“Scattered Attention”

by Sam Buntz

A friend of mine keeps telling me to get a Twitter account.  He says that the sort of reflections I’m prone to post as Facebook status updates would better be addressed to the more public audience that Twitter supposedly provides.  Based on the way Twitter seems to work for some people, this makes sense.  But, as it happens, I tried to take him up on this advice—and failed.

For, one thing, I have a bunch of friends and acquaintances on my Facebook page, but hardly any Twitter followers—since I’ve only written “tweets” (as I’m told the hip young people call them) about four times.  Hence, the process of beginning to tweet “in earnest” seemed like a wholly absurd farce as soon as I started it.  I tweeted to my ten or so Twitter followers—eight of whom are probably false identities constructed by online software to better research various marketing strategies—the sentence, “I think I would secretly make a pretty good Canadian.”  I watched it beat its wings ineffectually in the Void a few times, before promptly dropping out of sight.  Like a child’s letter to Santa, it was…gone.  (I later put the same sentence on Facebook, where it premiered to what I would describe as “breathless applause”—also, I sincerely do think I would probably thrive in Vancouver.) That was a few months ago.  I haven’t tweeted since.

I cite this anecdote—skirting the borders of both extreme triviality and too-cute, cultural timeliness as it perhaps does—to make a broader point: I have absolutely no idea how people manage to deal with more than two or three internet-based things like this.  I can basically do Facebook, write blog-posts, and check my email—yet there’s an almost obscene profusion of “apps” (or whatever) now that I have no interest in using, in addition to Vine, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, LinkedIn, online dating sites, regular commenting on favored message-boards, and so on (oh, and Twitter).  Surrounded by such a blossoming array of digital possibilities and social media that I’m not going to use, I feel a little like I did when I went to see Scott Pilgrim vs. The World—namely, like a gigantic, crotchety one-hundred-and-five year old, surrounded by a crowd of gibbering twelve-year-old Lilliputians, all of whom were enjoying themselves immensely.  (Don’t worry—if you’re a Scott Pilgrim fan, it’s not you, it’s me.  Also, I like all the other Edgar Wright movies.)

On the one hand, I’m grateful for the Internet.  I’ve poured countless hours into reading articles on it that I’ve found genuinely illuminating—like, I was just reading some by this writer, William Dalrymple, who has plenty of valuable insights to offer on religion and history in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Middle East.  That’s an example of me trying to strengthen an interest I already have—rather than diffusing my attention throughout the online world.  So, I consider that a good thing.

However, there are plenty of other times when I use the Internet to scatter my attention to a fairly mad degree.  Rather like Clint Eastwood yelling at an empty chair, I begin to feel unsure of my identity, constantly at the risk of fragmentation in a too-rapidly shifting world.  It’s as though, caught between Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” video on one window and an article about a Messianic Cult in Siberia on another, I suddenly don’t exist as a unity—instead I am now living, in Shakespearean terms, “on many a thousand grains / That issue out of dust.”  That might be dramatic hyperbole to make a greater point—yet, to my (presently re-integrated) mind, the degree to which one’s attention can be scattered in the modern world is fairly shocking.  I don’t intend this to be yet another reflection on how technology has outpaced our ability to cope with it (though technology has sort of outpaced our ability to cope with it), but more of a meditation on attention and inattention.  The preceding five paragraphs were just prelude.  (That’s right—all that “Twitter” jazz was but meant to lure you savvy twentysomethings into the Game!  Now you can either read the rest, or settle for wasting your time).

I’ve heard it said that attention is “the outward expression of the soul”—or, to say the same thing twice, it’s what consciousness does when it goes out on the town.  I personally find this to be a helpful definition. Without attention, you’re either entirely at the whim of your environment, or in a state of actual unconsciousness, in limbo.  So, it seems fair to say that attention is really the fundament underlying all that we’re going to think or say or do in this world.  Hence—following this train of thought to its inevitable conclusion—scattered attention must be a pretty bad thing to have, since it strikes at the root of literally everything.  Obvious, right?  Nothing new here.

To offer further consideration: being the offspring of roughly ten generations of Scotch Calvinist ministers, I turn—as I often do in these trying times—to my Bible.  (Yes, it may be an unpopular move—but I’m willing to undergo the derision of the secular Twitter-sphere, if need be.)  In reality, I’m neither Scotch nor Calvinist, but I did run into this Bible verse—while reading a book about Hinduism, oddly enough—a few weeks or so ago, and found it pretty thought-provoking and relevant: “And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat.” (Luke 22:31).

Satan, in this quote, wants to reduce Simon Peter to a state of fragmentation, running him through his fingers like so much cereal—which actually does happen when Peter denies Jesus during the Crucifixion.  The Devil’s goal is to create minions who will do his bidding, simply because their attention is too diffuse and disorganized to wise up.  In any case, you’re free to take “Satan” as an allegory for all of the world’s numerous engines of decay and dispersion—whatever breaks up the internal integrity of people and reduces them to a state of mental or physical indignity.

On a related note, the word “diabolic” is apparently related to the Latin word for throwing or scattering.  Hence, it’s not—linguistically, anyway—too insane of a leap to suggest that scattering one’s attention is a pretty diabolic move, or indeed, the original diabolic move.  It seems to be what the Gospels were getting at in the above quote, and you see it reflected again when Jesus visits the tomb-dwelling madman, whose demon tells Jesus that his name is Legion: “Many”.  In other words, he has no internal oneness—his is an utterly un-integrated psyche. The suffering madman is horribly scattered, having access only to T.S. Eliot’s “heap of broken images, where the sun beats, and the dead tree gives no shelter,” before Jesus heals him and restores him to unity.

I think the Internet can serve as a tool for aiding one’s efforts to attain some sort of unity—some spiritual or psychological coherence—or, conversely, for participating in the universe’s general trend towards being all the more scattered and shattered.  Chances are, Vine and Instagram and the rest are going to play a greater role in the latter process, but that was always going to be the case.  When the Spinner of the Years first unfolded the World Wide Web, this was all foreordained.  The best that people can probably do is to identify the images of this more unified state-of-being when they find them—be it on the Internet, or in any of the arts, literature, music, wherever—and help them to endure, promote them a bit.  These seemingly meager acts of resistance ultimately add up to a trumpet-blast against the encroachment of Chaos—something that really does matter.

I’m currently reading the book Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler.  The main character, Nicholas Rubashov, is imprisoned in the Stalinist-era Soviet Union for crimes he didn’t commit.  Yet, alone in his cell, he has plenty of time to think—to seek to strengthen his attention, to figure out what’s really going on.  He suddenly experiences moments where—from beyond the realm of his usual, logical attempts at thinking—his more genuine self breaks through and expresses itself.  It doesn’t use the language of reason, but it presents Rubashov with images of a higher aesthetic and spiritual order, images that seem fragmented, but which actually come from that greater unity, that formerly unexplored region of his self (which the Soviets had denied and repressed).  It is this kind of solitary concentration—in its most extreme form, that of a prisoner in isolation—which the vast plethora of online options threatens to stamp out and endanger.  Instead of feeling one’s attention sharpened and gaining in inner coherence, one is—again and again—sifted like wheat.

So—in the final analysis—that’s why I don’t particularly feel like tweeting.

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