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Media Consumption in a Distracted Age
Hey everyone, I hope you’ve been well. I’ve been under the weather for a couple of weeks, so sorry for my absence here.
While I’ve been out, I’ve been working through the audiobook version of Disruptive Witness by Alan Noble, which broadly walks through the implications of distraction on us as individuals, churches, and how Christians are to impact society. This book is a few years old, but it nicely summarizes and rearticulates some points from other readings I’ve done by Charles Taylor and James K. A. Smith over the past few years in very approachable terms.
The key jumping-off point into these works for Noble is our distracted way of living, constantly shifting our focus from one thing to the next. Some of those things we clearly feel are not helpful, but we live in a way where we constantly move on to the next thing. The “electronic buzz of the twenty-first century” is ultimately “suffocating.”1 Noble walks through how living with this constant buzz saps our mental energy, which leaves us unable to deal critically with much of anything, negatively impacting our Christian “witness.”
While between chapters of this book, I also listened to PJ Vogt’s latest episode of Search Engine, in which he interviews Ezra Klein, formerly of Vox and now at The New York Times, to ask him, “Is there a sane way use the internet now?” Klein’s response centers around the shift in how he’s thought about the internet in terms of what he’s asking from his use: “How much information can it give me?” to “What type of attention is it affording to me?”
Klein goes down into the depths of topics we’ve covered in this Substack before through that frame, highlighting Understanding Media, Amusing Ourselves to Death, and other aspects of media theory that we’ve held core to what we’ve been digging through if you’ve been reading here a while.
Klein quotes a passage from Understanding Media that I had missed previously,
Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the “content” of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.2
Klein and Vogt go on through the episode to talk about how social media has trained us to think in terms of tweets and all of the implications for our civil discourse. They talk about Klein’s career through different media outlets, the way his mental model for media has changed over time, and where they go from here.
As I was thinking about these pieces together, I was struck by how, at the core, we find the same thing: attention. Our culture doesn’t afford us the same opportunity to learn to pay attention as in the past, and so the perceived quality of our connections on all fronts has suffered.
I think back to a topic I’ve written about several times over at Taylors TownSquare: loneliness. In an article I wrote earlier this year, I quoted Derek Thompson in The Atlantic:
“I tell parents all the time that if Instagram is merely displacing TV, I'm not concerned about it,” Steinberg told me. “But today's teens spend more than five hours daily on social media, and that habit seems to be displacing quite a lot of beneficial activity... Compared with the counterparts in the 2000s, today's teens are less likely to go out with their friends, get their driver's license, or play youth sports.”3
You can see it in the first sentence: we blame the offset time using the media for content, and if only we could use it for different content, things could be better. But that time spent is also imprinting the model of the technology on the person using it, teaching them to think in terms of Instagram or Threads or X or any of the other platforms out there. This way of thinking is inherently counterproductive to deep relationships with others. So we must do more than simply put better safeguards around Instagram if we want it to be less damaging to kids.
Another thing that jumps out at me is how the war for your attention must be waged on a personal level. There’s no way to use technology, to dig ourselves out of this technology-induced attention hole. Still, there are personal choices we can make as individuals to impact our lives. We can leave our phones outside the room when having a meaningful conversation. We can let ourselves be “bored” for a few minutes while waiting for something rather than instinctively pulling our phones out of our pockets. We can push through the discomfort we feel when talking with someone face to face, knowing that at least some of the reason we feel uncomfortable is what the media we have all been saturated in has taught us: unhelpful social habits.
So today, I ask us to think about our media habits and what unintended lessons we’ve learned from those habits about how to attend to the world. Our attention is our most valuable resource, and we must learn to use it better in our distracted age.
This is a topic Klein seems to have been thinking about a lot over the past few years. You can see an opinion piece he wrote about it last year here.
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