Sermon: Paying Attention

2017 September 24
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

Pay attention: In the year 2007 the number of teenagers hanging out with their friends began to drop. That same year the percentage of teenagers who were learning to drive began to drop. The percentage of teenagers going on dates and having sex began to drop. Meanwhile the number of teenagers saying that they often feel lonely rose dramatically.


What happened in the year 2007? Anybody know? The release of the iPhone. Five years later smartphones had reached a tipping point in the U.S. and more than half of Americans had one. Professor of psychology Jean Twenge writes, “More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. …Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable …: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”


Dr. Twenge’s article in The Atlantic quotes 13-year-old Athena describing how she spent her summer on social media: “I’ve been on my phone more than I’ve been with actual people,” she said. “My bed has, like, an imprint of my body.”


Pay attention: this is not just teenagers. Adults use social media less, but we are also addicted to our phones and devices. We use them for news, we use them for text, we use them for banking, we use them for navigation, we play games on them, we find our life partners with them; they can track every step we take. They are watch, calendar, and address book; we use them as an alarm to wake us in the morning and music to help us fall asleep at night. One study showed that if you look at how often we touch our phones (meaning typing, tapping, or swiping), we touch our cellphones 2,617 times a day. Apple confirms that its users unlock their phones 80 times a day. People sleep with their phone and describe it as a comfort. People say they feel “naked” without their phone. It’s intimate. Half of Americans say that we couldn’t live without our phones.


There’s a reason why we use the term “paying attention:” Our attention is a finite resource. Multitasking doesn’t really exist – even if we are doing two or more things, we can only give our attention to one thing at a time. And so when we “pay” attention we are making a payment of a moment of our consciousness – really a moment of our finite life on this earth. Giving our attention to something or someone is really the most precious gift we have to offer. I love our Sabbath quote for today: “Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.”


In the wake of the 2016 election media executives (online and traditional) have been pondering and at times openly repenting for their role in shaping the outcome. Every sentence that candidate Trump uttered, the more outrageous the better, was amplified a million times over, bouncing through the airwaves and cyberspace, millions of dollars of free advertising, gaining power and taking all the oxygen in the room. Meanwhile the more quiet, reasoned voices of the many other candidates could barely be heard. Why did the media companies do this? Because we, their customers, were watching and clicking and buying. I know I was. I devoured those stories. It turned out that I was, in the most ominous sense of the word, “paying” attention.


Of course I didn’t realize this at the time and most of us didn’t: that every time we click a link, it’s a vote. And that vote is being counted and tallied and analyzed and aggregated with everyone else’s votes. It is being used to shape the world that is presented to us, which in short order becomes reality. (For the record, I’ve learned from this and I’m now very intentional about what I do and don’t click on: instead of clicking on what’s most fun or titillating, I click on journalism that I believe should continue to exist because it’s actually important, even if it’s kind of boring or heady.) Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.


Our smartphones and computers have riveted our attention in very particular ways. Now, we are led to believe that it’s not the device that we’re paying attention to. Here’s how the argument goes: “Though it may look like we are just staring at a screen all day, what’s actually going on is that we are looking through the device to people on the other end or to information that we need. The people whose images we see are just the people we happen to know. The news we read is just the news. It’s real life, but just transposed to a screen so it’s more convenient.” We’re connecting by means of the device, but the device itself is supposed to be neutral; it’s a clear window; it transmits the essence of something or someone but it has no essence of its own. That’s what we are led to believe.


But pay attention: that is not true. The companies that create our devices and software – the big four are affectionately called GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon) – by the way that they structure information and relationships, by the way that they have permeated every single dimension of our lives and cultures – are shaping humanity in the twenty-first century. I’m not saying that this is all bad, but I am saying that it’s mostly invisible.


The journalist Franklin Foer has just come out with a brilliant book on this topic called World Without Mind. I encourage you to go to your local bookstore and buy it. He describes how these giant monopolies are organizing and ranking all the world’s information on our behalf. They are redefining intellectual property and transforming the meaning of knowledge itself. They are creating artificial intelligence that teaches itself to translate languages without understanding meaning. They are the most powerful gatekeepers the world has ever known. Google Glass and the Apple Watch foreshadow these technologies becoming part of our bodies and the electronic webs of the world becoming extensions of our own neural networks. We are hurtling at the speed of light toward a future that none of us actually understands.


I don’t think that Silicon Valley has sinister motives. They are motivated by profit like most business, but they are not indifferent to human welfare. In fact, they have an idealistic vision of the future. This vision includes its own version of history where we are now taking the next step in Darwinian evolution. It includes its own theology and its own anthropology (understanding of what human beings are and should be.) It promises a kind of collective transcendence through technology. Transcendence of our differences; transcendence of hierarchies; transcendence of our bodies; transcendence of the limitations of our brains; even ultimately the transcendence of death.


Do we buy into this vision? Do we like it? Do we not like it? On one hand, things are a lot easier and more convenient. Some people are able to connect with each other who couldn’t before. On the other hand, the beds of our youth are increasingly bearing the imprints of their bodies. Do we share GAFA’s underpinning values? Is the kind of human envisioned by this brave new world the same kind of human our Unitarian Universalist principles bestow with inherent worth and dignity? Is this democratizing the world, as we are told, or are we falling under the control of the most powerful, invisible forces humans have ever known? What’s the role of faith in this? We are racing into this new era with something that feels like the power of inevitability, but do we want it?


Pay attention. My question for you is: How would we know? How would we know whether we want it or not? How would we know whether we like it or buy into its values or share its vision when its logic fills our horizon in every direction? Many of us, especially the younger generations, are completely immersed in this world. Children and youth today never knew a world without smartphones and social media. So do they like it? Do we like it? Compared to what?


The question of “compared to what” is a question that I believe religious communities are uniquely equipped to answer. Together, through our face-to-face community, our shared traditions, and our religious imagination we can envision a world other than the one in which we live. Together we can create a space outside of the dominant space of our culture. And from that outside space, we maybe, maybe have a shot at seeing what’s going on inside. But this kind of spiritual vantage point doesn’t arise on its own. It takes intentional effort on our part. It takes spiritual practices to connect us with one another and with our higher or deeper power.


One practice that I’ve adopted is to turn off my phone an hour before bedtime and not turn it back on again until after I’ve prayed and stretched and spent a little time with my kids in the morning. (If you want to try this and you use your phone as an alarm, you can just put it in airplane mode instead of turning it off.) It’s really liberating. Try it out and then try leaving your phone off for an entire Sabbath day each week. The more outrageous and impossible that sounds to you, the more you probably need to do it.


I want to invite us to try a small version of this here at First Unitarian. On October 8, we are planning a Sabbath Sunday. We’ll have our jazz band, I’ll be doing the first in this year’s sermon series, and the service will be followed by a community lunch. During that entire stretch of time – call it three hours – I am inviting you to relinquish your cellphones. As you walk in the door that morning, there will be a cell phone check, like a coat check, where you can leave your phone in the trusted care of one of our staff and one of our members. We will have a system in place to ensure that the phones are kept safe and that everyone gets their right phone back at the end.


Is this mandatory? No, of course not. If you are, for example, needing to be reachable by someone dependent on you who is elsewhere you should of course keep your phone with you. Or if you have reason to fear that you could actually lose your job if you don’t respond to something within three hours on a Sunday. Or if you honestly believe that there is nothing to be gained by this experiment – that your phone use is all good. Then keep your phone with you. Otherwise, I encourage you to give it a try.


This experiment is not a response to any problem that I’m noticing with people texting during my sermons or, you know, day trading during the offertory. I think most of us turn our phones off or at least mute them during the service. That’s not what this is about. But there is a difference, still, when we physically have the phone – we know it’s there in our pocket or bag as a transitional object, bridging the gap between our regular life and our life here in this space. To give that up even for a few hours can be scary. And that scariness is kind of the point. It’s a practice in declaring independence from all the forces pulling us to respond hundreds of times each day. It’s a practice in asserting our human dignity. It’s a practice in reclaiming our attention.


Pay attention. This is our life. This is our one human life and we humans have always communicated through voice and eye contact and touch. We are uniquely conscious and creative. We are flesh and blood animals who live in the physical world and are mortal. If we are thinking of changing any of this, that’s a really big deal. Not to say that we can’t or shouldn’t, but we might want to spend at least a generation or two pondering it.


So I invite you to ponder with me and to create space here at First Unitarian and in your lives to play outside of our technology-driven society. I invite you to be intentional about how you spend your attention: lavish it on your family, especially your children if you have them. Pour it into meaningful work, your communities, your friends, and your own private time with yourself. Pay yourself attention. And before your bed acquires an imprint of your body, step outside and get some sun. I hear that real, three-dimensional, surround-sound, high-definition life is well worth the effort.

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