Spiritual Awakening and Creative Destiny in the Attention Economy
Thoughts on wisely investing attention in a world designed to waste it
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In an article last spring for The Atlantic, Megan Garber argued that, in the words of her sub-headline, “resisting distraction is one of the foundational challenges of this moment.”1 Fueled by Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—And How to Think Deeply Again (2022), Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (2019), and Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (2016), Garber observes that one of the defining phenomena of the present sociocultural moment is the multitude of competing stories and narratives, representing a variety of interests and viewpoints, that constantly vie for our attention and focus. In sync with the insights of media ecology, she says this situation is fueled — and more than that, enabled; and more than that, rendered inevitable — by digital technology and its most prominent daily point of interaction with our individual and interpersonal psychic lives, social media. Garber quotes Odell’s contention that the problem is not just the internet but “the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction.”
The line in the article that most arrested me and brought the matter home was this: “Attention is zero-sum; that makes distraction a potent weapon.
Attention is zero-sum. I think this hit me so hard because it’s something I have been realizing and working with myself over the past two to three years. Starting sometime before the advent of COVID-19, I have increasingly recognized, with a deep sense of conviction, that my fund of attention is limited. What I choose to attend to, the objects of my focus, all crowd up against each other and compete for dominance. In terms of my online life, if I call up Twitter, scroll through my feed, read a tweet, click a link, then skim/read an article or watch a video, and then return to click “like” or leave a comment — am I better off than I was before? Was the return on investment worth it? Because that’s how I’ve come to view the whole attention economy: as a matter of personal, spiritual, and creative/daemonic ROI. Attention is an investment. Am I receiving back from it what I really want and need, something truly valuable and worthwhile? Or am I just squandering it?
“In the attention economy, attention is an investment. Am I receiving back from it something truly valuable and worthwhile? Or am I just squandering it?”
These questions raise two others:
If it is advisable to invest one’s attention cautiously and deliberately, then what about the relaxed, open, spontaneous type of attention that forages exuberantly through the world and thus opens itself to creative serendipity? Does deliberately minding and controlling my attention cut this off?
By what principle am I judging my return on attentional investment? What is the core value that determines whether a given investment is wise or foolish?
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