The Great Fracturing of American Attention

Why resisting distraction is one of the foundational challenges of this moment

A coiled cable nestled inside the silhouette of an eye
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

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Last month, as Delta Flight 1580 made its way from Utah to Oregon, Michael Demarre approached one of the plane’s emergency-exit doors. He removed the door’s plastic covering, a federal report of the events alleges, and tugged at the handle that would release its hatch. A nearby flight attendant, realizing what he was doing, stopped him. Fellow passengers spent the rest of the flight watching him to ensure that he remained in his seat. After the plane landed, investigators asked him the obvious question: Why? COVID vaccines, he told an agent. His goal, he said, had been to make enough of a scene that people would begin filming him. He’d wanted their screens to publicize his feelings.

I did it for the attention: As explanations go, it’s an American classic. The grim irony of Demarre’s gambit—his lawyer has not commented publicly on the incident—is that it paid off. He made headlines. He got the publicity he wanted. I’m giving him even more now, I know. But I mention him because his exploit serves as a useful corollary. Recent years have seen the rise of a new mini-genre of literature: works arguing that one of the many emergencies Americans are living through right now is a widespread crisis of attention. The books vary widely in focus and tone, but share, at their foundations, an essential line of argument: Attention, that atomic unit of democracy, will shape our fate.

Demarre’s stunt helps to make these books’ case, not necessarily because of a direct threat it posed, but because it is a bleak reminder that in the attention wars, anyone can be insurgent. Americans tend to talk about attention as a matter of control—as something we give, or withhold, at will. We pay attention; it is our most obvious and intimate currency. But the old language fails the new reality. The attention economy may imply fair trades within a teeming marketplace, people empowered as life’s producers as well as its consumers. But in truth, the books argue, that economy makes us profoundly vulnerable. Our time and our care belong to us right up until they don’t. One day, a man got on a plane with an apparent desire to hijack attention. His fellow passengers, and then masses of others, were left to contend with all the fallout.

As I write, the Russian military is escalating its attacks on Ukraine. Pundits are arguing that Putin’s invasion was spurred by American “wokeness.” A Texas state agency began investigating parents for the purported crime of believing their children. A court declared Kim Kardashian to be single again. Zoë Kravitz wore a Catwoman-themed dress to the premiere of The Batman. The January 6 committee laid out a potential criminal case against Donald Trump. Colin Jost helped to product-test Scarlett Johansson’s new skin-care line. Ketanji Brown Jackson is meeting with senators in advance of her Supreme Court confirmation hearings. A United Nations report warned that climate change’s catastrophes are now encroaching so rapidly that without radical intervention, they might overwhelm any effort to mitigate them. The 5,978,096th person has died of COVID-19.

“My experience is what I agree to attend to,” the pioneering psychologist William James wrote in the late 19th century. His observations about the mind, both detailed and sweeping, laid the groundwork for the ways Americans talk about attention today: attention as an outgrowth of interest and, crucially, of choice. James, we can safely assume, did not have access to the internet. Today’s news moves as a maelstrom, swirling at every moment with information at once trifling and historic, petty and grave, cajoling, demanding, funny, horrifying, uplifting, embarrassing, fleeting, loud—so much of it, at so many scales, that the idea of choice in the midst of it all takes on a certain absurdity. James’s definition, at this point, is true but not enough. The literature of attention updates his paradigms for the age of infinite scroll.

In the new book Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention—And How to Think Deeply Again, Johann Hari interviews James Williams, the aptly named ethicist who is currently a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. Williams shares his three-tiered definition of attention. “Spotlight” is the most familiar form—fleeting, targeted, the kind required of everyday tasks (getting dressed, watching a TV show, reading an article on The second layer is “starlight”: the focus one applies to long-term desires and goals. The third layer is “daylight.” This form—so named because sunshine allows people to see their surroundings most clearly—is the focus one applies to oneself. It is akin to mindfulness; it’s how you know what you want, and why.

The layered framework is familiar; it recalls Freud’s triptych model of the psyche, for one, or the distinction, in yogic practice, between bahya drishti, an external point of focus, and antara drishti, which turns the gaze inward. Starlight, as a pragmatic matter, might look like bullet journals or vision boards. But dreams for the future take on new clarity when they’re understood specifically in terms of focus and distraction. So do the web’s temptations. Far too often, I find myself mindlessly twitch-clicking on an enticing headline, and then reading, and then regretting. I pay my attention; I instantly wish for a refund. Starlight might help me to navigate just a little bit better. Do I want to spend a portion of my one wild and precious life considering the sartorial choices of candy? Maybe so, but at least I can make that decision consciously. Williams’s framework emphasizes the deep connections between the now and the later: Distraction in the short term is also distraction in the long. Starlight cannot orient you if you’re forever failing to look up for it.

Jenny Odell proposes a similar recalibration in 2019’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. American culture has moved so far from the Jamesian mode of attention—so far from the simple dignity of choice—that our lexicon itself can be misleading. Attention, Odell argues, has become bound up in the same apparatus that remade hobbies into “productive leisure” and that values people’s time only insofar as it proves economically viable. The essential problem is not simply the internet; the villain of her story, instead, “is the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction.”

Odell, similarly, is not opposed to distraction as a very broad category. An artist as well as a writer, she spends much of the book celebrating the value of wandering minds. They are sources, after all, of creativity and curiosity. But there is a stark difference between being open to distraction and being driven to it. (Doing nothing, in Odell’s analysis, is not the absence of action; it is an act of reclamation. It is an attempt to make free time free again.) The challenge is to wander mindfully.

How to Do Nothing’s arguments echo in some of the web’s newer vernaculars: Clickbait, doomscrolling, and similar terms acknowledge attention as an ongoing struggle. As Tim Wu argues in The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, attention is ours, yes, but it is theirs too—a commodity fought over by corporations that seek ever thicker slices of our psyches. Wu’s targets are Facebook, Google, and the many other businesses that reduce humans to sets of “eyeballs” and treat the mind as an extractive resource. The digital industrialists engage in what Wu calls, in full dystopian dudgeon, “attention harvesting”—the reaping of people’s time and care, for profit.

Wu published The Attention Merchants in 2016. It has earned in the meantime one of the best distinctions a book can hope for: It has grown only more relevant. Wu’s ultimate theme, like Odell’s, is resistance. Distraction, Wu notes, tends to empower the industrialists and demean everyone else. If people are to avoid life lived at their mercy, he writes, “we must first acknowledge the preciousness of our attention and resolve not to part with it as cheaply or unthinkingly as we so often have. And then we must act, individually and collectively, to make our attention our own again, and so reclaim ownership of the very experience of living.”

Discussions of attention, sooner or later, can tend toward the polemic: We are spending our time this way, when we should be spending it that way. This is frivolous; that is meaningful. One of the valuable elements of these books, though, is that they cede their final definitions to the individual. They echo James’s sense of attention even as they complicate it. Wu’s appeal is to the dignity of one’s own time; Odell repeatedly uses the word humane. You have your starlight. I have mine. They’re different. They should be.

But attention, in these frameworks, is also political. In the aggregate, attention is a collective good. A distracted democracy is an endangered one. The authors make liberal use of the collective we, and the choice functions not as a glib imposition of commonality on a fractured world, but instead as a simple recognition: In a shared polity and a shared planet, our fates are bound together. Starlight, as personal as it is, can be social too. Considered communally, a sense of common destiny might orient our attention to questions both ancient and newly urgent: What kind of country do we want? What kind of people do we want to be?

During Joe Biden’s State of the Union address earlier this week, the president called on Congress to aid U.S. service members who were exposed to toxins while they served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Biden’s son Beau, a veteran, died of cancer in 2015. As Biden spoke of illnesses that would put soldiers “in a flag-draped coffin,” Lauren Boebert, a representative from Colorado, yelled at him from her seat.

“You put them there. Thirteen of them!” she shouted, seeming to refer to soldiers who had died in Afghanistan last year.

It would not be the only interruption of the evening. Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, of Georgia, repeatedly attempted to wrest attention from the president as his speech went on. The two began by pointedly turning their backs on the president’s cabinet as they entered the chamber, allowing Boebert to display the writing on her shawl: “Drill Baby Drill.” As Biden talked about immigration, the two began chanting: “Build—the—wall.” The Washington Post reported that they spent the rest of the speech laughing at some lines and live-tweeting their animosity toward others. (“Here’s another way to fight inflation,” Boebert tweeted, at one point. “Resign.”)

The whole thing had a tautological quality: Lawmakers, elevated to their positions in part by their skill at making scenes, scene-making once more. The dynamics that set in afterward were similarly foreseeable. Nancy Pelosi condemned their behavior (they should “just shut up,” she said), and then people wrote about how Nancy Pelosi had condemned it, and the flurry of it all, in the end, served pretty much no purpose save for the political interests of Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene. Fringe views used to stay where they deserved to: on the fringes of things. Now, those who espouse conspiracies and bigotries get air time—and, consequently, our time—precisely because their errors are so outrageously clickable.

The paradox of attention is that, at any moment, there’s a very good chance that it won’t seem worth attending to. Attention, after all, is so navel-gazy. There are always so many other things—more specific and urgent and obviously worthy things—clamoring for people’s focus. But that there’s never a good time to think about attention is precisely why we should be thinking about it—right now, urgently. Climate change looms. People’s rights are under threat. Books are being banned. The Big Lie keeps lying; disinformation, compounding the chaos, competes for our care just as fervently as all the scattered truths do. The volume of the distractions only grows; like Boebert and Greene’s antics, they threaten to drown out everything else. “The Democrats don’t matter,” Steve Bannon, that noted purveyor of noise, said in 2018. “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”

The strategy works. Attention is zero-sum; that makes distraction a potent weapon. The era of attention crisis is also the era that has given rise to “paper terrorism,” a flood-the-zone approach carried out with bureaucratic forms and filings. It is the era that finds the Supreme Court making binding pronouncements about the most intimate areas of Americans’ lives not through its standard proceedings, with all their pesky scrutinies, but via the shadow docket. Activists have boasted about how simple it’s been for them to dissolve hard-won voting rights with the flick of a pen, in part because many of the people who would be horrified at the regression are unaware that it is happening at all. “Honestly, nobody even noticed,” one of those activists said. “My team looked at each other and we’re like, ‘It can’t be that easy.’”

When people aren’t looking, though, it can be. Hannah Arendt, the great scholar of democracy and its discontents, observed that propaganda, pumped out as a fog that never lifts, can make people so weary and cynical that they stop trying to distinguish between fact and fiction in the first place: everything as possible, nothing as true. A coda to her insight is that plain old news can foster the same kind of exhaustion. To combat it, the books call for a new focus on attention itself. They argue for a particular kind of mindfulness—a collective gaze that detaches from the tumult, looking anew at the body politic, seeking insight and maybe even wisdom.

Our many crises will not be undone quickly or easily. They might not be undone at all. But the first step toward solving them is to acknowledge them as emergencies. The next is to give them the undivided focus that emergencies deserve. The starlight is there, if we remember to look for it. The people move; the constellations don’t. If we find a way to focus on what matters, we may be spared the need to admit, to the generations that follow: We didn’t mean for it all to happen. But we weren’t paying attention.