There is a movie from 2017 that I don’t expect many of you to have seen, if not because the movie is titled Lady Bird, then because most people who are interested in men’s belts aren’t also interested in coming-of-age stories about high school girls. I watch boatloads of movies and even I only saw this one by ‘accident’ or ‘happenstance’ or whatever you want to call ‘walking into the wrong theater.’ In fact though, I am lying to you — I didn’t want to admit that I actually sought out Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut about a Catholic high-schooler’s strained relationship with her mother and a list of even more of the common horrors that make up female adolescence. You know; puberty, and boys wanting to touch your breasts, and getting into college, and figuring out just who exactly you think you are. That kind of thing.
Anyway, anyway, anyway, the reason I’m bringing up Lady Bird is because of a short scene in which the titular character is showing her college essays to Sister Sarah Joan of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic high school. Lady Bird writes about Sacramento, the city in in which she lives and, we are told, simply cannot wait to leave behind when she goes away for college. But Sister Sarah Joan points out that Lady Bird “clearly loves Sacramento,” because she writes about it “so affectionately and with such care.” Lady Bird is a little mystified, and we see a flare of teenage defensiveness: “I was just describing it,” she says. But those descriptions, Sister Jean says, come across “as love.”
And this, the important part: Lady Bird shrugs off the comment again and says, “Sure, I guess I pay attention.” Which is a ripe setup for the moral high-ground in the room, the holy mother figure, Sister Sarah Joan, to bless us angsty adolescents with wisdom from on high and to ask Lady Bird, “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?”
Parents and guardians and mentors and the clergy do that so well; say something intelligent but annoying. Because Sister Sarah Joan is right! Mostly! I can think of a lot of annoying, attention-demanding things from my own life (my leaky faucet)— or from others lives (say, Chinese water torture) — that I, and they, most certainly do not and did not love. They are annoying precisely because they demand my attention, steal my attention — in other words, distract me — from things that I consider much, much, much more worthy of that attention. Like watching the NHL playoffs, or watching any movie with Penelope Cruz in it, or watching the line chart of my stock market ‘earnings’ go in the exact wrong direction… as just a few off the cuff examples.
Attention is a funny thing when you think about it. It’s one of those self-reinforcing, abstract words. The harder you think about it, the more circular your thinking becomes, and the more you come to realize that you’re thinking about thinking in a way that makes it hard to think. What’s so valuable about that? And why are other people getting fantastically rich off of the attention economy, which is nothing more than a war for the eyeballs, out to own and dominate and very likely destroy the very thing they are fighting for?
It begs some questions. Think about what you pay attention to in an average day. Like repeatedly pay attention to, because it demands you to. Your work email inbox? Your Slack / Teams notifications? Your Instagram feed? Your dog’s bathroom schedule? The incessant buzzing of your telephone? I mean, how many of those things would you say that you love? And how many of those things require an almost constant state of hyper-vigilance? Surely there are other things, being lost behind the screens, that we really do love and would pay attention to, if given the time. Isn’t the problem that there’s simply too much to pay attention to?
Of course it is. Which is why the war for the eyeballs is a war in the first place. Our time is valuable, and so the notifications or information or people that we spend time paying attention to is important! And yet it’s another something to keep in mind. So now you have to pay attention to what you pay attention to. Do you love that??
There is much that I could write about the attention economy and the rise of the really unfortunately named influencer economy, but if you think about it, the fact that there is just so much stuff to pay attention to is one main reason why influencers exist at all. It’s the same reason that book/tv/movie reviews and recommendations came about; people needed trusted sources to wade through the onslaught of content, apply some filters, and find what was worth paying attention to. It’s your ‘trusted source’ that will let you know what is worth spending time and money on, for some perceived cultural or personal gain. Another not-so-subtle reason for the rise of influencers is that seemingly everybody wants to be one. Like, everybody. There are good uses for them, sure, but what is a social media post, any social media post, if not a forlorn attempt to get people to pay attention to you? Look what I’m doing! Look what I’m wearing! Look where I am! For what it’s worth, maybe there’s more value to that — getting noticed, expressing an opinion, and knowing that others are at least seeing you — than in the endless, empty shouts into the void. Anything is better than being stranded forever in the no-mans-land of no engagement.
We pay attention to what other people pay attention to because popular attention is a sign — one of them at least — of cultural value. Never mind that most of the movies and songs that constitute ‘pop culture’ and dominate at the box office and on the music charts are objectively terrible and empty and devoid of anything resembling deeper meaning… But perhaps that’s the point, in a way. With so much more to look at, so much more to listen to and watch and consume, who has time to think about things on any level besides the surface? When you finish an episode on Netflix, don’t they immediately start loading you into the next one? Have you even processed what you just witnessed before you’re force-fed more ~content~ to bear witness to? I don’t know, maybe you have — but in my experience, and elsewhere in our rich literary traditions of interiority and deliberate focus — concentrated thinking requires a bit more effort and sustained thought than the 6 seconds Netflix allows you between one episode’s end credits and the next episode’s intro song.
Do you have a point here? You may be thinking, and I’m not really sure if I do, but the fact that you’ve read this far already makes me feel a little better about things because I know your phone is just begging you to switch over to Twitter and do some doomscrolling, or open up TikTok and do whatever people do on TikTok. I mean, in all likelihood you’re reading this on your phone right now! I’m not proud to admit that just this morning I closed out of Twitter, disgusted by the state of the world, and then unconsciously clicked right back into the same app I had just exited before realizing what I had done. I know that I am not alone. We bounce from brightly colored app icon to brightly colored app icon desperate for entertainment, for a distraction, for something other than the present moment we are in. I would ask why, but any attempt at an answer would pale in comparison to what David Foster Wallace has already written on the subject (from his unfinished, posthumously-published novel The Pale King):
“To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like ‘deadly dull’ or ‘excruciatingly dull’ come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention… but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airports’ gates, SUVs’ backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. The terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.”
Almost 10% of children in the US have been diagnosed with ADHD — and I’m not naive enough to think that being forced to stay inside and away from their peers over the past year made that any better, per se. But I’m also not naive enough to think that these are new problems or novel worries. Technological progress has always been met with skepticism and doomsaying and dusty opinions about the slippery slope of the present. The Internet, though, is really really really good at distraction. Push notifications are even better.
T.S. Eliot once wrote about the people around him in London’s Underground, their heads buried in newspapers and all that, by labeling them “distracted from distraction by distraction… Tumid apathy with no concentration.” (If you’re wondering, I have no idea what ‘tumid’ means either — but looking it up will mean yet another browser tab open and I am not confident that I will not get distracted in the process of trying to locate that information.) What’s amazing is that Eliot wrote that 85 YEARS AGO! In 1936! For perspective, the first iPhone was released in June of 2007. Oh, how far we have come! Just imagine what Eliot would think about the London Underground, or what DFW (if he hadn’t killed himself in 2008) would think about our current times now, where pretty much every single person has their head bowed, staring deeply — with love and affection (I’m sure) — into the little screen flashing images and bright colors, their animal brains just oozing serotonin and dopamine and whichever other neurotransmitters the attention-miners in Silicon Valley have decided they want to extract next.
The Internet and all its byproducts were just cool toys at first! We were all just playing around, exploring cyberspace, getting curious about stuff, going down rabbit holes, etc., etc. But now, in the current state of affairs, I’m reminded of a line from a movie that I do expect most of you to have seen (Tarantino’s Django Unchained), when Calvin Candie, enticed by the prospect of quick money, tells the faux-slave traders, Dr. King Schultz and Django, who have come to do business: “Gentlemen, you had my curiosity. But now, you have my attention.”
Now, everything begs for your attention. Everything is perfectly designed to ‘capture eyeballs’. Everything is intended to make you focus on it, rather than anything else. This is the war being waged, and we are the ‘spoils’ of war. Our attention is what they are after, only we are the ones paying the price for it. So you have to decide what’s worth your time. You have to decide what is worthy of your glance, or your sustained look, or your deeper thought. Did you click the video? Perhaps that’s the bar: there’s value in anything that can divert your attention; there’s value in anything that can capture your eye long enough to cross the threshold from curiosity to attention.
Now, how long that specific thing can hold that attention, your attention, well, that’s anybody’s guess. I suppose it depends on one’s attention span; a term that could be deader than disco with another 14 years of iPhone & TikTok & whatever will be next. For my money, I’d bet there are entire teams and algorithmic black boxes hard on the case figuring out the answer to what’s next down to the hundredths of a second. And then they’ll monetize it. And the war for your attention will see even more casualties. Oh, you gotta love it!
And now that I have you here… all of the above has been an extremely long-winded attention-seeking way of saying: buy our belts!