Direct Your Attention

It was a regular weekday afternoon, as regular as weekday afternoons can be in the era of “The Covid”. I was working from home and found myself with a little time in between tasks. Without even really thinking about it, my fingers typed “” into my browser’s address bar and I started to scroll. Over the course of the next few minutes, I once again waded through the litany of posturing and ranting on the seemingly never-ending crises du jour. A whirlwind of assertion from the myriad sides of all the issues, frequently polarizing and circumspect, lambasted my already overloaded cognition.

After my tension had reached a suitable level, again nearly without thinking, I navigated over to to once again find myself scrolling through reams of half-formed opinion, logical fallacies, crass memes and polarizing rhetoric. A handful of times I thought it warranted that I should reply to these strangers, telling them why they were wrong. But in each case, sometimes in the middle of actually typing out a response, I stopped and decided it wasn’t worth it.

Once I’d had enough of that, I almost jumped to my third social media pusher of choice – Twitter. Instead, I decided to open up Word and start writing this essay to express an idea I’ve had in the back of my mind for the last week.

To say there’s a lot going on in the world of 2020 is an understatement. As I write this it’s early June and we’ve had the Covid-19 pandemic, months of government ordered lockdowns and the knock-on effect of 40+ million people forcibly put out of work. And now we’re heading into week two of protests (and earlier rioting) over the death of George Floyd. For the average citizen trying to form an opinion about these events, it’s a nearly impossible task made doubly so by the fact that most people don’t introspect, don’t have an explicit philosophy and don’t really pay attention to their cognitive load.

I’m a software developer by trade, not a cognitive scientist, and so when I use the term “cognitive load” in this article I’m referring to the number of concepts a person is trying to hold in their mind and process at one time. Our capacity for this is obviously finite. When capacity is depleted and a new topic grabs our attention, we sub-consciously release some other topic to pay attention to this new thing. However that released topic doesn’t really go away, it just gets filed into our sub-conscious as a data point that we don’t have time right now to integrate.

The way we consume media today plays havoc with the limited processing power of our minds. I dare say that coherently integrating all of the information we’re presented with on a day to day basis is impossible. We are presented with the same themes over and over again via a means of cherry-picked concrete scenarios packaged and procured for their emotional impact. By appealing to our emotions, the new concretes get floated to the top and the older ones are jettisoned into the depths of our subconscious. Eventually, our subconscious is filled with data points that aren’t integrated based on their merit or a cogent analysis of their relationships to one another or to other areas of knowledge. Instead they are categorized according to the emotion they produced, perhaps with a short label on their filing drawer such as “Black Lives Matter” or “All Cops Are Bastards”. Since we’re under extreme cognitive load, even shorter labels like “BLM” or “ACAB” are preferable. These slogans are then repeated through ubiquitous media channels to keep your attention captive, held fast by an emotional potency built up over time.

If your mind’s processing capacity is completely filled with disjointed, highly emotional concretes when are you supposed to take the time to gain perspective on how you should be living your life? Where do you find the space to nurture your family, health and career? Indeed why try at all if you’re constantly ingesting the message that the world is going to Hell and is beyond redemption? This is the attitude with which I believe social media is conditioning the entire world. It’s a nihilistic brew of learned helplessness and guilt stifling the ability for analysis and integration. I remember when I was a kid, the message was that watching excessive television fostered cultural decline through reduced critical thinking, attention span and creative engagement. It was said to also encourage sedentary behavior leading to a more obese population. I would argue, as someone who was glued to the television in my youth, that social media is so much worse because of its ability to take advantage of and overload our cognitive processes. This leads to the atrophy of a rational consciousness necessary for a flourishing human life. Social media also gives those who are most ignorant a loud megaphone from which to spew their self-righteous vitriol thereby perpetuating the cycle.

The good news is that if you, like me, sense your involvement with social media is reflexive and contributing to a general feeling of depression and malaise you can reverse it! Recognizing that fact is the first step. Subsequently, it’s important to identify when you may be accessing social media, perhaps without even noticing. For example, keep a journal and just note when you engage, what sites and for how long. Over time, actively noticing when you’re lost in social media will lead to an awareness of when you’re about to get sucked in. Once you have that awareness, then you begin to really realize you have a choice. If all of the social media companies were to go away suddenly, what would you do with your time? Start re-framing your point of reference so that you don’t passively look outside for stimuli, but instead start to look within and see who you really are. Then, when you’re ready, decide to fully check out of social media for a week, a month, maybe even a year!

An interesting thing that happens when you cut the cord is that you start to realize there’s a social media headspace in which the addicts live — like a parallel universe — that for the most part has nothing to do with actually living life! In every moment you have a choice regarding where you should put your attention. Time is the ultimate commodity. When you are at the end of life, will you look back on the tally of your time spent engaging with social media and wish you’d spent it some other way? Is being constantly angry and enraged by your perceived ignorance and stupidity of the world — even your so-called friends! – really the way to obtain a fulfilling and happy life? Take control of your attention, don’t give it away passively and realize the quality of life you want and deserve.

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