Continous Partial Attention

Reed JolleyCommunity News

The six of us sat in a meeting and I noticed him punching numbers into his cell phone. Phone low in his lap, next to his leg. Discreet, yet noticeable. Punch, punch, punch. Comment. Give and take. Punch, punch, punch. First I thought he was having a difficult time turning it off. But way too much activity for that. As the discussion swirled around us I finally asked for an explanation of this curious activity. “Text messaging a friend,” he said. Do you remember the old long distance telephone commercial with the slogan, “Reach out and touch someone”? The idea was that with your telephone you could “touch” family and friends who weren’t even in the same room! Another commercial featured a father and son, fishing in a bucolic river somewhere high in the mountains. As the scene opens the son is cutting a deal on his cell phone. He snaps the phone shut, smiles at his father and returns to his hunt for a 14” trout. The message of the commercial is that without cellular technology dad would be fishing alone and his boy would be sitting behind a desk in some building in Chicago or Detroit.

Indeed, digital technology has produced a world of wonder. I’ve received emails from people sitting on a ski-lift at Mammoth, and I’ve made reservations for a room 9,000 miles away without any long distance charges to my telephone bill. With the internet I can check the weather in Cape Town and see how the surf is in Indonesia. My iPod carries as much information as a small library and my home phone “remembers” the last 100 people who have called me just in case I want to call them back. But this digital world of wonder comes with a price.

First, the binary world of zeros and ones entices us to worship created things rather than God. Notice the ever-present computer on television news. Its presence is a symbol that the talking head reading the prompt really knows what he is talking about.

After all, the computer is present. Notice the reverence paid to the iPod or to a new operating system released by Apple or Microsoft. As Jacques Ellul writes, It is not technology itself which enslaves us, but the transfer of the sacred into technology.

Second, technological devices don’t deliver on their promise. My life is full of time saving devices that my grandparents couldn’t have imagined. Yet I am far busier than they were. Technology and technological gadgets are increasingly viewed as messiah! We convince ourselves that these devices really will save us. At least they will save time and really will make our lives better. But, in fact, they merely make our pace of life more frenetic.

Something is gained and something is lost in the world of micro-technology. With digital connectedness we can keep up with friends all over the world, but the same technology can and does hinder the depth perception of our soul. The world grows flat with perpetual access. Everything is just there, right before our eyes on our computer screen or right in our ear on our cell phone.

Sadly, in the digital world our attention is always divided. Stephen Levy writes in Newsweek that our society suffers from an epidemic of Continual Partial Attention (CPA). (Have you checked your email while reading this essay?) It seems we never give ourselves fully to anything. Students listen to their MP3 player while sitting in class. Diners take phone calls while enjoying a romantic meal. Parishioners text message while sitting in church, even as they check their email in the middle of devotions. As Levy writes, Your world turns into a never-ending cocktail party where you are always looking over your virtual shoulder for a better conversation partner. The anxiety is contagious: anyone who winds up talking to a person infected with CPA feels like he or she is accepting an Oscar and at any moment the music might stop the speech. Microsoft executive Linda Stone adds, We’re not ever in a place where we can make a commitment to anything. Constantly being accessible makes you inaccessible. It is no small irony that she made this comment during a telephone interview while driving to work.

We’re not made to live like this. Digital presence can bring us to the breaking point if we don’t strip it of its power and put it in its place. Let us be like the sons of Issachar mentioned ever so briefly in 1 Chronicles 12:23. Do you remember them? The Chronicler says of these men that they had understanding of their times and they knew what to do.

Let us understand our times, and our technology. All things digital bear the face of the Roman god Janus, who looked in two directions simultaneously. Technology produces a world of wonder and convenience. But this technology also structures reality in ways that rub against the grain of our personhood. A few simple proposals for the digital enthusiasts:

  1. Dare to be unconnected. You’ll probably not be left behind if you don’t answer your cell phone during your own wedding. And you could probably leave the same phone behind during your daily devotions, your homegroup or during Sunday afternoon worship. You will probably make it through your career if you don’t check your email one last time before going to bed.
  2. Dare not to have the latest and the greatest. Reevaluate your technological needs with a view to your Christian world-view. Do you really want to watch Lost on a 2 inch iPod screen? Do you really need to do email from your cell phone? See your computer as a tool and not as a toy. Admit that a few more mega pixels won’t make better vacation pictures.
  3. Dare to be suspicious. Recognize that next year there will be a few must have innovations coming from Silicon Valley. Scrutinize them. Will they really make your life better? Or will these things simply further clutter an already very cluttered landscape.
  4. Dare to repent of Continuous Partial Attention. Isn’t CPA a present-day manifestation of what the Puritans called worldliness? And shouldn’t we be different? Should we not give ourselves to others? To our families? To our friends? To our neighbors?

Now go ahead. Ignore your email, ditch your cell phone, turn off your TiVo, and let the battery run down on your iPod. I dare you.