Pay Attention! Think!

In this edited extract from her latest (brilliant!) book, Sarah Wilson explains the landscape of the "attention economy" and how we can get our attention back.

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Sarah Wilson
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“Between stimulus and response there is a space.In that space is our power to choose our response.In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” — Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl penned this line after being released from Nazi concentration camps where he’d endured three years of hard labour. Some of you might know he wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning in just nine days after being released. He argued that he’d survived, while hundreds of thousands of fellow prisoners perished, because of his ability to not be distracted by others’ impositions on his thinking. He made the conscious and deliberate choice to own that space between what was happening around him and how he was going to live.

Today, though, we live in an “attention economy.” The more-more-more system tosses us bread and circuses and has bought our ability to think clearly. A bunch of super smart people working in behemoth tech companies design products to drag our attention away from true connecting by keeping us on an addictive, hedonistic treadmill of human smallness, buying their products. Over 90 percent of the data in the world today was generated in just the previous two years. We are inundated with the equivalent of 34 gigabytes of information a day, enough to crash a laptop in a week. YouTube and Netflix autoplay videos and next episodes; Facebook and Instagram manipulate when people receive feedback for their posts, ensuring they arrive when we feel vulnerable and will thus stay in the platform’s vortex. This handful of information companies now steer most of our consumption and information-sourcing choices.

They also control truth. A fake news story paid for, or planted by, dodgy interests can spread around the globe in seconds, duping us into believing something (usually) highly divisive. The platforms encourage sharing and prioritise scandalous news. And because we’ve forgotten the art of reading deeply and carefully, we are likely to accept it unquestioningly. And spread it.

I’ve done it. I shared a news story that claimed our Prime Minister had flown his family to the other side of the country to avoid the bushfire smoke in Sydney. It was right in the middle of his atrocious handling of the fires (he’d just returned from Hawaii where he’d decided to take a holiday as several firefighters were killed and millions of animals perished). It had been shared countless times, and was entirely plausible, so I assumed it was legit. But it turned out a satirical newspaper had written the original story. I, embarrassingly, had not paid attention. We have lost our cognitive resilience, along with the other resiliences required to navigate life with our eyes and hearts wide open.

Little wonder politicians speak in riddles, journalists get facts wrong, complex moral issues are reduced to facile economic equations or some other form of black v. white reductionism, when we all get our news from social media tiles. Little wonder we are failing miserably to get on the same page about the very real threats to our existence. I get it. I get you, fellow tossed ’n’turned humans.

We live in a society that seriously disses on considered thinking. We tell someone, “You think too much.” I’ve been told this since I was a kid. I live in a country where putting your hand up and saying, “I’ve thought about this deeply, done my research, and something is not right here. Couldn’t we be doing things differently?” is seen as anti-the-tough-it-out-battler identity we insist on hanging on to even though it’s no longer 1880 and we don’t ride on sheeps’ backs anymore. “C’mon, Sarah. You’re being un-Australian. She’ll (better) be right.”

Unsurprisingly, we began disparaging thinkers as the “intellectual elite” and the “chattering classes” at around the time neoliberalism kicked in in the early ’80s. Thinking-lite tends to emerge in times of economic opulence. We sink into that comfortable couch, numb out and dumb down. A cult works best when its members stop thinking.

But not thinking is neither benign, nor merely ignoble. Not thinking is also dangerous. As Hannah Arendt demonstrated, it was the non-thinking, or thoughtlessness of Nazi officers, that enabled them to commit mass murders. I was in Europe when the results of the Brexit referendum came through in 2016. I remember watching the news reports showing stunned Brits telling the camera that they hadn’t really thought it through. They hadn’t really known what they’d been voting for. Or against. Similarly, I watched Australians rush out and buy toilet paper in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, causing violence and panic and distraction from the critical precautions people needed to learn about.

The RAND Corporation, a center-right US think tank (the irony does not escape!), published a report warning of “truth decay” – the phenomenon whereby a world is so flooded with spin that it becomes bamboozled as to what’s actually real, and so descends into further non-thinking. This truth decay is happening on all sides of politics, in business, media and on the streets, right at a time when we need truth and refined, considered ideas and direction. Pizzagate; Fyre Festival; those exploding horse manure comments (during the Australian fires); and a President advocating bleach cures all spring to mind.

I get it. I get you, fellow bamboozled humans. The issues that plague us and threaten to destroy us – social injustice, the state of the planet, crises of human despair – are incredibly convoluted, intertwined and systemic. Their causes wind down thousands of sedimentary layers below the surface, and to discuss them meaningfully, to fix them requires winding down those layers, mindfully, patiently, lovingly. But precisely because everything around us is so complex and deeply systemic, we have become a species that exists in a permanent state of shell-shock. We would like everything reduced to simple black and white equations, thank you very much. We don’t have the time or bandwidth to do the work required to dig ourselves out of our predicament. Instead, we tune out, eye roll, throw our hands up and resort to blanket absolutism or distraction. There, sorted, gone! Now, let’s go shopping.

Again, I get it. But we have to think deeper. It’s non-negotiable. Because this shit matters. Yep, it’s hard, but we must do it anyway. Because hard work results in the good stuff. I do not know of a single game changer throughout history whose modus operandi, was, “It'll be alright” or “I just like to take it easy”.

We are also living in a state that psychologists call “continual partial attention.” So, while we have more interactions with other humans, they are partial connections – connection-lite. So parents, for example, have more contact time with their kids today – but it’s partial and distracted, predominantly due to the tug of technology.

We tend to focus a lot of our concerns about kids’ anxiety and welfare on their screen time. But the impact of parents’ screen addictions has been shown to be far more damaging to their kids. A lot of parents today (and I seriously have sympathy) exist in this state of continuous partial attention, constantly checking their devices as they spend time with their kids, and this is interrupting an ancient emotional cueing system between parents and kids, whereby responsive communication is required for learning, according to tech-industry veteran and researcher Linda Stone. Kids learn to speak, and to develop their social skills and moral framework, via their caregivers’ very present mirroring, their signals, nods and cooing, or stern correction. Studies at Temple and Harvard universities have shown that without this parental presence, kids suffer significant developmental injuries.

Which I know will sting many truly earnest parents reading this who are – let’s face it – equally injured by the imperative to be always “on,” always working, always parenting, always available. It should sting all of us. But I also find myself feeling some softening and connecting compassion when I learn such truths. We are all in this. No one is to blame. This collective distraction is messing up all of our relationships: with other people, with animals and trees, with the democratic process, with the truth and with the Earth itself. It becomes a noble, “Big Human” responsibility, then, to wrestle our attention back.

In Silicon Valley, among the very same white-sneakered tech CEO crew who have taken control of our attention via their gadgets and widgets and algorithms, the very latest craze is Stoicism. Back in 300 BC Greece, the Stoics preached a life dedicated to vigilance, minimalism, perseverance, political engagement, duty, a lot of asking of nuanced moral questions . . . and the paying of mindful attention.

Also hailing from Silicon Valley is the vigilant practice of abstaining from the kind of stimulation and distraction that triggers the highly addictive dopamine hormone. The tech community are all into writing long LinkedIn posts about their exploits. It essentially entails starving yourself of all the stuff the neoliberal system chucks at us and that eventually numbs the reward receptors in the brain, meaning we need more stimulation to get the same hit. More stimulation numbs us further and around and around we go. A dopamine fast sees you quit all the breads and circuses: junk food, TV series, porn, shopping, and of course devices. Interestingly, the Chinese government has imposed this kind of fasting schedule on gaming for kids as of 2020. New laws place blocks on night-time use, and also daily time limits (1.5 hours during the week; 3 hours on weekends). I’ve been playing with it a bit. I’m not one for bio-hacks. But I found it helpful to frame the exercise as an act of defiance (I will not have my attention bought!). I supply a bit of detail here because I know many of you are probably craving some straightforward instruction on the matter.

First, choose what you want to abstain from. Perhaps start with three distractions at a time: choosing from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp, sugar, junkfood, phone calls, texting, taking photos, emailing, TV, Netflix, gaming, gambling, recreational drugs, shopping (some fans go as far as cutting out sex, eating and eye contact).

Second, set up an abstinence schedule. For example:

• 2 hours before bed.

• 1 day of the weekend. Essentially, bring back the Sabbath!

• 1 week per year. Go on a tech-free holiday. Do a silent retreat. Vipassana retreats are available around the world (10 days of meditation, no talking, minimal eating, minimal eye contact and obviously no technology).

Third, try some of these tech hacks:

• Download an app like Freedom or Cold Turkey that blocks distracting websites and social media while you work on your computer.

• Turn off all alerts and badge app icons on your phone.

• Disable “see online” functions on your social apps. I need to stop feeling the particular pressure that comes from others knowing I’m online and therefore should be responding to their messages outside of the timeframe that suits my priorities.

• Change your lock screen. I learned this technique from Catherine Price, described as the Marie Kondo of our brain’s attention. She advises changing your lock screen to one that shows three questions: “What for? Why now? What else?” I tried it with the (beautiful) question: “What are you yearning for?” It gets me to stop and pay attention when I go in for a diversionary dopamine hit on my phone.

• Use Boomerang to ensure emails can’t reach co-workers’ inboxes until business hours. (Look, it might suit you to write emails out of hours, but if we’re going to shift the culture, we have to protect each other’s attention, too.)

Finally, just go old school. If I’m driving, I put my phone in the boot. When I’m working, I leave my phone three rooms away. In a drawer. And I play with leaving the house without my phone. I started out small. I’d leave it behind when I went across the road to pick up mail. Then I graduated to going out to dinner without it. I’ll text my dining mate to tell them I’m not taking my phone. This creates an imperative for both of us to be on time. We can’t send a breezy, semi-avoidant text en route, working on the assumption that the other will be sorting through work emails anyway (which is our rationalisation process). It lifts us all.

Sarah Wilson is a former journalist and TV presenter, author and activist. This is an edited extract from her latest (brilliant!) book, This One Wild and Precious Life.

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