Attention Paid: How the average person’s screen time of 10hrs a day comes at a cost.
By E.F Nicholson
Do I have your attention? I hope because as I would like to borrow it for few minutes while I try to articulate what I have been focussing my own attention on for the last few days. Our attention is being sold, fought for, captured, harnessed and directed, be it consciously or subconsciously, all day, every day. Each day we make distinct choices about who and what we give it to and what we get in return. Attention is defined as:
“Notice taken of someone or something; the regarding of someone or something as interesting or important.”
With that being the case, how carefully do we guard what takes our attention? What does it take to “notice” someone or something? What fulfils our modern criteria of considering something “important and interesting” that is worthy of our attention? Like the red laser beam for cats, it doesn’t seem the yard stick is very high. Attention ends up taking our time and time is how we occupy this space and live our lives. So how we value what we give our attention to is really how we value our life. And it seems if we don’t consciously protect, defend and deliberately choose what and who gets our attention, our time and subsequently our lives can be asininely flittered away.
Grabbing our prized attention is a polished and colossal enterprise that pokes its ubiquitous fingers in our faces from cradle to grave. Modern media in all its forms, from print, radio, TV and the internet has cross pollinated into all devices. We can get any media almost anywhere. Modern media is set up primarily to capture our attention to draw us into some obvious, or not so obvious, sales funnel. We are society under the spell of consumption and distraction or more aptly, the consumption of distraction. The global media holds the wand and those who own and control it are the witches casting the spells. As recent figures from the USA show, the adult population now spends an average of 10hrs a day consuming media, in the UK its 9hrs (“entertainment” and “leisure time” are terms that conveniently cloak the reality of the business of distraction). As this is where we have come to, taking away time asleep, over 60% of the average person’s waking attention is “paid” to media in one form or another.
TV and digital (smartphones/tablets, laptops) makes up the bulk of it. I have written before about what I see as the destructive force of advertising and its relationship to capitalism. There is a mindless aspect to cultural forces that drive and direct us into inane and valueless media consumption. Yet their construction and function are not mindless. Facebook has been crafted just like slot machines to draw people in, entice, reward, and payout emotional hits and highs to ensure eyes are exposed to its advertisers’ products. Most mainstream media is carefully and thoughtfully crafted to keep people consuming, ignorant and disconnected with how they truly feel.
Yet I think there is another layer to the phenomena of how our attention is being hijacked and colonisation by all modern forms of media. The attention we pay to media that distracts and entertains us damages us beyond a vacuous message of individualism and propaganda. It seems on a broader societal level the world has become so alienating, dehumanising and disconnected that “distraction” is a commodity in high demand. A destructive feedback loop then gets generated. The more I disengage and take my 10 hrs locked to a screen, the more alienated and disconnected I am, requiring further distraction to avoid how alienated and disconnected I have become. If you add all the other methods of escape, from drugs, alcohol, sex, food and novelties on offer and within reach, it seems we are occupied with everything but our own internal states and, by its very nature, the ability to truly empathise with the internal states of others. I’ll whore my attention to anything but how I feel inside, anything but that. Given the majority of people dislike or utterly loath their jobs, are burdened with debt, lack community and connection and are increasingly dislocated from nature, the need to employ some means of distraction and diversion makes sense. Modern life screws us and then forces us to work so we can afford to pay for something to make us forget that fact. Urgh, whose idea was this again? Like the alcoholic drinking whiskey to numb his/her pain, it’s not a long-term solution and is making whatever problems there even worse, even if the feeling of that fact is delayed.
So I think to pull away from the intense stream of distraction, it must be very conscious and courageous choice. Otherwise, we just wake up on auto-pilot and succumb to the river of data-clamour that caries so many of us through the day. I am writing about this as it’s something I have been paying attention to the last few weeks: the question of where, on who and what my attention goes to and what is the value of the time I spend doing something. Yet when you switch the off the button of info-commotion, it does bring up an uncomfortable quiet. Yet staying with it, allowing oneself to witness all that’s going on in us and all around us without the background noise of media, slows things down and births a burgeoning appreciation of the sacred in the simplest of things. As we pay more attentive consideration to our inner-space, we see how much of our culture’s dysfunctional narrative pumped through advertising and media has become internalised through voices of self-negation, limitation and powerlessness. Let’s face it, feeling whole and enough isn’t good for sales.
There is great power in giving our attention to what we give our attention to. Not the fixing, repairing or solving, rather just a kind of compassionate observation of what is going on and why. Spending 10hrs a day fixed to screen, which can end up being 30 years of person’s life come the age of 80, surely isn’t something anyone would consciously choose to do with the bulk of their waking life. This is an alarming statistic beyond the pointlessness of the time spent, but what does it say about a life? That to make it 80 years old, we need to spend 30 years fixated and hypnotised on a flicking screen. The saddest part is that is obviously very true for many of us. Yet that reality is changeable but to do so, we must take ownership of the fact we are doing it, understand why we are doing it and face any discomfort that arises when we stop doing it. If we could just stay with what we are trying to distract ourselves away from for long enough to see the immense beauty, depth and promise that lies beneath it. As the simple act of just spending a little more time being with ourselves, each other and the earth we reside on, then solutions will be born, healing can take place and unseen possibilities arise from that sacred space of bearing witness.