Being an Audience in an Age of Distraction

This piece was originally given as a presentation at Bluffton University on September 18, 2012.

What does it mean to be an audience? I think that this is a fascinating question. The biblical text that I always think of when I think of being an audience is The Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5.1–2 reports,

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: -

Who is Jesus’ audience for this sermon? There are crowds, and Jesus goes up a mountain (so that they can hear him? or at least see him?). There are also the disciples who come to Jesus. Jesus could be teaching the crowds, but why then does Matthew report that the disciples come to Jesus? Jesus’ teaching could be just for the disciples, but then why does he teach now when there are so many people around? Or is the audience for Jesus’ words us now in this time and space? I think that the audience was the people that were paying attention.

We are never sure who the audience is for something that we say; likewise a forum like this one has an audience here and now, but also an audience beyond this time and space in the conversations that you share with people about this forum. Let me call these the concrete audience (each of you that is here now) and the virtual audience (people that will be almost here by virtue of participating in conversation about this event).

Audiences can be distracted in many ways. Some of these are technological, some aren’t.

I am assuming that you want to be here. If you don’t want to be here you should leave. If you need arts and lecture credit but don’t want to be here find a way to get arts and lecture credit for things that you want to go to. You are in college; you should want to go to enough of what we offer to meet the credit in your four years here.

Some of you would like to be listening to me, but you are instead all, “Oh my gosh, I’m actually sitting next to her at forum today and I didn’t even try to plan it that way and it totally must be meant to be but I wish I was wearing a nicer shirt.”

Anyone can be distracted at anytime.

I can see you, the concrete audience, being distracted by technology in a number of ways. Technologies of amplification, space and interruption are distracting you.

Jesus didn’t have a microphone back in the day but he spoke on a hillside to crowds of people. How did they hear?

I have an example, but I need you all to be very quiet for it. Can we try that for a second? Be as still and quiet as you can be.

Image by Tara Hunt

(step away from microphone)

You can hear me now, but it takes some effort. It also takes your attention. Part of working to hear me is paying attention to what I am saying. If you want to be listening, and your neighbor is being loud, well tough luck.

(back)

Amplification makes it easier to hear, and in making it easier allows you to pay less attention. Perhaps we should do away with microphones. It would, surprisingly, probably help us pay attention and be less distracted. Distraction is not an option in a non-amplified world.

When Jesus spoke were people comfortable on the hillside? Were there distractions like birds or cats or impending rainstorms? The technology of a mount is different than the technology of a space like this gym or a space like Yoder recital hall. I find it much easier to pay attention in Yoder than in here. That space orients my attention to the front, to the stage. The seats are meant for me to look at one space. These seats such as they are meant to watch volleyball or basketball. This isn’t an excuse for not paying attention; your job as an audience is always to pay attention; but it does show you a barrier that you have. Churchill said, “We build our building s and our buildings build us.”

This brings us to the final distraction I want to think about; cell phones. Take out your cell phone and hold it up. Let’s say that I had the screen behind me showing the twitter hashtag #audience and that I asked you to react to what I was saying by tweeting with that hashtag. What would happen?

1). My presentation would have just gotten a whole lot more interactive.

That would be cool; but notice how hard it is to learn how to use a new technology well. Some of you don’t know what a hashtag is. Some of you don’t have twitter on your phone. Rather than just asking for reactions I should probably have well thought through questions and I should be able to react to them on the fly. This could work but it would be hard.

2). The audience would have just gotten a whole lot bigger.

We would, by virtue of our size as a group momentarily take over the hashtag #audience and people beyond Bluffton would get a sense of what we were talking about. We also could bring the discussion tangibly to others after this event. The benefits of cell phone style technology for the virtual audience are huge.

3). By interacting with the material for this forum you would be using your cell phone to pay more attention, not less, to what was being said. You would become a more attentive audience.

However, none of this can happen while you use your cell phone as an interruption machine. You’d need to not read texts, or emails, or facebook, or twitter other than through our hashtag. If you are texting your roommate right now you aren’t being an audience, you are talking to your roommate. Just as technology can extend the audience virtually, it can also constrain the concrete audience. If your speaker doesn’t give you a good reason to use your cellphone; or if you aren’t good at trusting yourself with the technology; it’s probably better to just turn it off.

It is hard to know how we are being distracted, but we can learn, and once we learn we can choose to pay attention. Being able to pay attention is what makes us an audience.