In a piece for Vox—supported by the Public Theologies of Technology and Presence initiative at the Institute of Buddhist Studies—reporter Sigal Samuel explores how technology makes it difficult “to sustain uninterrupted attention to the things that really matter, or even to notice them in the first place.”
She discusses how social media and the addictive features of platforms like Instagram and Facebook encourage us to focus on crafting our own perceived identities instead of paying attention to those around us, “which is a precondition for moral attention, which is a precondition for empathy, which is a precondition for ethical action.”
Multiple studies have suggested that digital technology is shortening our attention spans and making us more distracted. What if it’s also making us less empathetic, less prone to ethical action? What if it’s degrading our capacity for moral attention — the capacity to notice the morally salient features of a given situation so that we can respond appropriately?
There is a lot of evidence to indicate that our devices really are having this negative effect. Tech companies continue to bake in design elements that amplify the effect — elements that make it harder for us to sustain uninterrupted attention to the things that really matter, or even to notice them in the first place. And they do this even though it’s becoming increasingly clear that this is bad not only for our individual interpersonal relationships, but also for our politics. There’s a reason why former President Barack Obama now says that the internet and social media have created “the single biggest threat to our democracy.”