?

The answer lies in Gordon’s engagement with two familiar cultural narratives, one related to the potency of spur-of-the-moment expression and the other related to the potency of technological speediness. Gordon’s preference for improvisational art quite obviously invokes the Romantic celebration of spontaneous thought and action, but rather than replaying Wordsworth’s subdued and solitary “emotion recollected in tranquility” (266), Agon poem-events are frenetic 15-minute affairs, where poets’ keystrokes are broadcast instantaneously around the world on megahertz and broadband wings. More telling than Gordon’s need for speed is the designation of quick writing as more real than slow writing. “Real Prosperos are improvisers” (1), Gordon writes, suggesting that a poem composed publicly within 15 minutes is more real than the poem that requires days, weeks, months, or years to complete. A similar matrix of time, attention, and reality pilots the information economy—the promise of productivity, the ability to get more done in less time. What is diminished—cast as less real—are those practices requiring the drawn-out temporality associated with deep attention. In this way, the Agon poem-event, like other instantiations of hyper attention, undermines the value of private acts of sustained attention, which are, in the Western tradition, so often associated with poetic composition and literary merit.

Just as poems emerge from the QuickMuse matrix, so poets, too, are “born” into contexts oriented toward hyper attention. In our constructivist age, the birth of the poet can be viewed as the construction of a particular identity. How is the poet constructed? In pragmatic terms, the poet’s identity consolidates around poetic acts, most obviously the act of writing poems. Crucial to those who hope to professionalize their poetic identity is the act of publishing, a competitive process that usually involves beating out other poets for opportunities to corral public attention. Indeed, a poet’s prestige is often predicated upon the prizes that he or she has won over the course of his or her career. Most poetry competitions employ judges, often poets who have won prizes themselves, to select winners. A list of contest winners in a recent issue of Writer’s Chronicle, for example, announces that David St. John (one-time winner of the Yale Younger Poet’s Prize) judged Philip Pardi winner of the Brittingham Prize in Poetry, an honor that includes the publication of his manuscript Meditations on Rising and Falling and $2,500. QuickMuse Agons mimic the competitive side of America’s contemporary poetry scene, but in contrast to most poetry contests one finds the QuickMuse Agon relatively toothless. There is no public declaration of a winner, no glove—laptop, rather—is raised in victory. No cash awarded. Why, then, when I click on my latest QuickMuse e-newsletter, do I find the word “showdown” among photographs of Paul Muldoon and Brad Leithauser posed head-to-head, an image quite obviously crafted to mimic a boxing poster?

It is not so much the interpersonal—poet vs. poet—struggle that interests me here so much as the way QuickMuse qualifies what philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls the “narrative identity” of poets. Ricoeur’s conception of narrative identity suggests that fictional narratives intertwine with real life insofar as people identify with and appropriate the qualities and dispositions of characters from stories.[10] The QuickMuse website, while perhaps not constituting a fictional world, does indeed link story fragments into a kind of narrative mosaic. The fictional struggle between Agon poets, for example, is bound to the competitive economic reality of the contemporary literary scene, a scene in which poets compete to attract readers’ attention and, if all goes well, win their dollars as well. This plot plays out across numerous pages; Gordon and Moore’s blog entries, for example, include hyperlinks to authors, events, publications, and publishers connected in some fashion to QuickMuse and its affiliates. If you click on Matthew Rohrer’s Agon-inspired poem, a window pops up that “recommends” Rohrer’s first book, Hummock in the Malookas. By clicking on the hyper-linked title, one is transported directly to Amazon.com where the book awaits purchase. Indeed, it appears as though QuickMuse only recommends books that are written by poets affiliated with QuickMuse. By participating in Agons, then, poets initiate a promotional campaign whereby their books are granted “recommended” status and their readers are channeled into potential customers. On this score, Gordon and Moore position their website (and themselves) as arbiters of literary merit and value.

To learn more about Gordon and Moore, users can click on the “Who’s Responsible” link, which will produce a webpage featuring photographs of the two men beside the following biographical statements.

Ken Gordon: So you want to know about Ken Gordon? Which one? There's the Ken Gordon who is the editor and publisher of QuickMuse. Then there's Ken Gordon, freelance scribbler, a man who has written for the Boston Globe Magazine, the New York Times, Poets & Writers, Salon, Spin, Wired, and various other not-ready-for-the-official-bio pubs. (Is this the same Ken Gordon who used to pen a column about being a first-time dad for Child Magazine? Guilty as charged.) The guy with one hand on his forehead and the other scribbling in the margins of a manuscript—that's the Ken Gordon who edits JBooks.com. And the smiling-but-exhausted bastard walking with his wife and two small children into the heart of Newton Centre, Massachusetts, you'll be pleased to know, is KG No. 4. OK, enough. Let's go read some poems.

Fletcher Moore: Fletch is the man behind the curtain. If you need someone to thank for the Poematic poem-recording-and-playback system, thank Fletch. If you're looking for someone to compliment concerning the voluptuous graphic design of QuickMuse, drop Fletch a line. If you've got a complaint about how something works, or doesn't, cut the guy some slack—when he's not developing poetry-capture systems, he's building websites for Georgia Tech or for one of his many freelance clients, or he's practicing his 3D graphics skills, or he's playing Legos with his three-year old daughter, or contemplating playing Legos with his infant son, or hanging out with his wife, or working on his novel, or playing his guitar, or his bass, or headed off on some mad bicycling adventure, or tending to his tomatoes, or fixing the damn car (“Who’s Responsible” 1).

As life stories in miniature, biographical statements can be viewed as consolidations of both time and narrative identity. The genre often includes information about an author’s educational background, geographic affiliation, publishing history, and so forth. Gordon and Moore’s statements, however, eschew the historical pull of the genre by appearing almost entirely in the present tense. Rather than accounting for their personal histories, these statements are written to convey a presentness that amplifies the full and frenetic qualities of Gordon and Moore’s life. After reading these paragraphs, one cannot help but assume that both Gordon and Moore are humming on all cylinders, balancing many responsibilities, and living extremely busy lives. Both fulfill multiple professional responsibilities in multiple fields; both are married and raising young children. One could thus view the biographical statements as stylized representations of time, or what I refer to as “representational time.” As suggested earlier, representational time can be understood as sign relations that instantiate temporal qualities. In this case, the biographical statements instantiate a compressed temporality associated with hyper attention—the mode of attention required to perform many acts in short periods of time. Moreover, the hyper attentive style reflected in Gordon and Moore’s biographical statements also indexes the speediness and freelance spirit of Internet commerce.

QuickMuse’s commercial arbitration of literary identity extends beyond the promotion of the site’s co-creators and those established poets willing to participate in Agons. One finds numerous “Ads by Google” that solicit opportunities for users to self-publish books of poetry. Click on the link “Writing Poems,” and you are transported to www.Xlibris.com, a press that will “help you publish the book of your dreams.” Another link, “Publish Your Poems,” also entices the user to “Turn your poems into a book.” Click the bait and you arrive at www.AuthorHouse.com, where, again, you are enticed—this time with bombast: “Publish your poetry now with AuthorHouse!” The following solicitation offers a more complete rendering of the website’s rhetoric.

Some say poetry is a lost art. We disagree. At AuthorHouse, we’ve helped more authors publish more titles than any other company, including many poetry books. Through our exclusive process, you maintain creative control of your book. From editing and proofreading to cover design and page layout; from royalties and distribution to marketing and returnability, you choose what you want for your book. Best of all, your personal team of author advocates will support and encourage you throughout the entire process. If you have been thinking about publishing your collection, now is the time to become a published poet. To learn more, request a free copy of our publishing Guide by completing the information on this page, or call 1-888-519-5121 to speak with an Author Services Representative (1).

Adjacent to this solicitation, AuthorHouse inserts strategic expressions of customer satisfaction: “I could not be more pleased with my AuthorHouse-published Views From My Schoolroom Window”; writes Jennifer Cain Bohrnstedt, “if anything it surpassed my expectations” (1). The mini-success narrative encapsulated here strives to convey quality assurance and proof that the published product will please the author. It is interesting, though perhaps not surprising, to note that the language of this initial pitch elides the fact that writers are responsible for bearing the full cost of publication for their manuscripts. Self-publishing—a breed of Emersonian self-reliance—has ties to the freelance work celebrated in Gordon and Moore’s blog entries. Indeed, the blog strand of QuickMuse.com, like most personal blogs, epitomizes the democratic sweep of self-publication granted by Internet technology. The links that connect QuickMuse.com to the self-publishing industry, then, celebrate a particularly literary breed of rugged individualism while simultaneously intimating a democratic leveling of the artistic playing field. “Anyone can publish a book of poems,” such sites declare—and then whisper, for a small fee.

Capitalism doing poetry has earned the Hollywood-inspired nickname, “Po Biz,” a term denoting the hustle required by contemporary American poets to sell books, promote readings, land teaching gigs, and so forth. These are eddies in a commercial stream that trickles into that larger (and only somewhat more lucrative) cataract—the book business. I interrogate the language of AuthorHouse marketing to illustrate the ways in which this self-publishing website, as part of the larger QuickMuse network, entices would-be poets by promising quick and easy access to publication. Earlier, I referred to “access time” as the interval between sending and receiving, the time between the mouse click and the appearance of a webpage. Indeed, the ease and speed of the click alters our expectations of the time required to fulfill conscious desires. Speed and ease, two enticements commonly deployed by marketing rhetoric associated with digital computing carries over into the publication of books of poetry, such that anyone who can afford to be a published poet can be a published poet. Following Ricoeur, who reminds us that narrative “attains its full significance when it becomes a condition of temporal existence” (52), one locates a dialectical relationship between temporality, as configured by networked, programmable media, and the construction of narrative identity. In the case of QuickMuse.com, the construction of poetic identity appears fast and trouble-free.

When famous writers, such as former U.S. Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky, are celebrated for generating poems in 15 minutes, a narrative about creative process is realized. The story does not emerge from what the poem says, so much as what the poem does—how it emerges, and how, through the temporal stylization of this emergence, we are led to believe composition proceeds quickly and easily, unfettered by the labor of revision or the critical feedback of others. It is, perhaps, a Romantic vision of literary expression inflecting and inflected by the shift toward hyper attention. This dialectic leads one to wonder about a culture’s tolerance for slow, difficult processes: To whom will the work of deep attention be left? Where will it reside? Who will it touch? Whether or not one agrees with Hayles’ hypothesis about the “cognitive divide,” the categories of deep and hyper attention offer useful points of entry into the undoubtedly slow, difficult process of making sense of work that simultaneously negotiates the expectations of print and digital culture.

My close reading of QuickMuse.com illustrates some of the ways poets and literary enterprises are adapting to the shift toward hyper attention. While Hayles suggests that such analyses are useful, her more pressing concern is the development of pedagogical strategies that bridge opposite ends of the attention spectrum. “How,” she wonders, “can the considerable benefits of deep attention be cultivated in a generation of students who prefer a high level of stimulation and have a low threshold for boredom?” (195). Hayles’ answer involves digital media, which she suggests can be deployed in ways that invite students to engage with works “that instantiate the cognitive shift in their aesthetic strategies” (197). My discussion of QuickMuse.com illustrates how literary websites that juxtapose different modes of attention might be useful for encouraging students to develop critical, interpretive insights to their own and others’ cognitive style. By developing pedagogical approaches that encourage students to examine the ways time and attention are figured by websites and other digital artifacts, teachers create opportunities to make such instantiations the object of analysis. Hayles’ essay suggests the need for reading and writing activities that grant students opportunities to reflect on their own cognitive style in relation to different media and the various socio-material practices these media constitute. Such “attention mapping” activities might cultivate awareness of the ways in which different activities (e.g., close reading, essay writing, gaming, surfing the Internet, and so on) call on different styles of attention. While these activities may not reverse the cultural drift toward hyper attention, they may provide students with concepts that help them regulate their attention in appropriate ways.

Attention mapping provides students opportunities to consider the ways design elements of meaningful artifacts, such as websites, novels, or poems, relate to the typical identities and social practices to which the artifacts are bound. In the case of QuickMuse.com, design elements include such things as the image of the ancient book, panels, links, and so forth, while the social practices and typical identities associated with the site include, among other things, the creation and consumption of poetic texts, the commercial enterprises circulating through the site, and the values people attribute to such practices.[11] Students can then “map” their attention, taking into consideration the number of information streams presented by the artifact, the types of interaction required, and the style of attention instantiated through such interactions. The actual “mapping” of attention can be enacted in many ways; for example, students can use a screen-capture application, such as Jing, to record a 10-minute video of their exploration of the website. Students’ analyses of their video-recorded interactions with the site pairs close readings of the digital artifact with interpretations of their own processes of attention. Students can then chart their attention using concept-mapping software or other schematic applications. Such exercises can lead to fully realized critical essays that address how design elements figure time and attention in relation to the social practices and typical identities associated with various artifacts. One possible articulation of an attention mapping sequence might ask students to juxtapose their experience attending to QuickMuse’s 15-minute, Agon poem-events with poems published in books by the same author, presumably written over longer periods of time. Such comparisons can lead to fruitful discussions related to time, attention, literary merit, and writing quality—discussions that raise questions about the rewards and drawbacks of hyper and deep attention as they pertain to practices and interactions associated with different media.

In “Technology and Literacy: A Story about the Perils of Not Paying Attention,” Cynthia Selfe calls on English teachers to help students develop “critical technological literacy” by giving them opportunities “to assess—to pay attention to—the social, economic, and pedagogical implications of new communication technologies and technological initiatives that affect their lives” (432). Though Hayles does not explicitly connect her interest in hyper and deep attention to Selfe’s work, the “cognitive divide” she posits reminds us that interpretation of attention itself is an important strand of critical technological literacy. I have attempted to refine Hayles’ formulation of hyper and deep attention by emphasizing the role figurations of temporality play in the analysis of literary artifacts circulated by various media. QuickMuse.com is one of many websites that invite teachers and students to juxtapose literary instantiations of hyper and deep attention and reflect on the cognitive, social, and material implications of our swiftly changing literary textscape. I have proposed “attention mapping” as a generic term for pedagogical approaches meant to encourage students to reflect on the styles of attention instantiated in and appropriate to different reading and composing artifacts/practices. As complements to existing strands of the secondary and post-secondary English curriculum, attention-mapping activities might encourage students to think critically about cognitive style in relation to various academic, professional, and recreational pursuits.

Works Cited

  • Gordon, Ken. “Improvisers and Revisers and Experiment in Spontaneity.” Poets and Writers Magazine. April 2007. http://www.pw.org/mag/0605/gordon.h.
  • Gordon, Ken. “What’s QuickMuse?” QuickMuse.com. April 2007. http://www.quickmuse.com/about/.
  • Gordon, Ken. “Who’s Responsible.” QuickMuse.com. April 2007.http://www.quickmuse.com/about/bios.php.
  • Hayles, N. Katherine. “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes.” Profession (2007): 87–199.
  • “QuickMuse,” QuickMuse.com. April 2007. http://www.quickmuse.com/.
  • Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative, vol. I. Translated by Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
  • “What Are Your Publishing Goals,” AuthorHouse.com. April 2007. http://www.authorhouse.com/.
  • Wordsworth, William, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads, 2nd ed. Edited by R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones. London: Routledge, 1999.

Ben Gunsberg is a PhD candidate in the Joint Program in English and Education at the University of Michigan. For the 2010-2011 academic year, he was the Sylvia Duffy Engle Graduate Student Fellow at the Institute for the Humanities. Gunsberg has been a HASTAC Scholar and a member of the English Editorial Board for the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT).


    1. Hayles explicitly links her hypothesis to report Kaiser Family Foundation’s Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18-Year-Olds. return to text

    2. This conceptualization of attention shares common ground with Actor-Network Theory (Latour 2005; Callon and Law 1995) as well as so-called “distributed action and cognition” approaches drawn from the work of Edwin Hutchins (1995).return to text

    3. One could argue that hacker aesthetics are premised upon resistance to such helplessness. Though bound to an academic order, the exigencies associated with Critical Code Studies can be viewed in a similar light.return to text

    4. My estimation of “two seconds” is meant to be illustrative rather than definitive; the loading time of a webpage is determined by so many factors (bandwidth, graphics cards, Internet traffic, etc.) that one cannot predict precise access time intervals with certainty. return to text

    5. Based on MacBook and MacBook Pro specifications presented on Apple’s website (http://www.apple.com/mac/), April 15, 2011.return to text

    6. These qualities clearly intersect with geographer David Harvey’s sense of time-space compression as described in The Condition of Postmodernity.return to text

    7. Hayles uses the term “poem-event” in “The Time of Digital Poetry: From Object to Event” to characterize the digital poem as process rather than self-contained object. return to text

    8. Ken Gordon, “Improvisors and Revisors: An Experiment in Spontaneity.” return to text

    9. With meticulous precision, Paul F. Berliner’s Thinking in Jazz complicates this naïve assumption about jazz improvisation.return to text

    10. My reduction of one of Ricoeur’s major ideas is grounds for prosecution. See Time and Narrative or Oneself as Another for thorough accounts of narrative identity.return to text

    11. Here I draw on linguist James Gee’s discussion of internal and external grammars, located in his contribution to Barton and Tusting’s Beyond Communities of Practice: “Semiotic Social Spaces and Affinity Spaces.” return to text