Technology, love, and paying attention

I really enjoyed this post from Michael Sacasas at his blog “The Frailest Thing.” He argues that it’s not smartphones (or any other attention-grabbing gadget) per se that make it hard for us to pay attention to the people we encounter–it’s us.

It is sometimes a battle even to be attentive to another person or to take note of them at all.

This is not a recent phenomenon. It is not caused by the Internet, social media, or mobile phones just as it was not caused by the Industrial Revolution, telephones, or books. It is the human condition. It is much easier to pay attention to our own needs and desires. We know them more intimately; they are immediately before us. No effort of the will is involved.

Being attentive to another person, however, does require an act of the will. It does not come naturally. It involves deliberate effort and sometimes the setting aside of our own desires. It may even be a kind of sacrifice to give our attention to another and to be kind an act of heroism.

Even though this is a problem endemic to the human condition, technology can exacerbate it:

But the smartphone is not altogether irrelevant, nor is any other technology to which we might lend our attention. The thing about attention is that we can only direct it toward one thing at a time. So when we are in the presence of another person, the smartphone in the pocket may make it harder to pay attention to that person. But the smartphone isn’t doing a thing. It’s just there. It’s not the smartphone, it’s you and it’s me. It’s about understanding our own proclivities. It’s about understanding how the presence of certain material realities interact with our ability to direct our intention and perception. It’s about remembering the great battle we fight simply to be decent human beings from one moment to the next and doing what we can to make it more likely that we will win rather than lose that battle.

This made me think of a post I had recently read by Frank Schaeffer as part of his series of “12 commandments of happy parenting”:

Never give a child your divided attention once you’re playing with them, unless it’s an emergency. That doesn’t mean you should give them your attention all the time. Far from it.

Playing alone is good. But don’t be rude when you are being a hands-on parent.

Watching a young mother or father texting friends while his or her child is trying to talk to them is just plain cringe making. It’s teaching a lack of empathy and respect.

It’s also teaching all the wrong priorities about what is important in life. Don’t be surprised if you tune your child out and later your child tunes you out.

I see this all the time. I’m also guilty of it. Though I don’t have a smartphone and I generally avoid text messaging, it can be a challenge to give my kids my undivided attention. Not always, mind you–there are times when I’m fully and effortlessly engaged in some game we’re playing, or reading a book with my daughter, or making my son laugh through various facial contortions. But often–too often–my mind and attention are (at least partially) somewhere else. Maybe I’m thinking about work or worrying about something that needs done around the house. Or maybe I’d rather be reading a book or surfing the Internet.

It may also be, as some have suggested, that our multi-media, information-saturated lives (for some values of “our” anyway) are actually changing the way our minds work, diminishing our ability to maintain focused attention on one thing at a time. If so, that’s an even deeper problem.

Regardless, it does seem that Sacasas is right that giving someone our attention requires an act of will or a kind of discipline. Maybe this is partly why so many spiritual traditions have cultivated practices that require people to focus their attention. I’m thinking especially of various forms of meditation and contemplative prayer. What these practices seem to have in common is an effort to focus on a reality beyond the self–to the extent that the ego recedes into the background.

And one of the “fruits” of such practice is–ideally at least–that we become the kind of people who can more easily set aside our own desires and be attentive to others and their needs. We can certainly invoke here the example of Jesus, who seemed to have an uncanny ability to make each person he encountered feel the full force of his loving attention. To love others–including especially our children–as Jesus loves us would seem to require, at a minimum, learning to give them our attention.


Friday Links

–Today is the Feast of the Annunciation; here are some thoughts on that. BLS also has one of her outstanding musical offerings for the day.

–John Piper, theological nihilist?

–Catholics are “more supportive of legal recognitions of same-sex relationships than members of any other Christian tradition and Americans overall.”

–How to live without a mobile phone.

–A proposal for a vegan-omnivore alliance against factory farms. Related: Mark Bittman on prospects for laws protecting farm animals.

–A semi-defense of B.R. Myers’ anti-foodie polemic.

–On the anniversary of Bishop Oscar Romero’s assassination.

–Washington, D.C.’s black majority slips away. Related: the percentage of the nation’s black population living in the South has hit its highest point in fifty years.

–An interesting blog I recently discovered: Marginal Utility, hosted at PopMatters; it covers the culture of work and technology from a leftish perspective.

–Why is media coverage of Africa so unrelentingly negative?

–The Lutheran theology journal Dialog currently has its Spring 2011 issue available free online; it includes some reflections on Carl Braaten’s recently released memoir, which apparently (and not surprisingly) has some harsh words for the ELCA. Added later: Here’s another take on the Braaten autobiography from last year.

–Let the D.C. beer renaissance begin.

Added even later: Gateways to Geekery: Kurt Vonnegut.

Attention must be paid

There have been a couple of articles recently on the “slow reading” movement, one in Newsweek and one in the Guardain. Actually, “movement” may be a bit strong; it seems to be more of an impulse, or a reaction against our 24-7 ultra-connected, multitasking, information-saturated lives. (Where “we” are a relatively small minority of affluent elites, just to be clear.)

Slow reading is just what is sounds like: taking your time, really engaging with a text, not skimming or snacking on bits and pieces of information. The concerns of the slow reading movement echo those of technology writer Nicholas Carr, who in an Atlantic Monthly article from 2008 worried that Google was making us stupid. That is, re-wiring our neural circuitry to make it harder for us to pay sustained attention to a piece of writing, or an argument, or narrative. (Carr followed up his article with a book called The Shallows that has gotten a lot of attention.)

I think most of us probably sense that there’s something to this. I know that when I’m reading something online the urge to follow a link or open a new tab is almost irresistible. Rarely do I read anything of substantial length online from start to finish they way I might when reading, say, a long magazine article or a novel. It does seem to require more effort to pay attention.

If this is right, it has implications beyond reading. The ability to pay attention–to attend to some person, or thing that exists apart from (but also in relation to) us–plays a large role in the moral and spiritual life. The philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch argued that the moral life begins in the ability to appreciate something–a part of nature, a body of knowledge, a person–for its own sake, independent of any benefit it may have for us. In other words, to pay attention. Buddhism teaches that the path to liberation is learning to pay attention to reality without the distortions imposed upon it by the chattering of our minds. Christian prayer involves paying intentional attention to God–the ultimate context of Being. So, if our minds are rendered incapable of sustaining that kind of focus (and, to be fair, not everyone agrees this is happening), what happens to us as moral and spiritual agents?

Links for Friday

– Derek on the church and (in)fallibility and communing the unbaptized

– Animal advocacy and pragmatism

– This is your brain on gadgets

– BLS has been writing a fascinating series of posts on the church and A.A.

– The thought of Paul Ramsey

– The AV Club’s June round up of all things metal

– The New York Times bans the word “tweet”

– The Karate Kid remake: surprisingly good?

– The A-Team movie: not that good

UPDATE: Had to add this: Tyler Cowen points out that the Netherlands has a animal-rights-based political party, the Party for the Animals (website here, but it’s in Dutch).

Jacques Ellul vs. the Kindle

Well, sort of. John H. at “Confessing Evangelical” has a very interesting post using 76 questions Ellul suggested we ask about any new technology.

Handful o’ links

Britain’s Labour Party needs to reinvent itself as a new liberal party.

Obama vs. McCain on climate and energy policy – not the same.

Animals as gentically modified drug machines.

Is Google re-wiring our brains?

Obama: what kind of liberal?

Meat in a vat

It’s funny, from the standpoint of animal suffering I ought to be all for this, but something about it still gives me the heebie jeebies. I’ll have to think a bit more about why that is.