I’ve been reading The Attention Merchants for fun between classes, & as everyone is posting “New Years’ Thoughts/Resolutions”, I thought this was an important time to share the surprising insight from the author…
“If we think of attention as a resource or even a kind of currency, we must allow that it is always, necessarily, being ‘spent’. There is no saving it for later.” (pg.20)
“(speaking of developments in political advertising) With its combination of moral injunctions as well as daily and weekly rituals, organized religion had long taken human attention as its essential substrate. This is especially true of monotheisms, whose demands for a strict adherence to the one true God naturally promote an ideal of undivided attention. Among early Christians, for example, total attention to God implied ceaseless prayer. The early Church father Clement of Alexandria wrote of the “Perfect Christian” as one who “prays throughout his entire life, endeavoring by prayer to have fellowship with God.” Likewise the desert monastics of the fourth century took as their aim “to maintain there as near as possible a ceaseless vigil of prayer, punctuated only by the minimal interruption for food and sleep.”
“Such an aspiration to monopolize the attention of believers was hardly abandoned after Christianity’s early days. Some 1700 years later, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, prescribed various means for keeping the mind attuned to God, such as the practice of thinking of him immediately upon waking, right before falling asleep, for at least an hour during the day, and before taking any important action. (This discipline shares some similarity with the Jewish practice of offering brachot, or blessings, at various routine moments, such as before eating or drinking, or more exceptional ones, as when thunder is heard, among other practices codified in the Mishnah in the third century CE.)”
“To be sure, it isn’t as if before the twentieth century everyone was walking around thinking of God all the time. Nevertheless, the Church was the one institution whose mission depended on galvanizing attention; and through its daily and weekly offices, as well as its sometimes central role in education, that is exactly what it managed to do. At the dawn of the attention industries, then, religion was still, in a very real sense, the incumbent operation, the only large-scale human endeavor designed to capture attention and use it. But over the twentieth century, organized religion, which had weathered the doubts raised by the Enlightenment, would prove vulnerable to other claims on and uses for attention. Despite the promise of eternal life, faith in the West declined and has continued to do so, never faster than in the twenty-first century. Offering new consolations and strange gods of their own, the commercial rivals for human attention must surely figure into this decline. Attention, after all, is ultimately a zero-sum game.” (Pgs.26-27, The Attention Merchants, Tim Wu)
Translation? The things we purchase, and technology/apps we use may be affordable or even free, but there is always a cost involved. When that cost involves our attention during moments previously available to contemplation, quiet, prayer, & offering ourselves to discover the needs/desires/joys/pains of God & others – we may benefit from asking if we can/should really afford the price.
Question for conversation: Is it more redemptive to abstain from creating/posting content – helping spread subversive critique on consumption of social media, or to sparingly & creatively post content that points those who consume toward the Love and Truths of God? How have you seen either – done well?
In any case – may we be people who invite our children & young people to think about these things. May this be a year where we realize there are always prices unlisted. May we seek redemptive ways to interact, create, and live together. May we not be defined purely as amused consumers, or anxious responders, but discover new ways to offer Faith, Hope & Love creatively as New Creations ourselves…