What Are You Paying Attention To?
Rosh HaShanah 5780/2019
Abraham was relaxing one evening when his phone vibrated with a text message. “Can I call you?” “Sure.”
The call went something like this:
“Take your son…” “The one who lives at home or the one who’s moved away?”
“Your only one…” “I’ve still got two, and each is the only child of his mother”
“The one you really love” “Do I even have to say that I love them both?”
“OK already! Take Isaac, and get going to the land of Moriah, and offer him up there as an offering on one of the hills that I will tell you about.” (Connection fades out…)
Abraham turned to Sarah — but she had her earbuds in and was playing a game on her device, so he decided it was easier just to set an alarm for early next morning and be gone. It was a really difficult journey; Abraham was torn between wanting to tell Isaac what was going on and trying not to think about it himself; so mostly he posted photos of the trip on Facebook and watched the GPS; and anyway Isaac was listening to music and posting on Snapchat. On the third day Abraham’s phone pinged a notification to look up, and there was the mountain.
Things got tense after that. Abraham told the donkey-wranglers to hang out for a while, and they promptly sat down and stared at their screens. Abraham and Isaac started to climb, not looking at each other. At one point Isaac took off one headphone and said, “Dad?” Abraham sighed and stopped reading the sensational story about child sacrifice that he had googled, and said, “I’m here.” “What’s going on? You’ve got a knife, you’ve got wood, but I don’t see a baby goat for the offering.” Sigh. “God will see to the kid for the offering, son.” And the two of them got busy with their devices again and walked on.
Well, you know what happened at the top of the mountain. Isaac stayed focussed at his screen so he wouldn’t notice what was going on, and Abraham stuck in his earbuds and turned up the music so he wouldn’t hear his child’s cry. Then Abraham reached out his hand and picked up the knife to butcher his son.
God’s angel had to call his name two times to get his attention! Abraham snatched the earbuds out and listened, and then he actually looked up and around. There was a ram with its horns caught in the bushes behind him. Isaac was saved.
It could have happened like that.
Recently I read about former employees of Google, Facebook and Twitter who have taken major steps to disconnect themselves and their families from the internet. Research tells us that we touch, swipe, or tap our phones over 2500 times a day. And these tech folks are well aware that almost every time you look at a screen, websites and mobile apps are using sneaky tricks to keep your attention focussed on them. These are the some of the very people who invented technology’s addictive features. Like the “Like” button. And they know that the “attention economy” trades in our most precious human resources: our time and attention.
There’s even a disturbing piece of research which suggests that simply having our cell phones within reach — out of sight, turned off — can diminish our thinking capacity. Not because we are consciously aware of them, but because our phones have become so relevant to our lives that part of our brainpower may be occupied with preventing us from thinking about them. Is our phone addiction making us stupid?
I am not suggesting that there was ever evil intent behind the invention of social media or smartphones. They’ve transformed our lives in tremendously beneficial ways, and have become essential tools for knowledge and connection. But even with the best of intentions, the companies that create and administer this technology are under intense pressure to compete for our attention. And it’s harming our society and ourselves. The Center for Humane Technology, which was founded by some of these “tech defectors,” tells us, “Hidden designs hijack our attention, manipulate our choices, and destabilize real world communities.” And it’s all so that someone else can amass more money or power — or both. It happens directly, by manipulating our choices, and indirectly, by distracting us from injustice.
We now know that the 2016 election included sneaky uses of social media to sway voters. Not just to influence people directly, but to whip up outrage and polarization, because sensational extremes grab everybody’s attention, supporters and critics alike. And when our emotions are riled up, we make decisions based more on instinct and feelings than on thought. Both the US election and the British “Brexit” vote appear to have been affected by this.
A small aside: The same kind of psychological insight and manipulation is being used right now in a telephone scam in our area. A young person calls an elder, posing as their grandchild who is distraught because they are stuck overseas and need money for a plane ticket, or they’ve been arrested and need money for bail. The caller is using more than simple trickery; they are attempting to activate strong emotions which can overwhelm rational thought. Please be on guard against this kind of scam, and share the word: it is almost certainly not your grandchild calling you.
Our phones have become our digital slot machines. Every time a little red notification dot appears, do you feel the need to find out what it’s telling you? (Red is hardwired in the human brain as an alarm color.) Do you just have to respond to that internet troll? Do you enjoy keeping your streaks going from day to day — games played, puzzles solved, Snapchat? Snapchat streaks are particularly insidious because your friend’s streak also gets broken if you break yours, adding social pressure to keep it going. Do you play the same game for hours, trying to reach the next level? The attention economy thrives on these “feedback loops”: Reward-based behaviors that activate the pleasure centers of our brains, the same neurological pathways stimulated by gambling or drug use. All of these are designed to lure us in again and again, to become habits and perhaps compulsions. For some people they become literal addictions, requiring detox and rehab.
Drug addiction is overall more lethal than internet addiction. But mobile apps and the internet are everywhere, and we keep our phones with us nearly every waking moment. The rise of the attention economy has the capacity to affect society on an unprecedented scale. And it’s all so new that we are the lab rats. Google turned 21 this week, which means it’s younger than most people in this room.
So the question is, If the people who built these technologies and understand how they lure us in are taking radical steps to wean themselves off their screens, how much are the rest of us actually exercising free will around our devices? How much are we triggered, manipulated, persuaded and maybe even coerced by our information technologies?
And the gravest injury to our lives comes from the reality that human beings have limited bandwidth. Our screen habits can affect our ability to think clearly; and screen time affects our relationships, and the time we have available to do, create, to enjoy, and to be.
Rosh HaShanah is our yearly “reset” button. We come here to be shaken free of our tunnel vision, our usual habits, our unexamined life. Teshuvah, the work of self-examination, restoration, and change, is a soft re-boot. The shofar and the prayers of Rosh HaShanah are a wake-up call and a process to get ourselves out of our bad habits and onto a life-affirming path.
Paying attention is not just about banishing distraction. The ancient root of the word “attention” means “to stretch.” The idea is of “stretching your mind” toward something. It requires an act of will.
Think of God’s role in this as the energy that’s always trying to lure us into making good choices, always inviting us to pay attention to what really matters. But God doesn’t grab our attention like sensational news does. In order to refocus, we have to resist what’s clamoring for our attention. So did the prophet Elijah, standing in the opening of a cave wondering where his life was going (I Kings 19:11-12): First there was a strong wind that sent boulders crashing and breaking; then there was an earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire. But none of those sensational, attention-grabbing things represented God’s presence: God was in the still, small voice.
Being here, today, helps us clear our minds and gives us the opportunity to hear the still, small voice that has our best interests at heart.
And as much as we’re hardwired to be hoodwinked, we are also hardwired to care. There are rewards in this direction too, positive feedback loops that, with time and effort, can help us develop new habits, and support us in living an intentional life that maximizes meaningful relationship and compassion and justice.
So get savvy about attention hijacking. Work on not letting your emotions dictate your screen time. Jewish poet Merle Feld wrote:
out of the corner
of my eye
I get a glimpse
of my life.
In a flash
in a moment—
I see it clearly.
I make a shopping list
or rent a video.
Quickly, I look away.
Merle Feld, “Over There”
Be willing to be present in your own life.
Protect your eyes with the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, take 20 seconds to look at something at least 20 feet away. Set an alarm to remind you to move every hour, even if it’s just to the bathroom and back, and leave the phone behind while you walk. Same thing outside: put it in your pocket and notice what’s going on around you.
Don’t overdose on the news or social media. Your parent or grandparent might have read three newspapers a day because that was the way to be an informed citizen, but now we’re surrounded by nearly infinite news delivery, and a lot of what’s delivered is irrelevant to your life. If you find yourself getting all worked up over the behavior of someone you don’t know personally, consider taking a break.
And turn off all notifications that don’t tell you that a live human being is trying to get in touch with you in real time. You can search the web for “take a break” apps to retrain your screen habits, and yes, I know that’s ironic, but useful. And look up “humane technology.” Just take a break from your research every 15 or 20 minutes.
In the Torah’s story, we don’t know why Abraham didn’t talk to Sarah. We don’t know why the angel had to call Abraham twice to get his attention. We don’t know why Abraham didn’t see the ram until he looked up. But we know that God is calling us to look up; to extricate ourselves from the thicket of compulsion that is growing up around us; to stay “woke” to injustice in the world, without overdosing on toxic news or confrontation; and to be awake and alive to the richness and beauty of the world around us, and to participate fully in our relationships with the people we love.
We know this is God’s will already; may we work hard on making it our own will this year.