Paying Attention at the End of 2019

Jonah Hall
Dec 4 · 8 min read
photo via Visual Hunt

Our attention has been thoroughly captured. We have been inundated. We absorb soundbites and viral videos, sharing headlines before reading articles. Each possible competing click tempting us with extremes. We basically stay afloat through this flotsam and jetsam. It’s no wonder anxiety and depression among teens is on the rise.

Some focus on the positive news…like the teenager from Sweden who is begging the world to wake up to our collective climate disaster. That’s the positive news.

Most of us will continue clicking and absorbing. What’s the alternative? Attempting to block out the headlines might save us from low-level, day-to-day anxiety, but ignoring the problems is not likely to make them go away. YouTube is especially dangerous in its tendency to propel us headfirst down the rabbit holes of extremism/conspiracy theories. The recommendation engine is driven toward extremism because it keeps people clicking. The OMGs slide you right down into the abyss. You’ll probably feel like you need a shower when you’re done.

Addiction and Setting Limits

Psychologists discuss the importance of our own awareness in using technology. Setting limits and boundaries on our own use has become essential, but this isn’t taught well or discussed often enough in our collective conversations.

Maintaining human connections in an increasingly digitized world becomes complex. “Why is this person calling me?” becomes a common question. Emojis and GIFs and memes. Even choosing not to embrace these things becomes a kind of statement. The fluencies required for casual jokes are inherently tech-driven.

Recognizing your own tendencies and your own intentions is critical to navigating the internet and the social media universes, but how often do most people step back and consider their habits? New Year’s resolutions. Might as well start now. The irony: using apps to limit your usage.

Middle school health curriculum needs to adapt to give the twelve year-old a crash course in the dangers not just of cyber-bullying, but of this technology-addiction and of the impact of social media on mental health. Public schools without enough funding drop the necessary mentally-healthy outlets: art, music, and physical education options.

Having taught teenagers and adults, I’ve seen how serious smart phone addiction is. Sixteen year-old students melting into piles of goop when their phones were temporarily taken. Getting adults to have real conversations in my English class means insisting phones are away (unless used for translating). Despite setting up policies, schools are often helpless, especially if no boundaries have been set up at home. Like speed limits, they only work if they’re continually enforced. Maybe age twelve is even too late. With our toddler, we see how obsessive it can get. We try to stick to music. We try to limit screens, but Frozen is simply too good at capturing her attention and giving us a respite.

Autopilot, Numbness and Media Saturation

The human brain’s tendency is toward autopilot. When isolated and depressed, our tendency is to inoculate ourselves against pain. We focus on solving problems, or at least absorbing information. We have to fight our tendencies today in order to remain mentally healthy. We have to remain conscious to remain humanitarians. When we’re tired, we resort to our limbic system, the “lizard brain.” We laugh at animals because we are animals. We want to know about violence because we want to be safe.

We obsess about the man in the White House because ignoring his actions seems even worse. But the actual impact of his actions less clear. How much is smoke and mirrors? While he has emboldened the most racist and xenophobic Americans, he has also upended our unspoken rules of civility, and tested our most democratic (small d) institutions.

He’s pulled the right so far to the edge, that many wonder if we’ll all fall off.

The News and Polarization

What becomes “news” in a claustrophobic and increasingly attention-starved environment is not what “news” was years ago, and that’s not all bad. Diversifying our news sources and lowering the gates of “news-worthy” information has had hugely beneficial effects. We hear from a broader array of voices and learn about parts of society that have long been ignored or neglected. On the other hand, the problem of too much information pushes some toward cable-news. The lizard-brain thinking: there’s too much out there, so I’ll just watch Fox News…or…on the flip-side…I’ll just stay on Twitter and retweet the defenders of everything I believe, preaching to my own choir. Most of us are clearly backed up into our corners. Online fighting makes us all more vulnerable when we have foreign interference, further polarizing the conversation and inciting America’s collective historical wounds (race) and fears (immigration).

From Axios, Analyzing a poll they conducted in November, 2018:

Many Americans think people in the other party are ignorant, spiteful, evil and generally destroying the country, according to a new Axios poll by SurveyMonkey, aired on HBO on Sunday night. 61% of Democrats see Republicans as “racist/bigoted/sexist.” 31% of Republicans say they view Democrats in the same light.

Why it matters: If Americans are this convinced that the other side isn’t just wrong, but dumb and evil, they’ll never be able to find enough common ground to solve real problems. And they’re more likely to elect leaders who can’t do it, either.

The suspicion runs so deep that a third of all Americans say they’d be disappointed if a close family member married someone whose partisanship didn’t match their own, according to the poll for “Axios on HBO.”

The percentage saying they’d be at least somewhat bothered by this jumps to 50% among liberal Democrats; it’s 32% among conservative Republicans.

For both parties, more moderate affiliates are about 20 percentage points less likely to say they’d be disappointed.

This poll says a few things about our current moment:

  • Democrats generally can’t see Republicans as anything beyond what Trump and McConnell represents. In the view of the majority of Democrats, the states that turned red on the 2016 electoral map essentially condoned his racism, sexism, xenophobia, and general nastiness. With his behavior throughout the debates and the general election of 2016, it’s hard to see Republicans as anything other than the party of Trump.
  • The idea of a close family member marrying someone on the opposite end of the political spectrum is an interesting poll question because it basically asks, “How big of a deal-breaker is this?” As a society, our marriage rate has been slowly declining for the last 30 years. This speaks to many aspects of modern life, from religion to the economy to casual/online-dating. It also hints at a general erosion of trust. A close family member marrying someone on the other end of the political spectrum today indicates a threat to the trust we have in our close family member remaining the person we thought we knew…or the potential holiday dinner stress.

As the conservative movement has tilted further right and as social media has taken over, the news cycle has obviously changed. The White House has become another reality show, rather than something we understand as necessarily separate from the bombardment of other information. Instead, executive tweets inflame the internet, stoke fear and division at every opportunity, and we are left with chaos. Social media has removed the veil of formality that once obfuscated the true nastiness of political arguments among Americans. Its not as if people with utterly oppositional views, one in Kentucky and the other in New York, never argued. It’s just they so rarely had the opportunity to argue one-on-one before the internet and social media.

The reactions of the progressive left and centrists are complex and inconsistent. Sometimes, we fight fire with fire and go on the attack, while other times we refuse to engage, not mentioning his name, not allowing the chaos to overwhelm everything. It’s taken three years for patterns to emerge.

Headlines Designed to Stand Out: “The End of….”

With every article that signals the end of democracy or the roots of an impeding civil war, we try to make some meaning out of the cultural and geographic divides. But we remain divided. Oklahoma is not a puzzle piece on a map. It will not suddenly land next to Vermont. North Dakota remains on the border of Canada. It will not one day find itself adjoining sunny California. The geography and the histories of these regions inform the conversation as much as the demographic changes. As Americans continue to move toward cities and away from rural areas, these urban/rural divides only intensify and those left in the scattered towns that capitalism has generally left behind will continue to gravitate toward authoritarian rhetoric and right-wing extremism.

2020 Democratic Candidates

Democratic candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders appeal to many who demand a broader social safety net and see economic inequality as beyond the tipping point. Our economy has thoroughly tipped and we demand the pendulum swings back toward equality and broad opportunity. But their age is a very real handicap to their campaign among many under-50 voters.

Here comes Mayor Pete adding momentum to his bid in Iowa, now topping some of the Democratic polls. While he appeals to intellectuals and many younger, future-oriented voters, he is relatively unknown to most of America, including the non-white segments of the Democratic coalition. While overcoming that fact is essential to any democratic candidate other than Joe Biden (who gets preferential treatment due to his Obama connection and face recognition), how does someone like Mayor Pete grow those connections in an seemingly authentic way? He probably needs 100,000 canvassers willing to knock on doors in small towns throughout the South and Midwest and start conversations. We are a segregated society. Political campaigns often highlight those divides. There are also those that question his experience, as well as his age. They don’t view his position as South Bend’s mayor as much of anything. The question becomes: Why does it have to be a 70 year-olds with oodles of experience or a 37 year-old with so little? Where is the 50 year-old? That was supposed to be Kamala Harris, but something went wrong along the way. Maybe declaring her bid so early was the biggest issue. In such an important upcoming election, this campaign cycle seems endless.

Manipulated Masses

Cynics might say, “This all goes in cycles. We have always reacted with primitive instincts.” Others would argue this information environment is new and we are all being experimented upon. Never before have we seen these complex strategies and layers of research so easily slipped into our morning coffee, bent on manipulating us. All of the information appears to be sitting at our fingertips, if only we’ll click on it.

What will inundate us next? How will technology save us when the water has risen and the electricity has gone out? The first step toward fighting back and recapturing your own attention is sitting still and doing nothing.

How long can you do that before the headlines creep back in? Sitting still might help you create something, might help you dust off your imagination, might even help you recognize other people are complex individuals, not so easy to categorize. You might even feel more like yourself again.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade