The Magic Trick
A sermon shared by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, November 12, 2023, “Who’s Living Who?” series.
Texts: Psalm 146, Galatians 5:1
I think it was around this time last year when I heard these words come out of my mouth: “I feel like I’m not living my life, but rather that my life is living me.” I wonder whether you feel any resonance with that. Are you living your life or your life living you? The way I’d describe my life living me is when I start to feel like a slave to my calendar and to-do list and deadlines and appointments; when I struggle to remember that I have agency and can make decisions about my focus and my time; or when the realities of life are such that I have to keep pushing to do what truly must be done.
For a variety of reasons, we get pulled this way and that, like a puppet on a string. We can begin to feel bound and boxed in. And our focus becomes frenetic, jumping from this thing to that like a bug skimming the surface of an ocean of tasks and information and images and thoughts, struggling to engage anything with real, sustained depth. Studies have analyzed our increasingly short attention spans and difficulty maintaining focus. One big factor is the sheer volume and speed of information we receive in a given day. Using an 85 page newspaper as a measure, it has been shown that in 1986 the average human being was receiving—through TV, radio, and reading—about 40 newspapers’ worth of information each day. By 2007, with the proliferation of online technology, that number had risen to the equivalent of 174 newspapers—a number that has almost certainly risen. Our human systems are, as Psalm 139 says, “fearfully and wonderfully made,” but we’re not wired to manage that much information with the kind of speed it’s hitting us every single day. We are, according to one researcher, collectively experiencing “a more rapid exhaustion of attention resources.” I would simply say, it’s no wonder we’re all exhausted.
A few months ago, I was introduced to a book entitled Stolen Focus by journalist Johann Hari who set out to understand, through data and research, the attention and focus problem. Why are we so distracted and why does it matter? Hari spends much of the book outlining his findings as to the causes of our increasing difficulty to focus, some of which we’ll explore in this series. And Hari offers three primary reasons this topic is important.
First, he writes, “A life full of distractions is, at an individual level, diminished. When you are unable to pay sustained attention, you can’t achieve the things you want to achieve…Through no fault of your own, there never seems to be enough stillness—enough cool, clear space—for you to stop and think. [One study showed] that if you are focusing on something and you get interrupted, on average it will take twenty-three minutes for you to get back to the same state of focus…If this goes on for months and years, it scrambles your ability to figure out who you are and what you want. You become lost in your own life.”
The second reason that it is wise to think about this subject is that “this fracturing of attention isn’t just causing problems for us as individuals—it’s causing crises in our whole society. As a species, we are facing a slew of unprecedented tripwires and trapdoors—like the climate crisis—and, unlike previous generations, we are mostly not rising to solve our biggest challenges… Part of the reason…is that when attention breaks down, problem-solving breaks down. Solving big problems requires the sustained focus of many people over many years. Democracy requires the ability of a population to pay attention long enough to identify real problems, distinguish them from fantasies, come up with solutions, and hold their leaders accountable if they fail to deliver them…A world full of attention-deprived citizens alternating between Twitter and Snapchat will be a world of cascading crises where we can’t get a handle on any of them.”
And the last reason to think deeply about focus is that “If we understand what’s happening, we can begin to change it. The writer James Baldwin…said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”i
One of the persons Hari interviewed is a man named Tristan Harris, a former Google engineer who you might have seen in the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. Tristan was fascinated with magic as a child and learned at a magic summer camp “that the job of the magician is—at heart—to manipulate your focus. That coin didn’t really vanish—but your attention was somewhere else when the magician moved it, so when your focus comes back to the original spot, you’re amazed…[Tristan also learned] that a person’s susceptibility to magic has nothing to do with their intelligence…Magic, [rather] is the study of the limits of the human mind. You think you control your attention; you think that if somebody messes with it, you will know, and you’ll be able to spot and resist it right away, but in reality” that is not the case. Tristan learned from one of the best magicians in the world that “it is possible to manipulate your attention to such a degree that a magician can, in many cases, turn you into [their] puppet. [They] can make you choose whatever [they] want you to choose, while all along you think you’re simply using your own free will.”ii
Tristan’s path didn’t lead to a career in magic, but rather he studied “persuasive technologies” in college, created an app that got bought by Google, and got carried into a whole other world. While Tristan was committed to using technology for good, he quickly began to worry about what he was learning about the industry in which he worked. In the same way that magicians manipulate people’s attention, so too, those designing technologies were manipulating people’s attention. As with any tool, the powers of technology can be used for good or for ill.
The business model of all the big tech companies requires as much “engagement”—“minutes and hours of eyeballs on the product”—as possible. “The longer you make people look at their phones, the more advertising they see and therefore, the more money [the company] gets.” This is the primary point. Hari writes, “The people in Silicon Valley did not want to design gadgets and websites that would dissolve people’s attention spans. They’re not the Joker trying to sow chaos and make us dumb. They spend a lot of their own time meditating and doing yoga. They often ban their own kids from the using the sites and gadgets they design, and send them instead to tech-free Montessori schools. But their business model can only succeed if they take steps to dominate the attention spans of the wider society.”iii At one talk Tristan said, “I want you to imagine walking into…A control room, with…a hundred people, hunched over a desk with little dials—and that control room will shape the thoughts and feelings of a billion people. This might sound like science fiction, but this actually exists right now, today. I know, because I used to work in one of those control rooms.”iv
Tristan Harris eventually picked up the mantel of a prophet, leaving his job, and advocating for changes in the industry—and, in particular, the company he had worked for. Before leaving, he named his concern that technology was “making the world more distracted,” “deteriorating people’s ability to focus and think clearly,” and “destroying our kids’ ability to focus.” You may have seen the articles about the lawsuit being brought by 41 states and the District of Columbia against tech giant Meta, claiming the company “profited from children’s pain by intentionally designing its platforms with manipulative features that make children addicted to their platforms while lowering their self-esteem.”v
There are even more disturbing ways that these companies manipulate people online. “Surveillance capitalism” profiles your online activity and in-person conversations so closely that it is possible, like a malign magician, to manipulate or anticipate what you will click on next. Algorithms are designed to use your profile to present what will keep you looking at your screen. And what do you think the average person will focus on longer: something positive and calm or something negative and outrageous? …Yep. This is a well-known quirk of human behavior. Evidently, words such as “hates,” “obliterates,” “slams,” “destroys,” are the best words to use if you want to get picked up in the algorithm. And, according to a major study at NYU, “for every word of moral outrage you add to a [post formerly called a tweet], your [repost] rate will go up by 20 percent on average, and the words that will increase your rate most are ‘attack,’ ‘bad,’ and ‘blame.’…So an algorithm that prioritizes keeping you glued to the screen will—unintentionally but inevitably—prioritize outraging and angering you.”vi
I am taking time to lay these things before us today because this is a justice issue. It is an ethics issue. It’s a health issue. I’m not suggesting that technology and online apps are all bad or have no positive use. I am convinced that the largest purveyors of online tools and apps are pushing drug-like hits of whatever they’ve learned we’ll respond to and messing with our sense of self, our capacity to think in healthy ways, and the quality of our human relationships. It’s like when the big tobacco companies knew that cigarettes were killing people but carried on with their ad plan of making smoking cool or elegant or rebellious or whatever. Those designing the online products know what these things are doing not only to our brains and capacity to focus and think deeply, but also the things they are doing to the fabric of our society. “If enough people are spending enough of their time being angered, that starts to change the culture…it turns hate into a habit.”vii The fake news sources know well that anger and outrage are what get the most attention; they know how to get picked up by the algorithm and to go viral. And we’ve seen in tragic ways how that fuels violence and hatred that land upon real human bodies.
I’m also sharing this because it affects all of us in one way or another—even if we’re not online that much, or on social media. And while it may feel that we are doomed to be held captive by the actions and repercussions of the tech industry, that is not the case. I’ll share more about some ways to resist and respond in the coming weeks.
But today I first turn to the letter to the Galatians, where Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The issue Paul was addressing was not enslavement to checking our online feeds, but rather the requirement of male circumcision. There were evidently those among the Galatians tempting them to surrender the freedom they had gained through faith in Christ and turn to the belief that it is up to them to earn their salvation through circumcision and following the whole Jewish law to a tee. The situation stirred conflict and confusion.
Paul insists that, in Christ, the evidence of your faith is not getting circumcised, but loving your neighbor. Paul writes: “For you were called to freedom…only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence…For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (5:13-14) In Christ, we are set free from anything that would turn our focus away from loving our neighbor as ourselves.
The magicians pulling their levers and pushing our buttons want to manipulate us and distract us to increase their bottom line. Their work—intentionally or not—draws our focus away from the things that matter most and stirs conflict, division, confusion, and depression.
God, on the other hand, sets us free from things that try to steal or control our lives and gives us grace to increase love in our lives and in the world. We are called to resist mindless capitulation to the powers of this world and, instead, to be thoughtful in our engagement, careful in our words, and good stewards of our time.
I’m not saying that to be faithful you have to give up sharing photos and celebrations and prayer concerns on social media. I’m simply reminding us that there are forces in those and other online spaces that truly desire to consume our time and manipulate our focus. Their tactics are tricky and addictive.
But for freedom Christ has set us free. And there is no one in heaven or on earth stronger than Christ who, with a word, caused the winds to cease and the waves to lie down, who disarmed his opponents and their coded messages with wisdom and power. We have an advocate who is always there to help us stand firm and not submit to any yoke of bondage. We have a God who never controls or coerces us but graces us with free will and with the responsibility to use it to make love real in the world. So be encouraged and be thoughtful and, most of all, be loving with yourself and with your neighbor. Because love’s power is far greater than any magical manipulation. Thanks be to God.