Attention Deficit

The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: they are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep.

-- Leon Wieseltier

Abraham Lincoln famously delivered his Gettysburg Address in just over two minutes, following a now-forgotten two-hour oration by the American statesman Edward Everett. How would the media have covered Lincoln’s speech had the event occurred today? According to media analysts, the average presidential “soundbite” on the evening news these days lasts only about nine seconds. That would be enough time to quote perhaps one sentence of an address that is only ten sentences long. Twitter users would hardly do much better, since Lincoln’s famous opening sentence alone (“Four score and seven years ago…”) runs to 148 characters of Twitter's 280-character limit. The Gettysburg Address is regarded as one of the finest speeches in American history. Edward Everett himself told Lincoln, "I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes." However, it is highly doubtful the news media could do the same in a mere soundbite.

There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem trying to determine whether shrinking attention spans are forcing the media to cut back on news coverage, or whether the media are responsible for shrinking attention spans in the first place. Perhaps it is both. The communications theorist Marshall McLuhan maintained that new technology results in “extensions and amputations” of the human body. For example, the invention of writing vastly increased the amount of stored information immediately available to the human brain; however, even Socrates worried that writing would atrophy memory and make people more forgetful.

Technology writer Nicholas Carr has observed that “media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought.” Fast-forward 2,500 years from Socrates' day, and Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, is talking about Internet search engines as a way to attach all the world’s information directly to your brain. Carr points out that Google is anything but a disinterested party in this exercise. “The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements,” he writes. “The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.”

Plenty of concerns have been raised about the deleterious effects of electronic media on our powers of concentration, to say nothing of our ability to operate a motor vehicle while texting. But relatively few have identified distraction as a spiritual malady. Jesus, of course, reproved Martha in the gospel story for having allowed herself to become “distracted with much serving.” St. Theophan the Recluse, a 19th-century Orthodox monk, saw distraction as the chief obstacle to communion with God. His warning, coming well over a century ago, is eerily prescient about the dangers of the Google worldview: “Being in living communion with this entire world, each sinner is caught up in its thousandfold net, and is so deeply entangled in it that it is invisible to him.”

Perhaps the most compelling case for distraction as a pathway to perdition comes in C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, in which Screwtape, one of Satan’s seasoned minions, offers advice to his nephew Wormwood about the best way to trip up a recent convert to Christianity. Screwtape considers it a “tiresome business” to tempt him with the usual peccadilloes when nothing very much at all can accomplish the same end. Screwtape writes: “And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off.”

One of the lessons Jesus imparted to his disciples was that they needed to remain vigilant for the coming of the Lord. He told various parables that all ended with the lord or master of the house arriving unexpectedly. “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour,” he told them. His promise was, “Seek and ye shall find.” But you will never find what you truly seek if you don’t learn to pay attention.

Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, Atlantic Monthly (July/August 2008)
St. Theophan, Pathway to Salvation

Luke 10:38-42
Matthew 25:13
Matthew 7:7

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