Intentionality about Attention

Choosing Wisely the Things that We Attend To

When Doppler radars were first deployed across the American landscape, many people initially thought we were suddenly being overwhelmed by tornados. What was actually happening was that we were suddenly able to "see" the tornados that had always been there, but went largely undetected.

It is hard for us to know, in the current high-velocity information environment, whether things are as bad as they seem or if we just have more comprehensive visibility into how fallen the world has always been. The weirdly prevalent negativity bias of human beings can easily be overstimulated by online prophecies of doom.

According to the Bible's book of Genesis, one of the first lessons God gave to Adam and Eve was that there are things in the cosmos that are unsafe for human beings to know. The knowledge of good and evil was at the top of the list of things we would never be able to cope with well, once we acquired such knowledge. Alas, there is no putting that genie back in the bottle now.

The Palantir

Tolkien also wrote of a source of knowledge that is too great to wield, using the plot device he called a palantir. The palantir was an orb that could be looked into by whomever possessed it, ostensibly to gain knowledge and, even, foreknowledge. But the palantir could deceive the average seeker, and could only be put to truly constructive use by the king himself. When one of the hobbits looked into it out of curiosity, the entire Fellowship was nearly undone. Not everything that can be known should be known.

Jonathan Haidt has been chronicling the injurious mental health effects of social media, and those effects on young women especially. It seems that having relentless visibility into the lives of others has the alarming effect of compromising the mental health of many adolescent females. It calls to mind the possibility that social media is a 21st century corollary to Tolkien's palantir, at least to this extent: adolescents who look into the social media orb have an alarming probability of being harmed by doing so.

Social Media and & Overfixation on the Self

What is striking about Haidt's analysis is the extent to which these young women's mental health is damaged for reasons unrelated to whether the actual circumstances of their lives have really changed. It is apparently the mere act of marinating in the comparative knowledge of the lives of others that elevates levels of depression and self-loathing.

Jordan Peterson was quoted on Twitter this week as having said, "The best path to misery is to continually think about how you feel." No kidding. But surely getting beyond "continually thinking about how you feel" involves finding some alternative - some way to shift our attention away from ourselves and onto someone or something more worthy.

I'm starting to believe that there may be nothing more important than where we choose to place our attention. Yet volitional attention is the very thing most social media companies want to deny us. Their business models involve the monetization of our very thoughts, thus their Herculean effort to manage what our minds attend to. The continual stream of flattery, nudging, and notifications is motivated by the economic self-interests of these purveyors of online ads. The evidence is becoming unavoidable that the long-term effects of having our attention managed in this way, by those who wish to monetize it, are dire. Especially dire for adolescents.

Maybe there really is such a thing as a palantir.

Choosing Wisely

And maybe Paul, the apostle of Jesus, was really onto something when he advised the Christians at Philippi to manage their own attention by choosing to dwell on things outside themselves. Paul proposed thinking on such things as whatever is true, noble, pure, lovely, excellent, and praiseworthy.

We could do much worse than to turn off all notifications on our phones and, by that expedient, silence the clamor for our attention that perpetually emanates from social media. We might then rediscover the benefits of intentionally choosing, for ourselves, the things that we attend to.

works as a senior fellow at a major semiconductor manufacturer, where he does advanced software research. He worked in technology startups for over 20 years and for a while was a principal engineer at He is a member of Lake Ridge Bible Church in a suburb of Dallas, Texas.

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