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The fight for our attention

You are having a conversation with someone when your phone buzzes.

Technology Pete Nicholas
Figure Image
photo: iStock

Immediately you start to wonder what the notification is about. You think about checking your phone, but you hesitate because you don’t want to be rude. Then you realise that you have zoned out from the conversation and you don’t know what they’ve been saying. You’ve been distracted.

You are working on your laptop, deadline looming, trying to concentrate. An email notification pings. Of course you click on it, just to look. You read it. Your fingers move to the keyboard to write a response. Then you remember the urgency of your work. You switch back to what you were working on: ‘Where was I up to?’ You’ve been distracted.

The business of distraction

Distraction is huge business. Tristan Harris, founder of the ‘Time Well Spent’ movement, says: ‘We all live in a city called the attention economy’. If a platform or app can capture your attention then it can be monetised. The number of times it gets your attention and the length of time it holds it for are the key economic drivers. Tech giants like Google, Facebook and YouTube devote millions of pounds, even employing psychologists, to increase your distraction.

‘These platforms aren’t neutral,’ Harris stated in an interview for Tech Crunch last year, they are ‘exploiting our lower-level vulnerabilities’. The effect? Of course there is the minor annoyance of the buzzing and beeping. But then, more profoundly, there is the impact on our relationships – little wonder that, increasingly, people who work in Silicon Valley turn their phones off and place them in the middle of the table when they go out for dinner.

Brain changing

Equally there is the effect on our brains to consider. Neuroplasticity means that our brains are more like muscles, growing or deteriorating with use, changing their architecture. The more we are distracted the more we are unable to hold concentration. This is not to be alarmist or to hark back to some distraction-free yesteryear, but it is to be realistic about the benefits and the challenges of our devices.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6.12: ‘“I have the right to do anything,” you say – but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything” – but I will not be mastered by anything.’

It is worth reflecting on how beneficial attention is. It is key to the ability to have meaningful, non-superficial conversations. Sustained concentration enables us to produce quality work (whether manual or intellectual). Sustained attention is required to memorise something. Listening to sermons. Reading a book. Playing a game. The list goes on.

Freedom and slavery

Our devices and apps give us lots of new freedoms. They open up many new and wonderful possibilities. ‘But not everything is beneficial.’ They give us great power but they also exert power over us. ‘I will not be mastered by anything.’

In the fight for your attention do you really think that, without a concerted and thought-through approach, you will be able to resist the millions of pounds spent to grab your attention? Will your son or daughter?

Conversation at church

While we wait for the governments of the world to play catch up with proper regulation of the attention economy, let’s not be passive. Why not start a conversation at church about how to master your devices rather than being mastered by them?

Why not look into the ‘Time Well Spent’ movement and see the resources and behav-iours they are advocating? Why not start praying about this issue? Why not consider turning our phones off in church and not just turning them to a ‘silent’ buzzing? If there’s a fight for our attention then let’s prayerfully engage in the conflict.

Pete Nicholas is co-author of Virtually Human: Flourishing in a Digital Age. For more resources visit www.virtuallyhuman.co.uk