There have always been people scheming to capture other people’s attention, for profit or for power. A charlatan hawking a false cure in front of a wide-eyed crowd is a plausibly ancient image. So yes, attention has long been a commodity, subject to theft like anything else of value. But not until the advent of social media has our attention been hijacked, dominated, extracted, and exploited so totally. Is there any good in this development? Anything to learn from it?

If you’ve had that quintessentially modern experience in which your eyes are glued to a screen, first for minutes, then hours, then hours again the next day, and the next, as you scroll, click, like, hate, love, scroll, click, follow, laugh, like, vomit, share, comment, scroll, follow… and if anything ever seemed slightly unnatural about your addiction to this clicking, liking, scrolling… if you’ve ever sensed the presence of an Algorithm, working like a drug pusher, calculating what should be shown to you, and in what quantity, so that you would keep clicking the most, liking the most, hating the most, commenting the most, sharing the most, USING the most, just like a good and profitable addict, then this experience may hold a lesson.

Any social media algorithm will try to maximize a user’s engagement by exploiting their instincts. We like things that are current, trending, and buzzworthy, so the Algorithm will flash those things before our eyes. We’re suckers for social intrigue – anything that makes us feel envious or full of schadenfreude – any story in which someone’s status is dramatically raised or cut down, so the Algorithm will tempt us with those stories. We’re interested in our friends, and we’re also excessively interested in our enemies, so it will show us the most mundane things they’re doing and saying. We like to revisit significant memories, so it will remind us of our past vacations and reunions and anniversaries from time to time. We like to be aroused, so it will try to discover what kind of material turns us on, and show us hints of that. We’ll pour our energy into anything that heightens our most anxious suspicions or confirms our deepest fears, so it’ll do whatever’s necessary to bring that material in front of us and keep it there. I may be leaving a few things out. The Algorithm knows us better than I.

But if we know the Algorithm, then we know something about ourselves too.

If you sit down in a quiet room, away from all devices and connectivity, and if you try to do nothing, clearing your thoughts and concentrating only on your breathing, then you might come to witness your own inner Algorithm. One “part” of you is ready to be calm while another “part” of you is generating all sorts of mental content – thoughts, daydreams, ideas, questions, memories – as if in the hopes of capturing your own attention, maximizing your own engagement, just like a well-built social media algorithm would do.

You’re trying to meditate and all of a sudden, an image enters your mind. How did it get there and why was it “chosen” among all the things that could have entered your mind? Perhaps it’s a thought that makes you anxious, a thought that seems to confirm a deep-seated fear? A few moments later, another thought comes to mind, and it’s about something current, something fresh, something that just happened earlier today. Next, you’re replaying a pleasant memory of your honeymoon, but this leads randomly into a feeling of envy about a guest at your wedding who later won the lottery and bought a big house. And before you know it, there’s some X-rated content appearing and perhaps you tune it out, or perhaps you don’t succeed. 

When we set out to “clear” our minds, we often find ourselves in a struggle with intrusive or unwanted thoughts – but why is this a struggle at all? It’s a struggle because the thoughts that arise at such inopportune times are often not the boring ones, not the colorless ones, not the lifeless, droning, soporific ones. Quite the contrary, these thoughts are the vivid ones, the tempting ones, as if our own minds had specifically chosen them for the purpose of titillating and distracting us, as if our own minds had learned the same things about us that a social media Algorithm knows, as if our own minds were behaving like such an Algorithm, choosing content that’s buzzworthy, socially intriguing, arousing, enraging – whatever’s most engaging.

We know that the Algorithm doesn’t have our best interests in mind and in fact the Algorithm would let us sicken and wither as long as we stayed glued to its endless phantasmagoria of lures and enticements. 

Sadly, our own minds don’t necessarily have our best interests “in mind” either – in the sense that our own minds don’t always present us with the content that is the most useful or nourishing or beneficial to our long-term interests; rather, our own minds share the Algorithm’s interest in capturing our attention NOW, drumming up engagement NOW, whatever it takes to avoid silence and stillness, even if the price of that avoidance is anxiety and desperation.

But to draw this connection between mind and Algorithm – a connection we can only draw because we’ve had this quintessentially modern experience of being captured by an Algorithm and knowing how that manipulation feels – this gives us a kind of power to observe, understand, and perhaps to choose an alternate route when we feel so very persuaded by what we’re being shown – shown on a pixelated, digital screen, a screen external to the self, or shown on the inner one, the screen of our imagination. ■

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