May 7, 2021

Digital Literacy: Could I get your attention...about attention

Digital Literacy: Could I get your attention...about attention

In some ways, this is one of the simplest episodes I've pulled together. In this episode, I start the first part of digital literacy which is taking control of your attention. Hopefully this reminds you about the fundamentals of Christianity. I think this concept is simple and profound in the life of Christians who often see themselves as victims of circumstances. I hope you pay attention to your attention.

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Be good and do good.


In this episode, we talk about the importance of controlling your attention on digital platforms.

Welcome to Balancing the Christian Life. I’m Dr. Kenny Embry. We’ll talk about how to be better Christians and people in the digital age. Let’s go.

Okay, for just a second, I need you to concentrate. Get yourself in a comfortable position. Clear your mind of all thoughts. Allow your head to go clear. Now, I need you to not think about an elephant. Please don’t think about an elephant at all. I don’t want you to think about its tusks, or the huge ears. I don’t want you to concentrate on the tough hide or the huge trunk. No. I need you to simply avoid all of those features of an elephant, because for the next minute or so I want your head clear of an elephant. I also don’t want you to think about the last time you saw one. I need you to not concentrate on their power and size. Because like I said, I don’t want you to think about elephants.

Yeah, we both know the only thing you could think about was an elephant. The problem with this experiment is we know how it works. Once I have your attention, I now have a lot of control over what’s going on. I can tell you how to think, I can control how long you’ll focus, and I can even get you to change focus. Because as easily as I can tell you to not think about an elephant, I can tell you not to think about a clown. This became one of my favorite games with my children growing up. When they were in a sour mood or trying to be angry, I would look them in the eye and in a stern voice say “don’t smile, and whatever you do, don’t laugh.” Well you know how that always turned out. When they had the suggestion, they couldn’t help but do it.

I’ve been playing attention games with you. Because I asked you not to do something, you now focus on exactly what I’m asking you not to. This is hardly revolutionary. We know our attention is a fickle thing and can flit around quickly from one thing to another. The trick is to figure how to put limits on our attention and even try steering it to things which are important.

Perhaps nothing has played with our attention more than the digital tools we all have now. I mean, I’m just a guy behind a microphone and I know what I’m doing with your attention. I’ve got my own agenda here, because I want you to start paying attention to, well, your attention. One of the foundational building blocks of being more digitally literate is zeroing in on processes you probably don’t concentrate on very often or very well, and it all starts with attention

As Christians, one of the most fundamental commands of God is to control what we think about. I could easily go to Philippians 4 where Paul tells us to think about good things, or how God got upset before he unleashed the flood. In Genesis 6:5, the passage reads, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” In other words, one of the fundamental problems of people was they kept focusing their attention on bad stuff. God cares about where you put your attention. And if God is wanting you to control it, perhaps we should think about how.

Before we start talking about the very real dangers of the digital tools, let me tell you what they’re doing right. YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, Google all know you pretty well. Some don’t know your name, but they sure know what you like and what you don’t like, and they’ve created the “you” formula. In ther words if we show Kenny this thing, he’s much more likely to spend more time on our website. Sometimes that’s an amazingly good thing. For example, my twelve year old daughter has recently gotten interested in ukuleles. So I’ve been researching ukuleles on eBay. But because Facebook and Google have both seen me doing some poking around on ukuleles, they’re happy to show me some ads about other ukes I might consider. And that’s precisely what I want. This is extremely helpful. Because I did a search or two about these small instruments I now have a quick crash course about tone woods, ukulele sizes, helpful accessories, how to get the best bang for the buck. I have gone from knowing nothing about ukuleles to having a pretty good understanding of what I need to know. And I didn’t have to scour the web to find it. Amazon, Google, Facebook, YouTube brought it all to me without much effort. What could have taken days or weeks happened in a few minutes, and that’s not an evil or bad thing. They recognized I don’t care about football, monster trucks, the latest political ridiculousness and they gave me information I wanted. Can we all appreciate that for a moment? The Internet creating a personalized experience for you often helps you get stuff done faster and better, and that’s often not only a good thing, but a great thing. 

The mechanics behind all of these digital tools has been shortened to the idea of an algorithm. Algorithms are formulas that help predict how you’ll spend your time, because the secret to getting more of your time is figuring out how to get your attention. You see, I eventually bought a great little ukulele for my daughter. She’s learned four chords and is trying to master some song called Riptide. But YouTube, Google, Facebook and friends still think I want more information about ukuleles, and there’s a part of me that’s still interested. Did I get the best deal? What else can I know about ukuleles? What else is there to know? And I still occasionally go down the ukulele rabbit hole even though we’ve got a ukulele in the house which my daughter adores.

The algorithm that’s helping me fix my ukulele problem doesn’t really know or care that this is a decision that’s made and let’s please move on. No, it only knows how I click and when I watch the next video about this topic. And more often than not, the digital platforms start indulging an addictive side of my brain that just wants more. And, by the way, if it saw that I started searching for something else, guess what these platforms are going to do?

So God wants me to control my attention, and the digital platforms don’t really care how I’m spending my attention, as long as I’m using that attention to spend my time on their websites. So, our problem is how to consciously harness my attention to better spend my time on things that matter. Because once I tell YouTube I’m interested in doing something that matters like studying the Bible, it’s going to start feeding me that instead. YouTube wants my time, but the key to my time is my attention. And if it’s feeding me good stuff about great ideas, it doesn’t care. This is a fair trade.

I’ve spent a little time trying to define what the problem is and isn’t. It’s easy to point fingers at digital platforms who see dollar signs behind mastering my eyeballs. But once we know what they do and don’t want, the power shifts. The problem isn’t the digital platforms, but our personal management of them.

Look, YouTube is an amazing servant and a terrible master, just like money, just like your job, just like everything that you let take the place of God. There’s only one good master, and when you learn how to use your resources best to serve him, everything else falls in place. Let me say that again, the stuff around you only become masters if you let them do that. If you want to treat these things as what they are, tools, they are perfectly fine to be used that way.

The conversation about attention is really a conversation about allegiance. So, how do you master your attention.

Howard Rheingold is a researcher who has done a good job of talking about precisely this. In his book Net Smart, he talks about the first step, which is both simple and imperative. If you want to control how much attention you give the digital platforms, you have to start with intention.Look, researching ukuleles could be a never ending rabbit hole, but there comes a point where you’re ready to move on, and instead of indulging that next Google search, you simply cross that off the list and say next. Let me say that again, taking control of your attention is recognizing you need to and then doing it. Simple to say, sure, but how do you do it? Well, let me suggest the way you do it is to do it. The way you take control of your attention is deciding to take control of your attention.

Mel Robbins wrote a book I think distills the philosophy of short but significant action in her book The Five Second Rule. When she identifies what goal she wants to pursue, she first figures out what the next action would be to get it done. Then she figures out what physical action she needs to do, and then...and I know this sounds corny or weird or idiotic, but there’s science behind this, she counts down from 5 and then physically moves. For example, if you want to run a marathon, your training doesn’t start on a couch. As a matter of fact, you will never run a marathon on your couch. But the longer you stay on the couch, the less likely you will ever cross the finish line in Boston. So, if you want to run a marathon, you need to physically get off the couch in 5, 4, 3, 2 1.

Look, the problems we have with attention aren’t because we don’t know what’s going wrong. We know we obsess on stupid stuff, but we keep giving ourselves permission to do that. It’s also no mystery why we do. It’s easy. We have set up an environment which allows us to keep doing this, and the digital platforms are simply going to give us exactly what we’ve asked for. It’s not their fault. They’re giving you precisely what you’ve asked for. If you are constantly enraged by the stories you read on the Internet, maybe the problems aren’t the stories but how much you enjoy the rage. 

I want you to think about that. I want you to turn your attention to that. I want you to focus on what you really want to accomplish today, and what the next action would look like. What do you need to do to make that happen? What would it look like? How would you do it? What’s the first action? Now do that action in 5 4 3 2 1. Do you need to read the Bible more? Open the open and start reading in 5 4 3 2 1. Do you need to get other work done but you keep scrolling on Instagram. Then turn off your phone in 5 4 3 2 1.

Kenny, you make it seem so simple. But I’m going to return to Instagram in 5 minutes. Okay, then put it back down and turn your attention to what is important again. Look, we all turn our attention to stupid stuff. And God keeps saying come back. Focus on the important stuff.

The buzzword we’ve adopted for this attention to attention is called mindfulness. This isn’t guru on a mountain stuff. This is Philippians 4:8. This is Joshua choosing who you will serve in chapter 24. This is seeking first the kingdom of God in Matthew 6. The call to Christianity and to recentering your mind is the call to choosing your values and centering your attention there, and then using the tools at your disposal to make that happen.

The fact that there are a lot of forces against you in choosing your values isn’t new. From the beginning Satan wanted Eve’s attention to focus on which fruit she couldn’t eat, not on what she could. Yet the serpent knew that if he could only draw her attention not to what was permitted but forbidden, he would have an easier time getting her distracted.

The digital tools we have use a simple mechanism to make them more addictive. They cater individually to you. They amplify and feed your interests. They indulge your whims. They are the information butlers that make sure nothing is too difficult to accomplish. You want more information about ukuleles. Coming right up! And what we’ve learned is extreme self-indulgence isn’t good. It never has been. So start feeding it something better. What’s the next right step to help someone else? To take care of your responsibilities? If you turn your attention there, the digital platforms will follow. They will help you figure out how to serve your church family better. They will help you find God’s wisdom about living a more fulfilling life, if that’s what you’re asking for. So where is your attention?

So, stop thinking about an elephant. Stop thinking about clowns. Start thinking about who God is. Start thinking about how God loves you. Start thinking about how you can make others better. Maybe that’s a better place to focus your attention.

Next time I plan to release the interview I had with Paul Gavin, I mean to have that today, but with my end of semester activities I had to pivot to the first part of my digital literacy series, and I’m glad to do that. I still can’t wait for you to meet Paul, but it’s going to have to be next time.

As for the good thing I’m thinking about, I’ve been participating in a Bible reading program started by my buddy Kris Emerson, and it’s been very good for me. We’re currently going through Luke, which is my favorite gospel. If you’d like to join in that, please do. Just hit me up on Facebook and I’ll be happy to give you that information.

I want to again thank those who support the podcast like Kevin Hanson, Jorge Sanchez, Mark Russell, Barbara McElwain, Craig Embry and my parents. I truly appreciate it.

So until next time, let’s be good and do good.