Lament for attention

Posted Sep 28, 2011 | New Media Project


By Jason Byassee

No one from Alexander the Great to Benjamin Franklin knew any faster means of communication than a galloping horse. So begins Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the enormous communications changes brought about by the telegraph and other technological changes in the nineteenth century. In the digital age we often think such dizzying shifts are new to our era. They’re not—though paradigm-changing technological alterations in our lives do seem to come more often now.

A friend of mine recently argued with me that public education has been exceedingly slow to catch up with these changes. “Kids spend all their time entertained on small screens, and then go to school and have to look at a textbook,” he said. “They say kids won’t be able to pay attention if they try to educate them on screen. I say we have no choice. If you can’t educate them in the way they want to learn, you won’t at all.” Then he leaned in. “Really they should throw all those textbooks away. This isn’t the 1950s.”

Watching my own children learn, their school teaches them computers the same way I learned them in the 1980s—the era of the big floppy disk and of green squigglies when you had to enter code to run a program. They go to computer lab to work on the computer. It’s an occasional event once a week, like PE or art. They like it and come home talking about it before retreating to their Wii. Now, by contrast, in my work, I’m in front of a screen all day. The only friends I can think of now who are not chained to a screen are artists or outdoor sports enthusiasts or builders. They answer email slightly more slowly. In other words, my friend is right; in public education, we are educating kids badly for the work world they will face, when our kids are entertained on screen and educated in volumes.

And yet I want to maintain something of a lament for this shift. (I say this as I work on the New Media Project, preparing this for a blog on a laptop, while surfing websites that may help as links, and preparing for a sermon tomorrow that will be accompanied with visual images downloaded from the web and splashed on screen. Alexander the Great would be impressed…) One clear victim of this shift is a certain habit of paying attention: an ability to read forward rather than in all directions, to attend to a line of reasoning or story or argument, to engage that line of thinking, disagree, make connections with other works, etc. This shift in attention has been detailed in many places (see The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age & The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains). Others disagree. But my interest is more properly religious. We read biblical texts and prayer books with a habit of attention that focuses on God. This is a hard-earned practice. In every age people become distracted—monks in ancient monasteries were no different. But they fought against the sin of inattention, and with a little grace, they could win this combat. Now we are not even trying.

I want my children to be able to read scripture and other great literature that requires similar attention. They won’t learn to read this way on screen. I’m not sure public schools have any language with which to argue to maintain these practices or even fight for them after they’ve eroded. The primary motivation seems to be preparing citizens for the nation-state and workers for the knowledge economy (the latter of which, as I’ve hinted, seems to be going badly). But to prepare people to pay attention to texts that matter in their depths, to their own and others’ souls with wisdom and mercy, that’s a hard-won skill in any age. In our own, I’m not sure we’re even trying anymore.

Jason Byassee, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Senior Pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, NC and a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.

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