When I was a kid, I often heard the word “attention” used as part of a command from an elementary school teacher. That’s because young boys have a notoriously difficult time focusing on anything for very long. They occasionally need to hear someone say, “Pay Attention!” with a little force behind it.
Today the word “attention” is part of apocalyptic sounding expressions like, the “attention economy” and “attention mining.” These unsettling phrases point to the fact that our focus is now one of the most profitable areas of the economy. Companies compete to grab more of our attention and hold onto it. Guys like Tristan Harris have argued that “Simply put, technology has outmatched our brains, diminishing our capacity to address the world’s most pressing challenges. The advertising business model built on exploiting this mismatch has created the attention economy.”
Companies like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are spending billions and billions of dollars to capture our attention, get us addicted to their platforms, and convert our God-given hours into gold coins filling their coffers.
Though these companies take advantage of our often fleeting focus, their business model has a lot to teach us if we are willing to stand at the intersection of faith and new media forms and make observations on the flow of traffic. From that vantage point, we can see that these companies have tapped into something profound about the human condition that we need to notice as believers. If they can capture your attention and hold it, they have captured your love. If they can seize your love, they can direct you as they please because God has designed us to live out of the deepest loves of our hearts.
Attention and Love
Every Christian knows that the two greatest commandments demand our love be aimed at the right things (Matthew 22:37-40). We are to love God supremely and others secondarily. We also know that it’s impossible to give our love to two opposing parties. Matthew 6:24 puts it like this, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
While we know the importance of love, we don’t often understand what it functionally means to love God and others. Here’s where we connect love and attention. You cannot claim to love someone or something without giving your attention to it. Oliver O’Donovan explains the two key elements of love; “Thus classical Christian descriptions of love are often found invoking two other terms which expound its sense: the first is ‘wisdom’, which is the intellectual apprehension of the order of things which discloses how each being stands in relation to each other; the second is ‘delight’, which is affective attention to something simply for what it is and for the fact that it is.”
We could spend a lot of time explaining O’Donovan’s rich definition, but notice the second key element of love, delight. He describes delight as “affective attention.” Love must include an engaging interest in the object, whether person or thing. Affective attention must incorporate emotional involvement and that involvement is experienced as delight in the object of love simply for its being what God has made it to be.
What does this look like in the real world? How do I express my love for my 10-year-old daughter when she hops in the van (yes, I unashamedly drive a mini-van) after school and begins to tell me about her day? To truly love her is to give her my attention with delight. I must look at her and be interested in what she has to say. I ask questions as I listen and respond with comments. If, as she recounts how she played with friends at recess, I coldly stare at my phone, I can hardly be said to be acting in love toward her in that moment.
Attention as Feedback Loop
So, what we give our attention to reveals the true object of our love, but attention is not a one-way street flowing from love to engaged interest. Giving your attention to something will also work the opposite direction and shape your love and affection. Attention is necessary to cultivate love. Think of your attention as a feedback loop. You are attracted to some object or person and because of this initial interest you direct your attention to it or her. As your attention stays fixed on the object of interest, your joy increases and this causes you to further give your attention away because of the pleasure you find in the object.
All of this means that you cannot separate your attention from what you love and wherever you direct your attention will end up being what you love, for good or ill.
Attention, Love, and Time
If our loves are both revealed by and shaped toward what we give our attention to, then there’s a deep and undeniable connection between love and time. This is where I believe the social media companies have tapped into something weighty and true about the way humans are designed. Our lives are made up of a limited number of hours and we will give those hours to what we love and what we love will be determined by what we give our hours to. They want your attention because your attention opens the gate to your heart.
Redeeming the Time
So, what does your use of time reveal about your love and what it is forming you to love? What sort of person will you become if you devote hours each day to watching cable news arguments or engaging in the latest Christian Twitter spat? On the positive side, how would you be more effective in your battle against sin and more secure in your relationship with God if you gave your time and attention to Scripture and your family?
Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:15-16 should compel us to evaluate the way we use our time because of the connection to our love. “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.”
 Harris, Tristan “Our Brains Are No Match for Our Technology.” The New York Times, 12/5/2019 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/05/opinion/digital-technology-brain.html
 Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 26.