Be Here, Now—Resisting the “Attention Economy"

alive presence Mar 19, 2020


Rainbow colored, thick and bolded, or with a raised fist, I find these stickers everywhere, from car bumpers to rusted old street signs. Not just a written word, but a sentiment that seems to be constantly on the brim of our lips. 

Human beings are magnetized to the thought of resistance—throwing colored paint upon the beige walls of life.

 Whether it’s a political, societal, or cultural resistance, there is something utterly freeing about smashing the scaffolding that holds up the antiquated, broken systems of the world.
Disruptions to these dated structures look different from the past, with less violence and pitchforks, and instead with nonaggressive movements that hold the energy of a warrior without the war. Make no mistake, our modern dissent is deeply subversive at its core, but it is being acted out through our ever discerning and sharpening consciousness. 

This resistance is actively strengthened by what appears mundane and unimportant: choices in where we are living, what we are eating, and how we are spending our days.

Our defiance is reinforced through the web of globalism—a vast network of community, and localism—creating loyal hives to protect the waters and gardens around us.

This is a rebellion founded on being good to each other. At its heart lies a secret weapon. 

It is something so precious, so simple, yet incredibly easy to overlook: our present attention.

In the past, we may have thought that voting with our dollars was our biggest right and responsibility. But it turns out that in this “attention economy”—where our focus is constantly being bought, sold and marketed to—our attention itself may be our most priceless commodity. 

Problems arise, not with the internet as a connective lattice itself, but with what is happening there. It’s constantly seeking to suck us in with its addictive features—hijacking and capitalizing on our natural inclination and longing to connect with a community.

 The digital world moves with such furious energy that it convinces us we are chronically behind the times, and that we must always be tapped in. 

It is saddening to recognize that we can no longer perform simple tasks without being on our phones. I pulled alongside a bus of middle schoolers the other day, and like a bunch of rag dolls with their loose heads hanging forward, every single one of them was sucked into a device. No friend, no laughter, no sky, no weather, no presence for anything but the screen.

Careless decompression is one of the most common ways we give away our precious attention, somehow believing that it will make us feel more relaxed in the end. As stress levels rise within our culture, so does our desire to veg-out, turning to infotainment as our primary stress relief tool. Sucked down endless rabbit holes, these seductive vortices of mindlessness ultimately leave us empty and lifeless.

Years ago, I was living this pattern—spending a couple of hours before bed watching bad medical mysteries on TV. Every night I wandered up the stairs to my bedroom feeling slimed with the energy of the show, and knowing another night had been wasted. Deep down, I sensed something was sacred about this time of day, and that I wanted it to mean something more. 

I also realized that using my attention carefully did not necessarily mean filling my time with more utilitarian ways of staying busy.

What about the resistance of rest? The revolt of doing less?

As art is disappearing from schools, I wonder if writers, thinkers, dreamers, poets, and painters are bound to disappear from the earth along with the last rhinos. We no longer have the attention spans for longer discourse, aimless wanderings, or projects with no goal.

Looking at a tree, it achieves nothing, but it shields us from the wind and shades us from the sun with patient endurance. We might want to wonder about what is productive—what is truly worthwhile?

We are becoming ever more preoccupied with proving our worth through what we “do,” and there is something deeply self-consuming about it. Get out of my way, I’m busy, it seems to say. Too busy for a smile, too busy for eye contact, too busy for you. This always-busy mentality plagues us with a sense that we need to fight for our space in the world. Arms whirling around, eyes wild, the quiet fear of not-enoughness always lurks. 

Stepping into the pace of our ancestors, our attention turns to the richness and abundance of the natural world. When I walk in their footsteps, my attention becomes unburdened and broad. 

I remember a time when we existed without all of the constant grabbings and vying at our awareness. 

I remember to greet the life-giving sun as he rises. 

I remember prayers that are made from the reach of redwood arms, sword fern hands, and trembling tulip heads.

I remember to open my ears and turn my body toward the cities of early spring robins as they warble to me. 

I remember to go out into the biting night air and worship the low hanging cup of a crescent moon. 

I remember to give thanks for this single, exquisite day.

It is our sacred, human inheritance to hold the world with the attention of naturalists. At one time, when we did not need a title for it, we were all naturalists. This ability to deeply listen still lives in the marrow and guts of us, waiting to help us cultivate healing, and wholeness in our distracted, fragmented world. 

Bringing our attention to nature, we find that wonder and awe are infinitely more powerful than entertainment. Entertainment ends up being a one-dimensional show to occupy our time, but wonder sparks the flames of our aliveness. This is a different kind of attention altogether—not just passively watching, but an attentive presence that is based on connection and engagement. It pulls us onto the dance floor of life instead of letting us remain passive, slack-jawed observers. 

There is no such thing as all bad TV or all bad internet, but let us get more discerning.

What people, brands, companies, systems, philosophies, and ways of life, are we supporting with our attention? How do we “pay” attention, “give” attention, and “attract” attention?

 Where we place your awareness acts as a torch of radical responsibility—it matters so much more than ever before. We are active designers of our everyday reality, and our attention makes it so. 

You may long for this rebellion to be more loud and confrontational. Resisting the “attention economy” may feel small and immeasurable at times, but with quiet tenacity our purposeful attention lets us protest the imbalances of the world.

Let these ways of living be the tenets that guide us on this new earth. 

Published on Elephant Journal March 18, 2020