Strung Out in the Attention Economy

 

Something has happened to the way I see myself in relationship to time, and the amount of life that is being spent behind a screen. For a while, I had a handle on my use of technology and my digital life seemed empowering and mind-expanding. But, of late, things seem to devolve easily into a grey zone of succumbing to the more manipulative aspects of our systems and the mentalities that govern them.

When I find myself unconsciously grabbing my phone for no reason, as a reflex, or become so enmeshed in the hypnotism of the device that I ignore my three-year old daughter as she desperately tries to get my attention, I have to wonder if I really have the situation under control. And I am not even looking at anything important. I check my inbox again, even though I just checked it two minutes ago. I rationalize that I am keeping myself informed, or that it’s essential to my career and business, but it’s not really. My phone is often a way to exit the real world, providing a numbing effect I long for in unconscious desperation.

Does scrolling through my facebook feed really amount to “paying attention”?

The current politics of our nation is surreal. For many of us, it feels like we are hitting some sort of boiling point. The rhetoric being thrown around is alarming and sets the stage of our lives with a backdrop of fear. Facebook has become a dark petri dish of news articles of varying repute, ill-informed opinions, well-intentioned sharing, distractions, fake porno friend requests, and the invisible coercion of data collectors and marketing experts. Discerning truth in the internet sphere has become exhausting and difficult.

There are certainly glimmers where I learn about important events and ideas relevant to my life through the posts that come across my feed, but the process by which I am coming to them, and the expenditure of wasted time lost in the interim, often overshadow their value. I want to be informed about what is happening in the world, in yogaland, and with the people who have connected with me online. I want to be paying attention. These are strange and scary times, simply turning away from the screens feels like putting my head into the sand when staying vigilant is imperative.

The internet has replaced tv as the new opiate of the masses.

Billions of dollars have been spent researching how to make me addicted to my phone. And boy have they succeeded. Whereas in the past the money flowed according to ratings based on the number of viewers that a box on our tv counted, now it's all about how long you can keep someone's attention on something, or “eyeball hours.” The ability of capitalist interests to manipulate our attention and online behaviors has reached new levels of obfuscation and insidiousness.

Even after doing my best to educate myself,  I am only minimally aware of how much is happening behind the scenes. The operating systems and algorithms that govern and shape the filter bubbles that we are inhabiting are also, in turn, shaping our perceptions. The portal monopolies are mining us for the data behind our behaviors. This data, combined with advanced marketing techniques, is being utilized to effectively predict and manipulate my clicks and purchases. I know that I am not the only one who feels a little violated when that ad for the thing that I considered buying for a minute yesterday is now all over my feed today. I’d like to think that I am the master of my own behavior but, in fact, I often play right into the hands of profiteers.

What’s more, the all-encompassing nature of the internet with its flashing video and infinite possibility has become the ultimate distraction. Anytime I want, I can just leave a situation entirely. With just a quick swipe, I am able to exit a crowd of people while still standing among them. I can be sitting on the couch with my family and be nowhere near them. The worldwide web is a powerful tool that has made so many things happen for me, but it also provides me an unhealthy out from the relevance of my life.

Analogue time must not be lost.

Fact is, heavy use of the internet is having a deleterious effect on my personal life. It’s become increasingly clear that all the time I spend surfing the web is time not spent on other things, like playing with my children, having a drink with a friend, or walking hand-in-hand with my wife. I can just choose to turn the screens off. That is on me. Being more disciplined about my use of the technologies is certainly at issue. However, simply “unplugging” is not a solution. Too much of the news and my responsibilities rely upon my presence online to simply go cold turkey on the information age.

I don’t really know what the balance looks like for me yet. I am still trying to figure it out. Doing things like my podcast and offering my classes via live-stream in real time are projects that seem to flip the switch in some way and bring a bit of analogue time and human interaction back into my digital life. But I also need to admit to how much my actual work and other mindless internet usage have become confused. And having the screens off and interacting with people outside of the practice room needs to be given greater priority. Even right now, as I am attempting to complete this post at the edge of a deadline, I hear my daughter in the other room screaming at her sister. I usually like to craft an artful sentence to finish. This will have to do.

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J. Brown

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer, and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, New York. A teacher for 15 years, he is known for his pragmatic approach to teaching personal, breath-centered therapeutic yoga that adapt to individual needs. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, Elephant Journal and Yogadork.