How I Got My Attention Back
Technology is commanding our attention in infinite, insurmountable loops. A country trip off-grid helped me escape.Originally published by: Wired Magazine
There are a thousand beautiful ways to start the day that don’t begin with looking at a phone. And yet so few of us choose to do so.
For twenty-eight days this winter I lived on the grounds of an old estate down in central Virginia, next to a town called Lynchburg, making good on a residency I had been offered by the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. I had done other residencies before, and knew in order to eke out maximum productivity, internet disconnection was nonnegotiable. And so it began, the day after the election: my month without the internet.
It felt like a cop-out—like I wasn’t allowed to escape the “real world” so easily. But the quieter my mind became, and the deeper I went into my own work, the more I realized how my always-on, always-connected state had rendered me largely useless.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” wrote Blaise Pascal. Did any of us remember how to sit quietly, alone, without a phone in hand? I certainly didn’t. By the time the curtain closed on act one of our political tragedy, if there was action to be taken, I was in no state to take it. I had long since lost control of my attention.
I want my attention back.
That was the first thought I had the morning after the election. I woke. The crushing weight of a new reality reimposed itself on my mind. And then: I want my attention back.
I walked Brooklyn. At best, everyone was funereal. At worst, in tears, inconsolable. It’s impossible to overstate just how dour the world felt at that moment (and continues to feel in more surreal and horrifying ways since).
The entire city — country? world? — had been infected by a terminal disease, the prime vector of which was memes. As I made my way to the rat-maze of Penn Station to board an eight-hour Amtrak train headed for Virginia, the faces continued to flash by and I couldn’t help but think: When was the last time any of us had control of our attentions?
In “Gravity and Grace,” Simone Weil writes, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.” Then is the lack of attention the opposite? Does it presuppose fear and hate?
It had been a long time since my attention was mine. As the feelings of that day — of that eight-hour train ride past an America that suddenly felt very foreign — spread into the next and the next, I tried to think back to when my attention was something I could manipulate confidently. I couldn’t remember.
Was it pre-Snapchat or Instagram Stories? Before everything was filtered through a real-time performance? Pre-vlogs? Before palatable young white guys who say “bruh” with alarming frequency spun daily monologues into Sony HD cams for audiences of millions? Before every meal and outfit had to be posed, captured, and #tagged. Or pre-Grinder and pre-Tinder? When fantasies born on the crucible of YouPorn (or is it PornHub?) weren’t so easy to make real, nightly?
Was I being too hard on technology? Were we all? Technology is such an easy scapegoat. But it feels so right to point our fingers — It must have been the fake news. It must have been Facebook. It must have been Twitter. It must have been Reddit forums.
It was none of these things. It was all of these things. Whatever it was, it robbed us of our attention and, with that, our compassion. But the network never meant to harm us. Hell, it was made by a gaggle of geeks in rooms without windows in the suburbs of Geneva. That’s either the most endearing image, or the most creepy.
Regardless, down in Virginia, on a repurposed plantation: I want my attention back. The thought wouldn’t let go.
In the last year I had gotten myself addicted to the game Clash of Clans. Not purposely. I was in Myanmar on a research job and noticed all the farmers were playing it, atop their buffalo in the fields (where the 3G was strongest). I wanted to understand what compelled them to never put down their phones.
Five months into it and I was fully hooked. I had complete farmer empathy. I set a goal—some level, some league that seemed just on the edge of “enough.” Make it over that line and I’d pull the plug. What makes Clash of Clans so treacherous is that you are always building, sculpting. Five months of work is really five months of work. Each additional day of play makes it that much more difficult to abandon.
As I got closer to my goal — that mythical league on the horizon — I felt the algorithms turn on me. I sensed they knew I had a goal, and they turned that goal into an unobtainable carrot. Was I being paranoid? Maybe. The last day I played, I played for ten hours straight. Play the game slowly, a few minutes a day over months, and the algorithms are insidious. Play the game in a manic burst, and suddenly the algorithms feel laid bare. I spent only $40 over those five months, but those last ten hours were grueling. The closer I got to the goal, the more the algorithm would knock me down, set me up with what appeared to be easy wins only to have me lose. Disheartened, I’d try again, this time beating someone against whom I should have lost. Over and over this continued. It was so perfectly tuned to my most primitive set of chemical desires that it was actually beautiful — a thing of beauty. I could feel it moving beneath the screen. Its tendrils and my neurons moving with an eerie synchronicity. But of course, the lock-step relationship was weighted heavily towards the house; just as victory was once again in sight, I was back to my position ten moves and an hour prior. Where did it end?
It was ridiculous. I was ridiculous. And maybe I was just a bad player. But I couldn’t help shake that I was caught in a con, a long and shitty con.
I pulled the plug. Deleted the app. Deleted the Game Center account. The data was gone (I hoped, I haven’t checked). A weight was temporarily lifted.
In 1992 Bill McKibben “spent many months of forty hour weeks” attempting to watch twenty-four hours of television as recorded on ninety-one cable stations in Virginia (at the time, the most in the world). He wrote up his findings in the book, “The Age of Missing Information.”
“We believe that we live in the ‘age of information.’” he writes. “That there has been an information ‘explosion,’ an information ‘revolution.’ While in a certain narrow sense this is the case, in many important ways just the opposite is true. We also live at a moment of deep ignorance, when vital knowledge that humans have always possessed about who we are and where we live seems beyond our reach. An Unenlightenment. An age of missing information.”
The medium was no longer the message, it was just an asshole.
I want my attention back.
Did I have it before Twitter became a demagogue’s pulpit? When it was just a few of us, goofing around? When to have had a thousand followers was to be a god? When the scale of things felt more … human?
Today, I could live on Twitter all day, everyday, convincing myself I was being productive. Or, at least inducing the chemicals in the mind that make me feel like I’m being productive. Read more news. Send more replies. Start more threads. Each incoming reply activating a corresponding dopamine pop. Largely pushing nothing in the world forward.
Maybe I lost my attention because I’m weak, lonely, pathetic. Maybe everyone else has total control; they can resist all the information spun by algorithms—all the delicious dopamine hits in the form of red circles. Bing! Maybe it’s just me.
But … I want my attention back.
Did I really have it before Facebook? Thinking back, the early versions of Facebook were adorable. Benign. No tagging. No timelines. Just The Wall. A way to say — Hey, what’s shaking dorm buddy? Poke. No algorithms. A human scale.
The more I thought about my attention the more I thought about the limits to human scale. How technologies inevitably amplify ourselves — the best and worst parts — in a way that is almost impossible for us to comprehend. How that scale is so easily co-opted to attenuate our attention with the worst possible diet of high-sugar, high-carb nothingness. I thought about Westworld. I thought about our loops.
Nintendo recently released their first iPhone game, Mario Run. It feels uncommonly fresh. I’m not a big gamer (Clash of Clans and Mario Run are the only two mobile titles I’ve picked up in earnest in the last, say, twenty years) but the difference between CoC and Mario couldn’t be starker. Mario is finite, bounded. The edges are clear. You pay once, and there’s no other way for Nintendo to extract money from you. No single player is a mark. There are no whales. In Mario you can not only see the end but get there. Your points max out at 9999 (clearly Nintendo didn’t think everything through). Mario Run is human scale. Clash of Clans is machine scale, network scale.
When the scale of our systems with which we interact breaches our comprehension, and control of attention is weakened en masse, the opportunity for manipulation arises. Danah Boyd maps the decade-plus arc of this sly influence:
A new form of information manipulation is unfolding in front of our eyes. It is political. It is global. And it is populist in nature. The news media is being played like a fiddle, while decentralized networks of people are leveraging the ever-evolving networked tools around them to hack the attention economy.
It’s become common to talk of the “weaponization” of attention. As in: The attention of Americans was weaponized to make facts out of falsities. I think this framing does a disservice to the crux of the problem. It’s not that our attention has been weaponized, a word that vanishes in hyperbole, but rather, mechanized. As in: Our attentions have been wrest from our control, like a flock of android starlings, or a million IP enabled toasters. We were reasonably autonomous things. Now we’re indifferently synchronous, easily manipulated.
I want my attention back.
For that month in Virginia I took it back.
I did the thing only the mega-entitled are allowed to do: I went offline. A scant twenty years ago, the entitled went online. Today, we go dark. Emigrate to Normal Head. A true privilege. I say “only the entitled” because that seems to be the pervasive notion. Oh? You get to stop checking email for a few days? Lucky you! Friends say to me. Strangers say worse.
If I tell people I went offline for a month, it’s like telling them I set up camp on Mars. It hints of apostasy, paganism. Tribes seem to find pleasure in knowing all members suffer equally. But, really, is the situation so dire that we can’t wrangle a little more control? We’ve opted into this baffling baseline of infinite information suck, always-availability. Nobody held a gun to our head. We put our own mouths on the spigot every single day.
But it’s so delicious. That spigot goo — buoyed by pull-to-refreshes and pings and wily dots. Giving up attention, so seductive.
Tristan Harris and Joe Edelman’s Time Well Spent project takes aim at this thoughtless allure. Bianca Bosker’s entire Atlantic profile of the crew is worth a read, but this passage really cuts to the heart of their work:
While some blame our collective tech addiction on personal failings, like weak willpower, Harris points a finger at the software itself. That itch to glance at our phone is a natural reaction to apps and websites engineered to get us scrolling as frequently as possible. The attention economy, which showers profits on companies that seize our focus, has kicked off what Harris calls a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” “You could say that it’s my responsibility” to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, he explains, “but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.” In short, we’ve lost control of our relationship with technology because technology has become better at controlling us.
Twenty-five years ago Bill McKibben found the edges of televised information largely unknowable. But what about forty years ago? Fifty?
Returning to those (mythical?) halcyon minimalist information days: You could read all of the news in a single day. Grab the two or three papers and read. The information had edges; it could be understood by a single human over one cup of first-wave coffee. Were you insatiable, the library was available to dig deep on the topics of the day.
Is this being too reductive? Too rose-tinted?
But the distance between you and the library is usually vast. The distance between you and your smartphone isn’t. Friction vs frictionless. An endless refresh, always with more, optimized just for your interests, right in your hand. And yet, it’s not Wikipedia that we binge on all day.
The Virginia residency was a balm. It kept me sane at a moment where I was close to folding. The quiet of the days in nature — devoid of both social and unsocial media — felt like what Weil described as prayer, and as the month stretched on, I found my mind clear, excited, optimistic.
There is a qualitative and quantitative difference between a day that begins with a little exercise, a book, meditation, a good meal, a thoughtful walk, and the start of a day that begins with a smartphone in bed.
Work began early, continued long into the night after dinner. Wintry stars falling to the horizon were scrutinized. Breaks were had without phone in hand. Acres of woods were available to be walked in (although hunting season had started, so the walks were more edgy than you’d think). Everyone was largely offline, although there were no strict rules about connectivity. We all worked on things that had no immediate value, and spent time thinking over problems that were perversely meta. Does this sound something like an asylum? As Alexander Chee describes residency life: “One of the burdens of civilian life is that when you enter the fugue state for making art, you can’t be normal. The good news is that at a colony, you’re not expected to — you’re expected to be civil to other colonists, and respectful, but not normal. It’s a huge relief.”
And yet, the quietude of those disconnected days evaporated as soon as I came back online. It was a shock to feel my mind returning so quickly to where it was before — namely, away. Elsewhere. My attention so eager to latch onto whatever cleverly architected spaceship of dopamine was flying out from my consciousness. It was immediately clear that vigilance was required, some set of rules. And so here are mine:
The internet goes off before bed. The internet doesn’t return until after lunch. That’s it. Reasonable rules. I’m too weak to handle the unreasonable.
I appreciate the optimism of Harris and Edelman’s work, but I’m not holding my breath for breakthroughs from companies for whom monopolizing attention is their business model. So I deploy blunt, simple tools. Time boxed disconnection has proven to be both generative and — most importantly — sustainable.
It’s important to emphasize that for certain members of certain groups, online is non-negotiable. To sever that tie is to sever a connection to an important community. Are you leading the resistance? Is your community connection only online? This is why I can’t advocate for total disconnection. Total disconnection is not only unsustainable for most people, but can also be an unnecessary act of self-sabotage.
Wherever you fall on the spectrum of leveraging the network for social good, having control over your attention can only make your efforts stronger. I refuse to believe otherwise. Take the morning. Hell, just take the first hour of the morning. Make a plan. Own your attention. A lack of ownership of attention can only make you a weaker leader. Can only make you a less potent and thoughtful member of your community.
Total disconnection is a privilege, certainly. But I found it necessary to retreat and reset. To feel once again what it was like to have an attention without fighting for it each minute.
In short: I recognized the need for self care, and thankfully, the residency came along at just the right time.
Attention is a muscle. It must be exercised. Though, attention is duplicitous — it doesn’t feel like a muscle. And exercising it doesn’t result in an appreciably healthier looking body. But it does result in a sense of grounding, feeling rational, control of your emotions — a healthy mind. Our measuring sticks for life tend to be optimized for material things, things easy to count. Houses, cars, husbands, babies, dollar bills. Attention is immaterial, difficult to track.
We deserve our attention.
Disconnection helped me remember what the mind felt like before I had lost my attention. Reminded me how it felt to wash off that funereal glaze that seemed to coat us all, and to return to the world — however thick the gloom — with clarity and purpose, able to help out in far better ways than I could have had I stayed online.
I wanted my attention back, and I’ve got it … for now.
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