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Attention Extinction


All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone said Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth century French polymath.


He may well be right; he most certainly would not believe how much worse things are now.


Many people, as they age, think the world is losing its attention span, without realising that focus declines as we grow older. But something has palpably changed in this still young century. A whole new digital architecture has been designed that wasn’t there before. It creates the excitement of the city, but it has also gone up around us like skyscrapers, creating cold shadows and bitter wind tunnels and blocking out the sun.


This new online city we find ourselves in is intentionally designed to keep our attention. The business model of the internet is to distract us from doing things offline – even meaningful things online – by getting us to scroll or click one more time at a time.


One study investigated how long American college students pay attention to anything on their computers. They found that the average student switches tasks every sixty-five seconds. A similar study found that an ordinary office worker stays on task for three minutes. Research at the University of Oregon has shown that if you are immersed in creative work and get interrupted, it takes twenty-three minutes to get back to that place of creativity. As most of us allow ourselves to be distracted from tasks on a regular basis, it suggests the human race may soon be losing some of its originality.


Our minds are less like the cool, white, minimalist interior design we aspire to in life and more like the junk garage where broken and pointless stuff is tipped.


According to Johann Hari in his book Stolen Focus (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022), we tend to blame ourselves for this state of affairs. If we tell someone that our smartphone is distracting us, the answer we receive will be to turn it off or put it away. While there are steps we can all take, Hari says this lets tech companies off the hook. Like shopaholics, there is individual responsibility, but there is also the vast edifice of consumer capitalism designed to make you buy more stuff. Tech companies want us to remain distracted, so they are part of the problem too.


When we assess what it means to follow Jesus today, we often do not see what tech is doing to us. The gains are so obvious – having the world at our fingertips – that the losses remain obscure.


One of these losses is shared with wider society. Gallup polling has found that well over half of all Americans do not read a single book in a typical year. By 2017, they spent an average of seventeen minutes a day reading books and nearly five and a half hours on their phone. It is the difference between paddling in the shallow, breaking waves and swimming deeply in its currents.


How does this affect our reading of the Bible and our commitment to prayer? There is little to no research on this, so nothing cannot be said with assurance, but we can hazard a guess. We may be giving God less devoted attention than before. In flitting from one source to another, like a fly on a hot summer’s day, we do not stay long enough in one place to discover if God is waiting there for us.


Johann Hari is realistic in listing some practical, personal actions that can be taken amidst these imposing digital skyscrapers, like staying on task and limiting exposure to social media which is shown to be bad for mental health in large doses. One of the actions he recommends is to allow space for our mind’s to wander. This does not contradict the argument about losing focus. Mind wandering is, paradoxically, a form of attention. It is the space where we solve the puzzles of our lives, joining dots we had missed, colouring in a picture that brings it alive. The place where God sidles up to talk.


When Elijah meets with God at Mount Horeb, there is first a strong wind, then a powerful earthquake and lastly a raging fire. But God does not reveal himself in these gripping phenomena. Only in the sheer silence that follows is God to be found, in the whisper of a voice.


The sheer silence today is broken by the familiar buzz of a news feed or social media update; the moment we so easily move out of earshot of the faint audio of the divine.



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