The Hacking of American Attention and Contemplative Prayer

The Hacking of American Attention and Contemplative Prayer March 12, 2018

There’s a good chance that as you thumbed through your morning social media or news feed, your attention got hacked.   Prayer just might help you recover it.

New research charting the intersection of social media and politics has highlighted the concept of the “attention economy.”  The attention economy is the sum of human attention as it’s focused and split by events, celebrities, and media.  The total bandwidth of attention is naturally bounded by the limits of human life, and thus it’s a precious resource.  We can only read and watch and hear so much. Occasionally, we have to sleep–even if there are those who conk out with the phone in their hand.  Forces in the world, most obviously, advertisers, are vying for a slice of our valuable attention. Thus the flopping firehose torrent of clickbait political dish, flashes of celebrity skin, and cat videos.  Not only that, but we live in a moment in which technology, particularly social media, has allowed certain figures with itchy Twitter-fingers to monopolize airtime and discussion, essentially hacking the world’s (or at least the nation’s) attention by driving what we think and talk about.  He said what?  We just can’t get it out of our minds, and our souls suffer the consequences.

I’m no stranger to the powerful impact the constant flow of news can have on our attention.  I’ve made it my practice to enter a self-imposed news fast during the day. I know myself well enough, and I recognize the temptation to gorge on the latest headlines.  It’s a subtle and tantalizing temptation for me, one that plays to my sense of being well-informed and sophisticated. If I’m not careful, I can find myself continually clicking in to various news sites throughout the day, my mind skipping over the surface of commentary and analysis.  My attention gets hacked.

Not only that, but depending on what’s going on in the world and who’s occupying the newsfeed, I’m at risk of becoming tetchy and annoyed.  My experience points to one particularly damaging form attention hacking takes: the cultivation of outrage and disdain. The trolls are exceedingly good at drubbing our attention in their desired direction.  It’s all too easy to get sucked in, or to be enticed to dive in headfirst by the seeming urgency of it all. Reaction leads to reactivity, and we become umbrageous, inflamed as a fresh bruise. All we can think about is that latest post that ticked us off–which is precisely what the post-er wanted.  Score one for the everybody-baiters.

Faced with the gush of words, blurbs, tweets, and attention-wresting headlines, many faith leaders have urged us all to be a little kinder and gentler.  Throw a few less digital elbows. It’s not bad advice. But for followers of Jesus, the challenge of engagement with online media runs deeper and thus requires a deeper response. The problem is the very fact of our participation in the attention economy.

We are shaped by what we focus on.  This is why the apostle Paul wrote that we should spend our time thinking about whatever is “true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, admirable, and worthy of praise” (Philippians 4:8).  He warned against getting sidetracked. Paul urged the church–with a frankness that may shock our egalitarian sensibilities–to practice what they had “learned and received and heard and seen” in him (Philippians 4:9).

Paul was warning against the attention hackers of his day, those who would draw off the faithful’s attention from what mattered most.  It may have been a less incessant and juiced-up version of the attention economy than our own. After all, chiseling letters into a slab of pale marble takes a bit longer than punching out a tweet.  But it led to the same conundrum: learning to pay attention to those things nearest the heart of a full and authentic human life.

Rather than following the hourly news roundabout, we need to invest in the alternative attention economy of prayer.  I don’t so much mean intercessory prayer, the kind of prayer where we pray for others–though that wouldn’t be a bad place to start.  What I’m really getting at is prayer in its most basic sense: paying attention to God.

Paying attention to God is the starting point for the kind of prayer we call contemplation.  Contemplation might come off as a lofty concept, but in fact it’s utterly practical.  To contemplate is to focus on God. It means putting down (and out of reach) the phone and folding the laptop closed.  In fits and starts, our mind begins to wind backward from the tangle of news and find its true shape in God.

Should you attempt to try contemplation, deciding to snatch your soul back from the attention hackers, you may find that your prayers are a little jaggedy at first.  There’s a good chance that you won’t be able to focus on God so much as you’ll need to pray about yourself. The headlines of your life will scroll across the ticker feed of your mind.  That’s to be expected. We’re used to thinking about ourselves. Pray those things to the sidelines and turn your attention gently back to God.

As you pray, you may find yourself suddenly flushed with anger–at the state of the world, at particular people, maybe even anger directed toward yourself.  Beware. Keep in mind that anger is a deadly sin. The Desert Fathers often experienced anger as an obstacle to their prayers. It could be nearly overwhelming at times, and this was one of the reasons that they understood anger as not merely a human emotion but as a demon against which they had to muster their deepest spiritual reserves.  

Yet, countering the attention economy is not so much about our own spiritual reserves as it is about being open to God’s grace.  God has to lead us clear–though peeling the mind back from the world’s attention hackers and inserting ourselves into God’s attention economy will require intentionality.  There will be struggle.1

For any of this to stick, we’ll have to be convinced that the struggle is worth it.  It’s about becoming a different, more mindful kind of person, what the Bible speaks of as growing in spiritual maturity (Ephesians 4:13).  By investing the bandwidth of our attention in prayer, we start to unglue our eyes from the ten thousand screens of daily life and unhitch our minds from the news feed.

That hourly news feed gives the brain a kind of digital sugar rush, but it’s empty calories.  When we step back, we usually aren’t missing much. It turns out that many of the world’s biggest attention hackers also have the most elastic relationship to the truth.  They’re frenemies of facts. St. Augustine’s words speak all too well to our contemporary reality: “Is anything more loquacious than folly? But it must not be supposed that folly is as powerful as truth, just because it can, if it likes, shout louder and longer than truth.”

I know: that’s tweetable Augustine.  But put down that phone. Try your hand at prayer.


St. Augustine, The City of God, (trans. Henry Bettenson, New York: Penguin Books, 1984), p.224.

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