Being half-distracted seems better than being fully inattentive to God, though, right? But the Lord will not be treated like a beggar, happy to have the scraps of our thought life only after we’ve offered up the best of our focus and affections to media and advertisers. He wants it all. Our failure to devote our full attention to God is the whole sin of being half-distracted. Because full devotion requires full attention.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how it has seemed harder and harder for me to carve out the same amount of focussed time of prayer and Bible study in the morning than it used to be. Certainly, I am weak and easily distracted. But it is no help that an entire economy exists to deliberately distract me by twinkling shiny bits of content in my eyes with the goal of gaining my attention so that they can advertise to me. Yet, I seem drawn, like moth to flame, to give myself to the apps, websites, and programs that consume and monetize my attention. The result is a negative impact on my spiritual life as I become more and more distracted from giving all of myself to my Lord. I am beginning to see that I am committing the whole sin of the half-distracted mind.
Perhaps if we can understand how advertisers and content marketers work to attract our attention, we can break the spell. So, how does the attention economy work to distract us from keeping our eyes fixed on Christ?
The Attention Merchants
In 1833, printer Benjamin Day started The Sun newspaper in New York City. Day started his paper in hopes of salvaging his failing printing business which had taken a financial dive as a result of the cholera epidemic of 1832. There were many newspapers in New York at the time, but what made Day’s paper so remarkable was that copies of his newspaper sold for just one cent each.
Most newspapers had to sell for at least six cents an issue to be profitable. So, how could Day expect to have a viable business when he charged just 1/6th the price of his competitors? Because though Day was distributing newspapers, he wasn’t actually in the newspaper business at all.
Unlike the other newspapers, he wasn’t selling articles, information, or news. What Day realized was that a by selling a cheaper newspaper, he could sell more papers, then he could turn around and sell the attention of that large readership to advertisers. Thus the so-called “Penny Press” business tactic was born and with it an entirely new industry, attention merchants.his is the thesis Tim Wu develops in his book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads. And while we might rightly critique the influence this shift toward an attention-based economy has had on journalism in America, I want to look instead at how the commodification of attention has negatively affected the devotional life of Christians to this day. There’s a reason we are as distracted as we are, but there’s also a solution.
You Are the Product
In our day, this business tactic of attracting a crowd then selling their attention to advertisers is no longer innovative. The internet has only made it more common. Daily, we willingly enter into the contract of reading free articles and watching free videos in exchange for our attention being sold to advertisers. It’s just what we expect.