Sermon: Religion & Technology: God as Attention

2019 February 10
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

In 1833, the year this congregation was founded, the newspaper was a luxury item. Newspapers cost six cents. They were published for wealthy, white customers by wealthy, white men who had some political or philosophical axe to grind. Newspapers had little of interest for the average reader and most New Yorkers did not read them.


Enter a businessman named Benjamin Day. Day had no political agenda, he was not interested in swaying public opinion about anything; he just wanted to make money. And in the newspaper business, he saw a way to do just that. He would start his own newspaper and sell it at a loss for one cent. You can probably guess where this is going. Instead of making his money from newsstand sales, his paper, the New York Sun, would make it from advertisements. It wasn’t that newspapers had never had any ads before, but Day was going to take it to a whole new level. Columbia professor Tim Wu, in his wonderful book, The Attention Merchants, put it this way: “What Day understood – more firmly, more clearly than anyone before him – was that while his readers may have thought themselves his customers, they were in fact his product.”


Tim Wu describes how, to make this business plan work, Day was going to have to attract a much larger readership – larger than any newspaper had ever had before. That way, he could sell space to advertisers who wanted to reach the masses. The one cent price would help to bring the masses, but it wasn’t going to be enough. He was going to have to produce material that was irresistible. And he had a good instinct for how to do that. The first issue of the Sun contained all kinds of overwrought and gossipy stories he gathered from his trips to police court with what he described as its “dismal parade of drunkards, wife beaters, con men and petty thieves, prostitutes and their johns.”


By the end of the next year, the Sun was turning a profit. The copycats started coming out of the woodwork. But Day’s competitors were going to have to go further to attract the attention of New Yorkers because they were now vying for that attention with him. So competing newspapers began focusing on the lurid and the weird. The editor of the Morning Herald began writing about deformities, freakish occurrences, and violent deaths. He wrote articles that insulted and picked fights with other papers – the first troll. Readers loved it. There was now an arms race for attention. To compete, the Sun had to go even further and the reporting came unmoored from reality. One article described a new astronomical phenomenon – winged creatures that had been sighted on the moon. This was still the 1830’s and already we had fake news. Readers could not look away and a whole new model had been born. People’s attention could be captured and then resold.


Just like that, someone who proudly admitted that his interest was business and not journalism, money and not morality, created a new paradigm that would change our society forever. And we, we let it happen. To be fair, back in the 19th century, none of us could have foreseen what was at stake in laying down our one cent to buy a paper with a headline about a gory murder. And most of us wouldn’t have understood how evolutionary biology hardwires us: how we are programmed to pay rapt attention to violence, possible dangers, sex, and things that are just strange and out of the norm like cats falling off of television sets. These are survival adaptations of ours that used to genuinely come in handy when it came to avoiding being attacked by wild animals. But the early newsmen figured out how to use this to make money. And the repercussions have been wider and deeper than anyone could have imagined.


Who gets to decide what we pay attention to? It’s a crucial question because on a spiritual level, attention is everything. It is the point at which we – our innermost self – touch the world. The psychologist William James wrote, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” That’s a really dramatic statement if you think about it. Our entire experience of our lives – what we think of as just “life” – consists of what we pay attention to. Our attention is our most precious resource and when we “pay” attention, we giving a little bit of it up – a little moment of our lifespan that we will never have again. Attention is a zero-sum game. If I’m paying attention to one thing, I am ignoring another. We are always paying attention to something and we can’t pay attention to everything. Forget for a minute about the internet – just in the physical world, every second, 11 million bits of information are coming in through our senses. And one of the most amazing capacities with which we have been endowed is the ability to make choices about what to agree to attend to and filter the rest out.


Today the online world has taken Benjamin Days’ principle to the ultimate conclusion –literary and artistic work, which is now generically called “content,” is given away for free; the use of social media platforms is given away for free. Technologies allow companies to target each of us very precisely based on our personal predilections. On its face, the bargain seems like a good one. It has allowed people like you and me to get a lot of good stuff for nothing and it has made a few people exceedingly wealthy. But there really is no such thing as a free lunch. In exchange, we pay attention. We surrender a little bit of our life. And this has both private and public ramifications. Let me give you an example of how this has played out.


The Guardian last year showed how during the 2016 presidential election cycle, YouTube unwittingly became a propaganda machine for one of the candidates who we’ll refer to as “Candidate 1.” It wasn’t that YouTube was trying to influence the election, but the “next up” video and recommendation teasers were optimized just to keep people watching more videos so You Tube could serve more ads. Best way to do this? Regardless of the video people initially searched for (whether it was about Candidate 1, Candidate 2, or something else entirely) the recommended next video tended towards the more violent, the more disturbing, more fake news-y, and more sensationalist. And it just so happened that those videos overwhelmingly favored Candidate 1. In fact, according the Guardian’s investigation, You Tube’s recommended next videos during that time were six times more likely to favor Candidate 1 than Candidate 2.


Tech companies strive to own more and more of our attention. Because we are their product. The arms race for our attention has become so intense, it reaches into every square inch of our lives and every second of our day. The science of attention capture has gotten more and more sophisticated to the point where tech companies intentionally make their stuff addictive. Our continuous gaze is cultivated and fertilized with social rewards and biological triggers. Our attention is harvested and sold. There’s no harm intended usually. YouTube’s algorithm is a dispassionate, non-partisan algorithm. Like Benjamin Day, it has no agenda other than making money by capturing and holding our attention. The ramifications are of no concern to it. At worst, you could call it nihilistic.


But there are entities that are using the science of attention capture online for ideological purposes. It’s well-documented that both Russia and China hire people to shape public opinion in their respective countries by posing as ordinary citizens commenting online. The fascinating thing is that much of their work is not about directly cheerleading the government, although there’s some of that. Much of it is to stifle dissent through distraction.


Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei interviewed one of these online commentators working in China for the Chinese government. The commentator explained some of the strategies he’s expected to use online. He said, “When transferring the attention of citizens and blurring the public focus, going off the topic is very effective. For example, during the census, everyone will be talking about its truthfulness or necessity; then I’ll post jokes that appeared in the census. Or, in other instances, I would publish adverts to take up space on political news reports.” People’s attention is captured and redirected, noise is injected, the quality of the conversation is diluted, brains get overwhelmed with the effort of filtering. No army is needed to quell a revolution. Any dissenting movement gets hijacked and diffused before it even gets off the ground.


In this country, there is probably no one literally paid by the government to do this kind of thing, but the politics of distraction still work the same way. We could point to so much of the lurid and sensational stuff – porn stars, hush money, middle of the night arrests, the sartorial choices of the First Lady, the list is endless. A recent headline read “Bezos Exposes Pecker” (meaning David Pecker, the chairman of A.M.I.). It’s brilliant, but all these bright, shiny objects distract us from the deep conversations and broad thinking that we need. We stay stimulated, enraged, and enraptured. In light of the huge humanitarian crises of our day, paying attention to these things is a form of civic submission.


When future generations, living on a desertified planet with a human population of 1billion, look back on the fact that the 2019 presidential State of the Union Address did not even mention climate change, they might explain it by saying, “the people lost control of their attention.”


Like so many things, the effort to repossess our own attention is both spiritual and political. It’s spiritual because our experience is what we agree to attend to. It’s our life. And when we reach the end of our life, we’re going to want to have lived it in the real world, attending to the things and the people who matter most. We will want to have exercised our power to decide. It’s political because if we allow nihilistic financial interests to control our collective attention, atrocities will continue to occur beneath our noses and we will barely notice.


So how do we repossess our attention? Religious practices from many different traditions are designed to help us do just that – to focus on our ideals and the deep call of our spirit. We need tools for this because the effort to focus our attention where we want it is really, really hard. It was hard before. It was hard when the Buddha was alive. We had monkey mind back then. Now we have monkey society. Now we have corporations and government and technological forces making it exponentially harder. So if we want to have even a chance of seizing control of our attention, we have to be really intentional about it and use all of the resources we have.


Buddhism takes a deep dive in this area. The concepts of attention, mindfulness, and presence are central to Buddhist philosophy. Peggy Schubert led us in a Zen meditation earlier – this is a wonderful way to use that ancient wisdom to help us filter some of the noise and reconnect with what is. Other traditions, too, offer strategies for reclaiming our attention. A Jewish tradition teaches that we should make 100 blessings a day. One hundred times every day, we should pause in our rush and say, “Wow. This is holy. Thank you for this.” Christian tradition offers daily prayer and scripture study, Muslims are taught to stop, roll out a mat, and pray five times a day. This may sound like overkill for modern liberals, but it’s clear to me looking at our society that we need this level of intention to even begin to make a dent.


We also need to do things to respond to the unique challenges of today’s technologies. We need to give ourselves space from our devices. Checking cell phones at the door of First U is one small way to do this, but more importantly it’s each of us setting rules for ourselves and our children in our daily lives so that we are not being constantly seduced by our screens. Personally I try – and I’m not always successful – to shut down my computer and phone an hour before bedtime and not turn them on again until after I have prayed in the morning. And a tech-free Sabbath practice one day a week is very powerful for those of us who can move towards that.


All of these are ways for us to declare to ourselves and to the world that we refuse to be somebody else’s product. We are the humans here and we get to decide what we pay attention to, who we want to be, and what kind of world we want. Simply spending time here at First U every week, in this non-virtual communal space is a practice in such decision-making. We are deciding to direct our attention to this service and this community. We are deciding how much to give in the offering and whether to light a candle. We are deciding to be here rather than somewhere else that might be pulling us, and that is an exercise of our power. I invite all of us to keep growing this power in more ways, in our own ways, every day. And by so doing, we may learn how it feels to be free.



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