The War For Your Attention

“Millions of people never analyze themselves. Mentally they are mechanical products of the factory of their environment, preoccupied with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, working and sleeping, and going here and there to be entertained. They don’t know what or why they are seeking, nor why they never realize complete happiness and lasting satisfaction. By evading self-analysis, people go on being robots, conditioned by their environment. True self-analysis is the greatest art of progress.”  —Paramahansa Yogananda

Since the invention of mass media and Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum “the media is the message”, we’ve been living in what’s commonly known as the Information Age. If you’re reading this, you probably exist in this brave new world while simultaneously consuming ancient spiritual literature, like the Tao Te Ching or the Dhammapada. But there exists a massive cultural and temporal gap between the way we processed information thousands of years ago and the way we process it now. How do we bridge that gap? How do we better understand what is going on and why?

If you’re interested in McLuhan, read this. I’m not here to parrot his words, provocative and relevant as they may be. Instead I want to explore what it means to discover spirituality over the internet. If television was an ‘information bomb’, then the internet is an information nuke. As a result, it’s become unavoidable. Wherever you go, there is a sort of soft cold war occurring, a war for your attention.

This used to be simpler; when the technology allowing Source X to reach Audience Y was crude, the war for your attention was simple, ala Mad Men. If someone wanted to sell you a product, they just put it in front of you with a catchy tag targeting your lifestyle and beliefs. But all systems grow more complex and subtle over time. What was once a fairly direct messaging process has turned into a vast ecosystem of informational exchange.

Everything you do online is recorded, catalogued, and algorithmically sorted. It’s then archived in a repository for advertisers, who can target you based on literally anything you’ve ever said or done online. On top of this, those interested in reaching others have a vast library of new psychological literature at their disposal, making it possible to convince anyone of pretty much anything. If you don’t believe me, create a Facebook Business account and try creating an audience for yourself. I run a small business and am shocked by the precision with which I can theoretically target customers. Now that I’m aware of this, I’m similarly baffled by the precision with which I am targeted.

This all sounds like some weird sci-fi Philip K Dick vision of dystopia, but is it not the world in which we live? Do you not spend most of your day interacting with one screen or another?  You don’t own the information on the screen— someone, somewhere, set in motion the forces responsible for displaying what you are consuming. We merely have the illusion of control; we can curate the experience with immediacy and precision.

And one more question: is the spiritual quest not the process by which we become aware of our own attention? If we want to practice meditation, mindfulness and reflection honestly, we must confront these questions. They only seem irrelevant until you realize they’re not.

The first step to solving any sort of quandary is to understand it. In the case of the information war, it means allowing your spiritual understanding to open your eyes. You meditate. You read this text and that. You read my blog. But afterwards, do you go on Twitter and participate in the vast political spectacle? Do you turn on CNN, Fox News or BBC and actually believe what you’re told? Do you trust what you see? Or do you question everything, allowing life to be the strange and multivalent game it is? Once we ask ourselves these questions, we realize that this isn’t just about the internet; it’s about everything.

The reason most people are such easy prey for false or biased information is that they are unreflective. When we’re unaware of our own attention, its value, where it’s going and how it impacts us, we aren’t just prisoners to those who choose to take advantage of us— we’re prisoners to ourselves. As such, this ‘battle’ isn’t really something that we have to wage in the external world. It occurs within. Once we become aware of our awareness, we start to realize how often we waste it. Once we stop wasting it, new opportunities begin to emerge.

In the spiritual realm, this is important. If we don’t question ourselves, we don’t know ourselves. If we don’t know ourselves, any deep information we consume is just going to swirl around in the ether. Or worse— we will be prone to accept false or manipulative information. This explains the popularity of various culty figures and New Age charlatans in spiritual literature. If you don’t question what you’re confronting, you can’t truly know it.

By keeping close watch over your own mind and the forces attempting to sway it this way or that, you become the master of your own house. It’s very easy to sit back and allow others to wander in and out of your mental space, vandalizing it with this or that. But with a bit of work, honesty and mindfulness, you can take control of this informational age and use it to your own advantage. You can communicate with interesting people, consume hard-to-find literature, uncover countless cultural gems, etc. Just keep your eyes open.

If you like this, subscribe to Daily Zen Premium for exclusive weekly essays and podcasts. But only if you want to. Don’t let me MANIPULATE you using INFORMATION.

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