Attention becomes more important when there is more to pay attention to. The information explosion of the modern world has put attention front and center as the gatekeeper of a flood of information, misinformation, and different interpretations about all those facts and claims. Even the simple acronym, DAT, used on this page for Deficit Attention Tweets, points to oceans of input on many fronts.
Saying “dat” for “that” points to the relative rarity of the “th” sounds in human languages in either its soft or hard versions, as with “think” or “the” (θ or ð, in the phonetic code of linguists). “Th” is even a difficult sound, in either form, for many native speakers; witness the difficulties some children have with the word “mouth,” often pronouncing it “mouf.” Dig deeper in history, and you’ll find “th” more often spoken with the sounds for “t” or “d.” In the nineteenth century, it was associated with the Irish, who often pronounced “thing” as “ting” and “that” as “dat.” In our time, this pronunciation shift is more often associated with vernacular African American English in expression of the “th” sound as “d,” as in “dis here” and “dat’s right.” These pronunciations spur controversies between those who regard the sounds as incorrect English and therefore insulting, and those who take pride in African American distinctiveness.
Even beyond these different sounds and different perspectives, the acronym DAT brings still more meanings and stories, across many cultures and professional fields.
For some medical doctors, DAT is a Direct Agglutination Test, to discover if a patient has an autoimmune disorder; and for treating cancer, especially some forms of leukemia, it’s a chemotherapy that combines the chemicals Daunorubicin, Ara-C (cytarabine), and Thioguanine. In the UK, it’s short for Drug Action Teams, who coordinate local drug policy, and in some places, those teams have expanded their reach as Drug and Alcohol Action Teams (DAATs). Outside of mainstream medicine, the letters stand for Dolphin Assisted Therapy for those who promote swimming with dolphins to help people struggling with speech and motor skills. Controversies abound with critics charging that this practice simply rewards patients with a thrilling experience for performing certain behaviors but produces no long-term impact, while supporters suggest that improvements emerge from patient trust in the company of a sociable sea mammal, and even that the dolphin’s sonar can actually trigger healing. And more simply, DAT stands for the Dental Admission Test.
For other educators, DAT is a school subject, Design and Technology. Around computers, it’s an extension name, .dat, for a file containing data, or shorthand for Dynamic Acceleration Technology, which speeds up processing, an innovation recently improved by enhanced DAT, or eDAT.
Those with musical interests might remember the Digital Audio Tape, one of the first efforts, developed in 1987, to replace the compact cassette before the CD went big. Many of those CDs in the early 2000s were available with the music of Japanese pop band Day After Tomorrow. In the UK, Pluto Shervington recorded a song in 1976 called simply “Dat” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIJ797fWW_A, which reached #6 on the charts. The story in the music is about a Rastafarian who wants to buy pork, but remembers that his religion forbids eating that meat. The song relays his tensions over the forbidden but compelling “dat.”
In the transportation business, Asians would recognize the location identifier DAT for Datong Yungang Airport in China, but in Europe, that would mean Danish Air Transport. All over, those letters mean Delivered at Terminal, indicating that the seller of transported goods is going to pay the shipping costs on arrival. For logistics of shipping in North America, it’s Dial-A-Truck, an electronic freight posting service, but further north, it’s a Double Acting Tanker, which, through frozen waters, does not need an ice-breaking ship to clear the way, since it has that capacity built in.
In journalism, DAT signals bad news; it was an opposition news source in Kazakhstan shut down in 2012. But in New York courts, it stands for Desk Appearance Ticket, an order to appear in criminal court for misdemeanor offenses. In emergencies, we can all thank the Red Cross, whose Disaster Action Teams are always ready.
The poet William Blake proposed that if you really understood “a grain of sand” or any small thing in all its webs of connections, you would “hold infinity in the palm of your hand.” From three simple letters, we may not grasp all of infinity, but they point to a wide array of cultural doings, and a microcosm of the flood of information and points of view circulating in the world. All the activities and ways of thinking indicated by this sampling add up to more than any one of us could keep track of, but it’s good to have some awareness of what some of our fellow featherless bipeds are up to, and even better to be aware of the powers of attention we’ll need to steer through the information abundance.