This article first appeared in The Rabbit Room.
When it comes to information, humanity has been playing a vast game of Tetris for thousands of years. New blocks of information are constantly being formed as we acquire new knowledge. As we encounter them, our objective is to rotate and place these informational blocks into our experience.
This was easier for our ancestors. The blocks were falling slowly from the sky. There was time to attend to each one, make a decision, and move on.
But those were the early rounds. As any child of the 80s knows, the game of Tetris rapidly escalates. The blocks fall faster with each round until it’s hard to keep up.
In the 21st century, information is coming toward us at lightning speed. We have less time to assess, order, and fit things together neatly. We live daily with our failure to join up our thinking. We have gaps in our knowledge and a growing number of things that conflict with what we thought we knew.
Today, in the game of information-Tetris, we are in the lightning rounds. We can feel overwhelmed if we are conscious of losing control. We feel distracted when we are not, lacking focus and intention. Time slips away. The music of the game is playing faster and faster and we sense that something has got to give.
Information overload and the toll it takes on our attention has become a cultural conversation. Self-help books and mindfulness courses proliferate as we try to get a grip on our productivity, our ability to process information, and our increasingly fragile memories.
Often overlooked, however, is our informational environment’s profound effect on our capacity to love. Because love is intimately connected with attention, our habits of distraction shape the way in which we love or fail to love the people and places in our care.
This connection might sound tenuous to you at first blush. After all, in the Western tradition, we have tended to see ourselves as thinking animals, the objects of our affection determined solely by our decision making. The truth of the matter is that our desires tell us more about who we really are and what we truly love.
For instance, I am fully aware of what healthy eating looks like. I know in my mind that it does not involve late night visits to the refrigerator. If my thoughts and beliefs were the decisive factor, I would never find myself spoon in hand, eating ice cream straight from the tub at 11:22 pm. But my ritual of late-night snacking has formed me into a lover of ice cream. I love the pleasure of ice cream more than I love the goal of health.
Our love is the fuel of our action, drawing us toward the desires of our heart. We are driven more by desire than by knowledge. We bear in our hearts a vision of what we want and are propelled toward that vision, often in spite of firmly held convictions. “You are what you love,” writes philosopher James K. A. Smith, “but you might not love what you think.”
Love is a fathomless mystery, but one possible definition of love is this: Love is committed attending.
Attending is more than just showing up; it’s less “He wasn’t in attendance today” and more “Look how that mother attends to her daughter.” Attending means offering more than a momentary glance or a short period of concentration. Attending is active presence, the consistent application of energy toward something rather than away from it.
Do you want to identify the objects of your love? If so, ask yourself, “Who or what receives the most of my active presence?”
The honest answers to that question can be unsettling. I may say I love reading and I back up this claim by lining my home with books. What does it mean, then, if I spend the majority of my free hours scrolling through Instagram, playing games on my iPad, and surveying the Netflix terrain? Clearly, I don’t love reading as much as I think I do. I may have had a love for books once, but my committed attending has since found new objects.
Or, think of a spouse who cheats on their beloved three times in a short span and each time comes back saying, “You’ve always been the one I loved the most!” The spouse might truly think they love their partner most, but their committed attending has been directed elsewhere, turned toward someone else whom they feel is more fulfilling than their spouse.
The objects of our committed attending are the objects of our love.
Once we understand how intimately love is connected with attention, we are ready to see the many ways that information overload inhibits our loving.
In our data-rich world, each piece of digital information that distracts us claims a portion of our attention, a portion of our capacity to love. As our digital distraction levels go up, our capacity for real-life loving goes down.
The more distracted we are by the digital, the more our love is turned away from those who need and deserve it, and toward the sources of our distraction. Where your attention is, there your love will be also.
The struggle for love is only intensified by the fact that we live within the power structures of the attention economy. Our attention is a precious resource for us, but in the twenty-first century, our attention is seen as a commodity, a cash crop ripe for the picking.
Tim Wu describes an “attention merchant” as someone who puts forward a product for a low cost or for free in order to harvest human attention and sell it to someone else.
In the nineteenth century, the first attention merchants were newspaper publishers who offered consumers free tabloid newspapers chock full of advertisements. Readers thought they were getting a cheap paper, but the real customers were the advertisers.The newspaper was not the product; the readers were.
In our day, the bulk of advertising growth from year to year is shared between two great attention merchants extraordinaire — Facebook and Google. With the world’s most sophisticated technology at their disposal, these Silicon Valley giants offer a bonanza of free (or affordable) products and services for the primary purpose of attention harvesting.
The information collected from us reveals our interests, our habits, and even our weaknesses. The resulting data allows the attention merchants to profile each user and create an all encompassing climate of desire for each individual – an endless stream of product offerings, restaurant choices, likes, and glittering images of the lives we want but do not have.
An internal report leaked in 2017 revealed that Facebook could identify when teen users were feeling “insecure”, “worthless”, or needing “a confidence boost.” As The Guardian recently reported, “Tech companies can exploit such vulnerabilities to keep people hooked; manipulating, for example, when people receive ‘likes’ for their posts, ensuring they arrive when an individual is likely to feel vulnerable, or in need of approval, or maybe just bored. And the very same techniques can be sold to the highest bidder.”
It is no accident, then, that we are plagued by distraction here in the attention economy. It is partially, if not wholly, the result of thousands of hours of careful psychological research and data gathering by technology companies who are fully aware of what colors, sounds, images, notifications, and other persuasive tools have the highest odds capturing our attention.
The next time you feel defeated after spending more time on your phone than you originally intended, think of it as a victory for the attention merchants. Your committed attending is their most valuable product. All they need is your love.
As our attention is diverted for profit, we may come to neglect other things that have a more legitimate claim on our committed attending. That may be a job or an education, our communities or our environment. It may be the God we claim to worship. It could be our partner or spouse. Many children are growing up today with the ‘continuous partial attention’ of a parent on their smartphone.
James Williams is a former Google employee who has used his insider knowledge of the attention economy to write critically about it. He came up with our opening Tetris metaphor, and in his book Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy, he offers this axiom to help us understand technology in the 21st century:
There’s a deep misalignment between the goals we have for ourselves and the goals our technologies have for us.
Think about this as you scroll through Instagram and see an ad for that thing you didn’t know you wanted, and that you’ll now be thinking about for days on end. Consider it at 11:22 p.m. when Netflix starts autoplaying the next episode of your new favourite show. Remember it when you receive a bundle of notifications on your phone in those bleary moments before you crawl into bed to rest your body and mind.
These moments of self-reflection will shelter you, if only for a moment, from the lightning rounds of information Tetris that thunder all around. It will provide you with even the smallest bit of energy necessary to take that salvaged portion of your love and to call your grandmother, take your spouse on a date, pray for your children, be emotionally available for your community, or unearth that forgotten hobby that once gave you such joy.
In the attention economy, these deceptively simple acts of paying attention to the things that matter most are acts of resistance. They are the essential first steps to becoming a better lover.
What exactly we are paying when we pay attention? James Williams says:
You pay with all the things you could have attended to, but didn’t: all the goals you didn’t pursue, all the actions you didn’t take, and all the possible yous you could have been, had you attended to those other things. Attention is paid in possible futures forgone. … We pay attention with the lives we might have lived.
Your attention is precious. Protect it with care. Offer it with intention in a lifetime of love.
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