Monday Dec. 2, 2013
KL 232 (Chancellor’s Conference Room)

Professor Shannon Vallor, Santa Clara University

Title: The virtue of attention: ethical and cognitive implications of media multitasking

Abstract: A growing body of research in psychology and cognitive science suggests that media multitasking habits impose considerable cognitive costs on working memory, task-switching efficiency, problem-solving, information transfer and other aspects of cognitive performance (Ophir, Nass & Wagner 2009). These effects may be described as a degradation of ‘cognitive attention,’ not in the narrow sense of selective attention as the ability to pick out a perceptual target, but in the broader sense of a characteristic capacity and style of coping with the informational affordances of one’s environment (Arvidson 2008). What has unfortunately not been addressed by the current body of empirical research is the potential for media multitasking habits to impose similar costs on moral attention, assuming that the capacity of moral attention is subserved by the same cortical systems for working memory, association, task-switching, salience tracking, and so on. Moral attention is a significant concern in the philosophical literature on virtue and character. In the West, neo-Aristotelian accounts emphasize the importance for practical wisdom of attending successfully to the morally salient features of one’s environment (McDowell 1998; Annas 2011). In the Confucian moral tradition, the virtuous person is marked by the successful and reliable exercise of moral attention (si), while in Buddhism the virtue of mindfulness (samādhi) entails the capacity to attend well to the morally salient features of both the environment and one’s own mental stream (Vallor, forthcoming). The preservation of the capacity for moral attention is also a contemporary concern for collective social functioning: as an isolated example, consider the recent case of the budding serial killer who openly and repeatedly displayed a gun in a Muni light rail car while his distracted fellow riders remained oblivious – until the killer followed one of them off the train and shot him. In this talk, I will explore the nature of moral attention as a virtue, some reasons for thinking that it may be vulnerable to the same kinds of degradation by multitasking as other kinds of attention, and offer some phenomenological reflections about the structure of moral attention that might be used to guide future empirical research on its degradation by (or resilience to) media multitasking habits. Finally, I consider the worrisome implications for any prospective reform of human media habits of a recent study of the motivations that drive media multitasking practices (Wang and Tchernev 2012).

Bio: Shannon Vallor, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Santa Clara University in California’s Silicon Valley. Her teaching and research explores the intersections between phenomenology, science/technology and ethics, especially virtue ethics. She is the author of fourteen peer-reviewed articles and book chapters as well as a forthcoming book, 21st Century Virtue: Cultivating the [Techno]Moral Self.

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