For Orange Research, studying and making known the contours of the socio-technical transformations brought about by the innovations to which the company contributes, is part of its purpose: to give “everyone the keys to a responsible digital world.” The cell phone is one of those devices that structure our ways of inhabiting the world, yet it destabilizes our attentional functions. If the variability of attention is a component of our being in the world, this text tries to provide paths for finding the “right attentional balance” by describing the mechanisms at play. As J.-P. Lachaux (2011) points out, it is unrealistic to try to control our attention; on the other hand, we must learn to guide and go with it so as not to be subjected to the continual inflows of information that could overwhelm us.
So constantly here, my thoughts go there (Lise Gaudaire 2020)
This text develops the hypothesis that the cell phone is an externalization of the sensory vigilance of the individual to distant relationships and spaces. Vigilance and distraction are the two sides of the same physiological process that allows someone to de-focus from excessive concentrated attention, for reasons of survival, as well as an opportunity for distancing. More generally, cell phones are part of the engagement-distancing process that crosses the physiological, individual and social scales. On an individual level, it shows the capacity of the individual to be partially freed from their current activity, to be both present and elsewhere at the same time.
Cell phones are regularly denounced as a source of our distraction: by the connection that it allows to distant people and spaces, it constantly invites us to be interrupted, to be dispersed in our activity. Supporting the relational field, cell phones alert us to a message, a need for contact, immediate or delayed, with those close to us or less intimate relationships, by a beep, visual alert or vibration. Through the media and the conversational threads and information that it conveys, it is part of the individual’s concern (2) with regard to events near and far (Truc 2016). Carried constantly on one’s person, in a pocket or in a bag, the cell phone is an externalization of perception and action of relational functions (a tool for calling, connecting and supporting relationships) and of vigilance to these spaces outside our direct sensory field. It is not enough for the individual to just receive information or news from those close to them: they interact, they adjust the settings of their cell phone to direct their field of attention; they adjust the mode of notification, going from vibration to the more obvious beep; they select the specific information flows related to the event of which they have just become aware. They then explore other spaces to learn about the context, to find other points of view, etc. The cell phone is thus an integral part of what F. Varela calls “enaction,” which refers to this coupling of the individual’s perception and action in permanent interaction with their environment.
Individual and Collective Regulations
The difficulty experienced today with cell phones comes from the extension of spheres of attention to numerous distant spaces, likely to make constant demands on the individual’s senses. Faced with this situation, attention requires new learning. This transformation of the sensory environment due to socio-technical changes is not a first. For example, in his book The Metropolis and Mental Life, published in 1903, the sociologist G. Simmel had already analyzed the sensory overload of inhabitants in rapidly expanding cities: as soon as they go out into the street, they have to make their way in an area of dense traffic and their vision is invaded by constantly changing environments. Simmel developed the idea that sensory hyperstimulation transformed the physical and psychological functioning of the individual, leading them to change their behavior and acquire new skills. Intellect then became a means of protection and filtering against this influx of sensory and emotional impressions, making it possible to reduce the “intensification of the demand for consciousness.”
The attention disruption that cell phones cause on a daily basis is part of this same process. New modes of regulation are sought and trialed, sometimes in a regulatory way (in 2003, the French traffic code banned drivers from holding a cell phone at the wheel and then banned the hands-free kit in 2015) or through rules for more diverse uses: phones off in theaters, no cell phones during meals, etc. So could the acceleration of time (Rosa 2010) rather stem from the individual’s inability to filter too many stimulations in a meaningful way, systematically engaging them in actions of response. Attention learning would then consist in achieving this decoupling, breaking sensory automatisms (the cell phone vibrates, I grab it, I look at it), taking a step back… and prioritizing actions. Thus, at the educational level, in a framework that goes beyond the question of the cell phone alone, specific attention learning programs have been developed jointly by researchers in psychology and cognitive sciences and by primary and secondary school teachers. They aim to equip children and adolescents with the ability to filter and select in a meaningful way, depending on the context, what is important for them and what is not, within the incessant flow of demands to which they are subjected (Lachaux 2016, 2020).
Distraction as a Necessary Letting Go
However, sensory stimulation and the distraction it causes are opportunities to de-focus attention: the alert is a way to arouse oneself from overly intense concentration, a way to take a step back. Distraction is also what allows the mind to wander when performing routine tasks. A. Piette (2015) is interested in this ability of a person to be more or less present in their activity; collective activities are the place for this laterality of vision, of these moments where, while listening to the other person, the individual pays attention to a detail of clothing, to a scene that is being played out next to them, present in the moment but also elsewhere. Distraction according to internal stimulations (wandering thoughts or recurring concerns) or external stimulations (a pen falling, the cries of children in the yard) allows a “letting go,” an inner flexibility (to pass from one idea to another). This minor mode of existence would be a component of our presence in the world and to others.
When Being Elsewhere Is Becoming More Visible
People would daydream and let their minds wander in the present moment long before cell phones were invented, but cell phones undoubtedly make this sense of “being present but not completely” more visible to others. It only takes a discreet manipulation of the smartphone or a brief look at it, while listening to what the people we are talking to are saying, for us to be perceived more obviously as “being partially absent.” What was shocking was the fact that people seated at tables, each tapping the buttons on their cell phone, is in many contexts now legitimized when this is a common activity (everyone does it) or shared (we show the messages, photos or videos). The rules of using smartphones in the presence of others have evolved.
Cell Phones: A Tool of the Engagement-Distancing Process
This ability to bring out or associate ideas in relation to the present situation or, on the other hand, completely decorrelated from the situation, is one of the ways to change habits, by “detachment” from the routine, by distancing, relative disengagement. J.-C. Kaufmann (2001) described the process at play in the longer term of the transformation of action patterns or these routine activities. Thoughts wander, the individual takes a step back from the current activity, questions its progress, challenges it, experiments and discovers other ways of acting. This capacity for innovation is amplified by the circulation of goods, people, practices and ideas, which allows us to discover other ways of doing things, other modes of organization. What was obvious becomes something to question.
The role of the cell phone, in this circulation of information, is now essential. As part of the transformation of our automatisms and our patterns, the cell phone thus acts on the normative process, over the longer term of societal transformations. “In a situation of irregularity, the experience of rules puts the regulatory function of rules to the test. ” writes Canguilhem (1978). The cell phone disrupts and tests social norms by disseminating information and facilitating exchanges.
But attention is also a power issue. In the same way that our thoughts used to wander long before the cell phone came along, cell phones are far from being the only place where the control of attention is taken over. Frameworks of imagination, the ways in which a society distributes imagination skills and activities among its members, are directly related to stabilized attention schemas: the issue is an old one, between the active and exploratory frameworks of imagination, recognized by only a few (artists, entrepreneurs) and the guided and passive framework of imagination imposed on others (consumers) (Stépanoff 2019). The cell phone here appears as the vehicle for strategies of dependency or empowerment, depending on whether our uses are entirely subject to captive, guided and passive attention or whether, conversely, we keep relative control of our attention schemas by accompanying and maintaining them toward emancipatory objectives, despite potentially disruptive vigilance.
Attention variability — ranging from enhancement of the capacity to act to entrapment and alienation, from voluntary de-focusing to the interruption, from concentration to distraction, through surprise and occurrence, to the peaceful welcome of the unexpected — is thus part of a more general, multi-scale principle, of coupling-decoupling to/from the activity, attachments-detachments, engagement-distancing in the present moment. The cell phone would then intervene at the very heart of the normative process, at the different levels where it occurs, from the individual to the social, from almost physiological vigilance to the mutation of our behaviors, up to the political level.
The full version of this article is available on the website of the Techniques & Culture magazine: “Le téléphone mobile, outil et objet de notre vigilance” (The cell phone, tool and object of our vigilance), 2022
1 Lise Gaudaire, Je nage entre deux eaux (I am straddling two worlds), video, 2020
2 Concern is a concept coined by G. Truc: it refers to this state that makes the individual feel concerned by a distant event that affects them, not through someone close to them being affected by the event or an event that occurred somewhere they know, but by the awareness that singular individuals, unknown to them but with whom they share a common humanity, have experienced it.
CANGUILHEM, G. (1978)  “From the social to the vital,” in On the normal and pathological. Dordrecht : D. Reidel Publishing Company
KAUFMANN, J.C. (2001). Ego. Pour une sociologie de l’individu. Une autre vision de l’homme et de la construction du sujet. Paris, Nathan (Essais et recherches).
LACHAUX, J.-P. (2011) Le Cerveau attentif. Contrôle, maîtrise et lâcher prise. Paris: Editions Odile Jacob.
PIETTE, A. (2015). Existence in the Details. Theory and Methodology in Existential Anthropology, Berlin, Duncker & Humblot.
ROSA, H. (2010). Alienation and Acceleration. Towards a Critical Theory of Late-Modern Temporality. Malmö/Aarhus: NSU Press.
SIMMEL, G. (1950) . The Metropolis and Mental Life, In K.H. Wolff (Ed.) The Sociology of Georg Simmel (pp. 409-424). New York: The Free Press.
STEPANOFF, C. (2019) Voyager dans l’invisible. Techniques chamaniques de l’imagination. Paris: Editions La Découverte.
TRUC, G. (2016). Sidérations: une sociologie des attentats, Paris, PUF (“Le lien social”).
Read more :
Two small guides on attention (in French)
Lachaux, J.-P. (2016). Les petites bulles de l’attention: se concentrer dans un monde de distraction. Paris, Odile Jacob.
Lachaux, J.-P. (2020). La Magie de la concentration: un parcours ludique et initiatique: Apprendre à se concentrer à table, en famille, à l’apéro, entre amis. Paris, Odile Jacob.