There are two ways to go through life: Mindfully or mindlessly. In the first instance, we pay attention. We see things and notice them in order to appreciate them. We hear things in order to understand them. We seek to know things not superficially but in their wholeness. We live in the present moment and experience the world with wonder, tasting its mysteries with full appreciation.
In the second instance, we are distracted. We see things but do not notice them. We hear things but do not understand them. All the information of our senses is received with the bare minimum of attention. Our whole life is a haze, a fragmented series of a barely conscious sense impressions.
The first describes the mode of the poet who sees fully and feels deeply. The second describes the frequently fragmented attention of modern man, and this is in no small part due to omnipresent technology.
Technology and Attention
I possess a smartphone, and I there are frequently times I am thankful for its benefits. Yet, as often as I am thankful, I am equally disgusted with it. For my phone has a way of drawing me inevitably away from the present moment. A brief consultation for a specific purpose quickly finds me distracted by myriad pieces of information flowing at me incessantly through a brightly colored screen. It is a machine designed for one purpose—to absorb and hold my attention for as long as possible.
Whether or not we realize it, our attention is now a commodity to be bought and sold. We think we are mindlessly relaxing, scrolling through our Instagram or Facebook feed. In reality, advertisers are purchasing our attention and using the years of social data we have given them to know what we want before we know we want it. And it works. It is nearly irresistible. It is designed to be so.
Fragmentation and Augmentation
It could be argued legitimately that every technology has tradeoffs and that internet enabled phones are no exception. The problem is, digital devices are designed to fragment attention, where other technologies are intended to augment it. An apt example is a book. A book is actually a piece of technology for relaying information. After the advent of the printing press, books became the most widely used system of information exchange.
But reading is an entirely different experience than scrolling on Facebook. Reading focuses your attention and draws you into a deep state of flow—of concentration without effort. Reading causes you to pass through the particular words into the realm of ideas and, in the case of fiction, imagery and emotions. The whole structure of a book, from the font to the layout of words on a page, is designed to aid and augment concentration.
Digital devices, on the other hand, fragment attention. On opening your smartphone, you are presented with a grid providing you with a choice of applications you want to enter. Because there are options, your attention is immediately pulled in different directions. Once you enter an app, you are faced with a stream of information—whether it be a list of emails, social media posts, or notifications of activity.
Each item presents a demand on your attention. It beckons you to become aware of it and engage with it. It stimulates our desires and teaches us to act on impulse. And because there is always something new, our brains are soon trained to expect the reward of fresh stimulus. Using such a device is rather like someone on a strict, gluten free diet walking into a donut shop—resolve does not last long.
Struggle for Awareness
My point is not to denigrate technology. Devices such as smartphones have indeed brought benefits to our lives. I would not own one if there were not benefits to it. And yet, there is a very real sense in which these devices have impoverished us in making us no longer aware of the world around us. More often than not, we move through life in a distracted haze of stimulation and response, neglecting the deeper concentration needed for true contemplation. How many miracles, how many shimmering wonders do we miss because we are lost in a two dimensional screen?
We must resist mindlessness, and not by half measures. I believe we have a very real duty to struggle against distraction. As Christians, we are all called to be poets—not literally perhaps, but in the sense of seeing fully and feeling deeply the mystery of things.
To quote the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, the “world is charged with the grandeur of God,” but without awareness, without attention, we cannot experience this sacramental reality. We cannot receive it as the gift that it is, with joy and wonder and gratitude, if we are not awake enough to notice it. And not merely notice it in a superficial, cursory manner, but truly contemplate it in its richness and beauty.
Our fragmented attention is causing us to miss out on a great deal of joy. Let us then struggle against the world of artificiality that beckons us and seeks to absorb and then shatter our attention. Let us strive for mindfulness and not mindlessness. Let us return to reality and receive the gift of creation with awe and thanksgiving and offer for it a sacrifice of praise.