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Attention to What Matters


    Sanford Baran:  We are living in extraordinarily distracting times. For many there is an almost non-stop experience of interruption that can easily hijack one's ability to focus and to think. Increasingly we are bombarded by emails, texts, smart phone notifications, social media feeds; not to mention a never-ending stream of sensational news headlines tailor-made to capture our attention. Is it any wonder that there is so little room in consciousness to think about the things that are actually worthwhile?

    I was reading that every time we get distracted it takes 23 minutes to fully recover and refocus back to the task at hand. "I better check my email." Well there goes another 23 minutes down the drain! Not only is this an incredible waste of time and life energy, it plainly can affect one's health and well-being. There is mounting clinical evidence suggesting that a fixation with digital distractions can lead to higher levels of stress. Some of these distractions can be downright dangerous, like texting while driving or crossing a busy intersection with your face buried in your phone.

    There is a huge distinction between distractions and interruptions. A distraction is an external stimulus vying for our attention—basically harmless if ignored. An interruption on the other hand results from letting distractions grab our attention. Regardless of whether we react positively or negatively, our concentration is pulled away from the present moment to something that is probably extraneous at best. Essentially, we've voluntarily handed over precious bandwidth in consciousness to external factors of dubious value. And the more energy spent allowing distractions to jerk us around, the harder it becomes to simply ignore them. I guess you could say that this is a type of addiction. With some it's a serious addiction.

    It is well accepted that the first step in overcoming an addiction is to recognize and accept the fact of it. Depending on the particular addiction this can be more or less consuming. For those of us over fifty, addiction to things digital is probably less of a concern than for those under thirty who have grown up with computers, smartphones, texting, and social media their entire lives. I'm over fifty and I can be digitally distracted. For instance, I have a proclivity to check my email more than is really be necessary. And then there is the news. I can't tell you how many times I check my digital editions of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Certainly, more than what is necessary to just stay reasonably informed. This seemingly incessant need to stay on top of the latest breaking stories has proven to be a major distraction for me, particularly in the face of such extraordinary and stunning news cycles that we've been witnessing just over the last number of days.

    To the degree that we have sufficient distance in ourselves to nonjudgmentally recognize behavior that is not all that creative or healthy in our living, we have an excellent starting point for change—and are then in position to consider what we could be doing differently in our daily affairs. Becoming aware that there is something that needs addressing in ourselves is crucial. If we lack that awareness or are in a state of denial about it, there is no real starting point for dealing with it.

    It might seem obvious that, say in my case, all that really is needed is to apply a little self-discipline to put things more into balance—maybe restrict myself to checking email and the news just a few times a day. That's a change in my daily routine that I feel I can easily put into practice.

    But this brings up an interesting question. What do we mean by self-discipline? And who is the self doing the disciplining? If it's the mind imposing its will on the situation, strong-arming our capacities to arbitrarily fall into line, it really is questionable how effective that would be. The mind is notorious for making decisions fraught with biases and incomplete information. And when it comes to digital distractions, I can tell that there is a lot more going on than meets the eye, human willpower notwithstanding. Let me try to put this into perspective.

    Down through history there have been notable periods of economic activity very much characterized by certain key resources that were deemed to be scarce and hence valuable. In agrarian times, land, food and crops were assumed to be the primary forms of value. Then starting in the mid 18th century industrialization took root and the notion of economic value shifted away from land and food to materials like iron and steel, to newly invented sources of energy like electricity, and to machines that could automate and outperform manual labor. Following that starting around 50 years ago, a new economic paradigm emerged, often referred to as the "Information Economy," where information or knowledge became the primary raw material and most important form of global capital. As each new type of economy emerged, what used to be scarce in the previous economies was no longer seen as scarce and hence diminished in perceived value.

    Today there is yet another economic transformation underway. In these digitally-centric times what is now deemed to be valuable is attention itself, a resource that seemingly is becoming scarcer by the day. Let me read to you an excerpt from an article written by Lexie Kane of the Nielsen Norman Group entitled, The Attention Economy.

    "Digital products are competing for users' limited attention. The modern economy increasingly revolves around the human attention span and how products capture that attention. … Attention is one of the most valuable resources of the digital age. … We (as consumers) are presented with a wealth of information, but we have the same amount of mental processing power as we have always had. The number of minutes has also stayed exactly the same in every day. Today attention, not information, is the limiting factor."

    Ironically in this new Attention Economy, information and knowledge couldn't be more plentiful. Anything that you want to know about can be found online. But as information has increased at breakneck speed, our ability to consume it has been rapidly declining.

    I watched an interesting TED talk by Tristan Harris entitled How a handful of tech companies control billions of minds every day. Tristan Harris was a Design Ethicist at Google, and his job was to work with a team of 100 or so engineers hunched over desks in a control room, tweaking various parameters in their algorithms to maximize how long visitors would stay on their app. One of the key techniques used these days, particularly on a video site like YouTube is to auto-start the next video immediately after the video you requested has completed. Never mind that you didn't ask for this next video, it has been custom selected for you by their sophisticated AI programs using all manner of data that has been compiled about you. And this next video is designed to push just the right buttons to keep you suitably engrossed and sucked in. Incidentally there are other companies playing this game as well, relentlessly pursuing their market share of attention. Netflix has its own set of algorithms designed to keep you watching, auto playing the next episode in the particular series you happen to be binging on. And then there is Facebook and Instagram who also are competing for your attention. What you have is a giant arms race of very powerful companies all competing for your finite attention, each of them with armies of engineers and virtually unlimited supercomputer firepower vying to make their content the most tantalizing and attractive. So even with the strongest willpower, it can be challenging at best to resist the pull of these digital entreaties because you basically are being out-gunned by the technology behind them. Is there any doubt that willpower is no match for what it's up against?

    The Attention Economy posits that attention itself is what is valuable. Perhaps that works for Google, but from a spiritual perspective, it just doesn't hold water. Our capacity of attention has value only to the extent that it is focused on what intrinsically has value to begin with, our divine identity, our true point of centering.

    Attention was not meant to be fickle or to be aimlessly swayed by the forces of distraction. No, it has a very specific job to do—actively keeping us aligned and connected to what really matters, ensuring that our focus is where it needs to be. As we take responsibility for letting this be so, our experience changes in significant ways. For one thing, we no longer are beholden to the forces of the marketplace, to the companies who would gladly commodify that which is not for sale—bandwidth in consciousness.

    Functioning in this way, we begin to experience true freedom, a state of personal sovereignty, that is spacious, unencumbered and is de-littered of digital detritus. Then there is room in consciousness to think about the things that are actually worthwhile, that are generative, creative and contribute positively to the well-being of the whole. As we are fully and actively engaged in this way, we simply don't have the time to be lured away by distracting influences because our lives are filled to overflowing and we are having far too much fun being focused on what is rightly ours to handle.

September 29, 2019


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