|Stillness out my office window without electronic distraction|
Most of us lament the increasing difficulty we have paying attention. Part of the problem is losing our ability to focus because of smart phone and social media distractions. Back in 1961, way before the World Wide Web was invented, Kurt Vonnegut examined the nature of this problem.
He wrote a dystopian story set in the future where the government enforces total equality with no exceptions. For example: “There's one character who's deemed too intelligent, and the way they make him dumber is by forcing him to wear a radio in his ear so that they can constantly distract him with obnoxious content."1
Now, thanks to modern technology, we all suffer from that ever-present buzz in our ears – not because it is forced upon us but out of our own free will. L. M. Sacasas points all this out in a recent podcast.2 Certainly, losing our focus due to electronic distraction is a significant problem.
But Sacasas’ emphasis is on another kind of attention, one that thrives on stillness – something I explored in a recent column. He called it “a kind of openness to experience where I'm not looking for anything, but I'm ready to receive something. It's more of a contemplative stance towards my experience.3”
Sacasas makes clear that the stillness we need is not just an excuse to be alone with our thoughts. Rather, the purpose is to be open to what’s happening around us. That is what Buddhists and mystics like Eckhart Tolle call "living in the present moment."
And what deserves our attention above all else?
For Sacasas, it is on our fellow human beings: He says, when he is with an individual, “whether that's a friend in conversation, the stranger that I meet in passing, I think it's good for me to be able to attend to them without distraction.” He considers this a spiritual orientation.
He quotes the philosopher and author Iris Murdoch, who equates this type of attention with love, a "kind of moral vision to see justly, to see truthfully: 'To be able to offer ourselves up in that way, in some sense, to get ourselves out of the way, getting out of the way of ourselves so that we're able to see people for who they are, to give them the gift of our attention, which honestly may be one of the most profound gifts that we can offer to somebody to be fully present before them.”4
We all know how special it is when another person wholeheartedly and unconditionally attends to us. Sacasas considers giving such undivided attention to be a moral sensibility. Of course, our ability to provide such relational engagement, like our ability to focus, is being waylaid by our rush, like rats on an accelerating treadmill, to instantly respond to the onslaught of incoming emails, texts, and social media posts.
This presents a clear and present danger.
Sacasas warns we are coming to resemble what we pay the most attention to, that we are "starting to reflect the rhythms and the biases of those technologies." Increasingly, these machines influence how we think, molding our minds into a facsimile of the same damn electronic devices that are corrupting us.
It's the ultimate addiction, rewarding us with instant feedback that confirms all our biases. It's so tempting just to take another hit and be instantly transported into the soothing world of the electronic metaverse.
What can we do?
The first step is to admit that our dazzling digital frontier has failed to live up to its utopian promise, predicted back in the early days of the internet. As Hari Kunzru wrote in the current Harper’s Magazine: Instead of achieving global consciousness, we have created “a giant machine for selling ads.”5
Worse yet, we now face an existential menace that is changing what it means to be a human being. On our own, we are powerless against this technological juggernaut that is arrayed against us. The key, like for AA, is to believe in a higher power because, in essence, this is a spiritual and moral question.
Do we slide down the rabbit hole into becoming a machine like our electronic devices? Or do we use our attention to embrace our greatest gift, our human connection with each other?
5 Harper’s Magazine/January 2023. p. 7