A Poverty of Attention

My friend David Beck, in his book Luminous, writes:

“The amount of information we consume has skyrocketed. Information overload takes its toll on us. ‘What information consumes is rather obvious,’ says economist Herbert Simon. ‘A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.‘ We think of ourselves as consumers, but in the age of information overload, we have become the consumed.”

I’m a news junkie. Others are gamers. Still others live on Facebook or social media. No matter the specific focal point, the impact is often the same — a poverty of attention. Without realizing it, we slowly sacrifice our time, energy, and attention. What we think we control gradually gets control of us. We, the consumers, become the consumed. The instant-society, the microwave-culture, has lost patience, focus, and depth.

Woman using iPhoneI see this in the University classroom. Many students have severely eroded attention-spans. They dismiss the suggestion, as we all do, by claiming to “multi-task.” I see this in restaurants as couples sitting at a table each stare at their own phone screens, tapping and scrolling intermittently. “A poverty of attention.”

A world of sound-bites, captions, Tweets, video-clips, and pokes has transformed us — robbed us. And it begs the disturbing question: Is the hyper-stimulation of our culture undermining our ability to hear God, to think deeply, or to be fully present to each other?

Gambling grows compulsive to many people, in part because of the chemical stimulation that the brain receives when the unpredictable happens. If the process and outcome of a game is entirely scripted, we would be bored. Something similar happens with email, gaming, social media, and even the news. We check in repeatedly for something new and something unexpected. It functions like a drug, not only distracting us but stimulating us. And the pleasure of the stimulation masks “the poverty of attention” that is developing within us.

Little needs to be written here about the obvious implications of this for our spiritual formation. If spiritual formation is “a long obedience in the same direction,” we cannot hope to be well-formed by short bursts of attention to Christ and His Kingdom.

What would need to change for each of us, today, to overcome this cancerous condition and truly find rest? I suspect that only with such rest can we truly flourish.

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16 Responses to A Poverty of Attention

  1. Tim Ross says:

    It does act like a drug and like drugs the high wears off faster and faster and we look for more things to grab our attention like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. It is compulsive for sure because I’ve felt that tug myself. Recently I committed to more time in the Word because I could see that my time in God’s Word had become superficial and short. It happens slowly and our attention erodes away if we don’t keep boundaries around sacred things.

  2. Marica McCauley says:

    Have you heard the latest slang? Phubbing, or phone snubbing, is a term coined as part of a campaign by Macquarie Dictionary to describe the habit of snubbing someone in favor of a mobile phone (Wikipedia).

    Great post!

  3. Janet Sigsworth says:

    David, thank you again for dealing with a much neglected danger of our day. I have wondered often during the last five years how the younger generation will ever be able to still their minds to sit at the feet of Jesus, study His word and hear His Spirit. The devil is very clever in knowing exactly how to distract us away from God. I am going to pass this article onto my adult children and pray God will use it to speak to their hearts. God’s blessings as you continue to serve Him.

    • David Timms says:

      Thanks for your note, Janet. I feel the same temptation and danger as the younger generation! It’s a hard line to hold. We need one another to keep calling each other to this higher place. Blessings to you, too. 🙂

  4. Elaine says:

    I most share what I recently encountered. Going for walks in a Nature Center is my way of escaping and finding rest. As I concentrated on my surroundings, God’s creation, the beauty and quietness, 2 women were headed in my direction, one texting, the other talking on her cell. They never even looked up or acknowledged my greeting. In a way it was comical but also very sad.

    • David Timms says:

      Elaine, that’s probably too common an experience. Makes the point. What do we all miss because of the distractions? And what do we all become because of the distractions? Thanks for the note and the story!

  5. Ted Bjorem says:

    In Future Shock, written in the 1970’s Toffler talked of this same issue and observed how people were looking for connectedness. Initially I thought how do we reach people overflowing with info and options? Then later reflected, what is the one universal heart need of every human, and who has it, in abundance?
    In discipleship we look for those who are open and at any given moment any number of people are. Frequently, daily we can have a cuppa with a friend and invite someone by themselves over. ask how doing, and if mention a matter on which there can be opinions ask them why feel that way, listening with love and no agenda. If by chance they ask back, then we can freely share.
    ( of course if you are up-over, make that cuppa a tea or coffee 🙂 )

    • David Timms says:

      Helpful, Ted. Thanks. Now if we can just get them (and us) to put away our devices while we sip that coffee leisurely and be attentive to each other…. Would enjoy a cuppa with you to chat more about this! 🙂

  6. Barry Thygesen says:

    Hi David, Just an observation from my life of rewirement. When I travel on a train which I just love, sitting with strangers, I rarely ever have a conversation or connect with others because their heads are down and fingers doing their daily exercise for the whole trip. Fortunate I love scenery or time to ponder. When I go to the pool about four times per week I have connection with many people and often D & M discussion or opportunities to encourage a whole range of people. I have also developed some friendships with non Christ followers who may one day come to Jesus. The only time I took my phone into the pool in my pocket it died. Thank you for your insight and provocation.

  7. Murphy says:

    Boy, this one hit home for me! I’ve seen other posts regarding cell phone use/texting, but this post broadens the scope of the problem. I didnt THINK I was affected, as I infrequently use a cell phone, but I do get on Facebook and the time has increased. :-/ ~ Busyness seems to be such a common state for so many in these times, almost to the point of a badge of honor. A friend of mine shared an acrostic for “BUSY,” – Being Under Satans Yoke! That’s what it can feel like as it robs us of spending time with the Lord like you’ve shared. Thanks for the post. It’s convicted me enough to take time away from Facebook and set my own boundaries! 🙂

  8. John & Kae says:

    Thanks David.. I can very easily see this “poverty of attention” as its so often named! “Brain overload” is the common one we hear … And yes, it does undermine our ability to hear God, to listen to Him when we read His Word. Relationship with Jesus is the answer! To Love Him with all our heart, mind, will, strength…to cease from idols that keep us anaesthetised from His Love and from heart worship of Jesus… Idolatry seems to be our needed confession before we are free “to love Him with all we are”….. Its all in our heart relationship with Jesus Christ. Thanks again David… bless you!


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