The Insidious War for Our Attention

In June, Steven Knepper published an article in Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal called “Attention and the Screen-Sick Soul”. In it, Knepper talked about the insidious war for our attention and the ways that this modern, digital era is manipulating our focus to keep us from discovering God in the midst of our lives.

Cale spent a segment of The Cale Clarke Show discussing this article and its examples, why he agrees with this problematic issue, and what we stand to gain from fighting back.

Knepper began his article by explaining the first time “a gas pump gave [him] a sales pitch”. He was stopping at a service station in Virginia and he had just entered his zip code when he jumped because a voice coming from the pump began to address him. It was an advertisement playing on the screen that he had just used to purchase gas. The screen had transformed from a transaction method into a robotic salesman of sorts, rehearsing a commercial for Knepper. While shocking to him the first time it happened, these gas pump ads are commonplace now.

Knepper provided another example, this time from a bar in South Bend, IN. In the bathroom, above the urinal, there was a screen displaying vacation rental ads and drink specials. He said he never thought he would feel nostalgic for the vandalism and scribbles that normally adorned the bathroom walls of similar establishments.

“A friend told me such urinal screens are now common in large airports,” wrote Knepper. “These real-world expansions of the attention economy are, of course, mere raids alongside the digital campaigns. The Internet has become a data harvester in service of the attention economy.”

Knepper refers to the term “attention economy” many times throughout his article. What he means by that is the intangible market for the focus of the populace. Human beings only have the ability to pay attention to so many things for so long in a given day. The idea behind corporations vying for as much of it as they can get is to maintain a majority share of the attention economy, whether that be through ads, products, entertainment, screens, or all of the above.

If you simply take a moment to step back and analyze your everyday experience, you will see that you are a victim of this attention economy on a regular, if not daily, basis. Companies try to sell you things even as you’re purchasing something else. Netflix and other streaming services will auto-play the next episode of your show before you can even hit the exit button. TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram have mastered the art of short-form, addictive content that can keep us swiping, tapping, and scrolling for hours. Don’t read a book, don’t read a newspaper, don’t even read an article. Just read the title and base your reaction on that.

Often, these assaults on our attention can leave us disconnected and lonely. We may be in touch with what’s on our screens, but we feel out of touch with the people around us. And it doesn’t just affect our social circles, but our spiritual life.

William Desmond, a philosopher who has written about ethics, metaphysics, and religion, said that human beings are complexly porous creatures, capable of absorbing vast amounts of information as well as dispensing it. But our “pores” can become clogged by monotony and misplaced attention.

“Perhaps I am rushing out of the office at the end of a busy day of work, still thinking over an unfinished to-do list and late for my child’s afterschool pickup. My cell phone emits a series of dings to notify me of new messages. I walk by a co-worker with whom I am friendly but not particularly close. The co-worker’s face is creased with worry, haloed with pain. Without some degree of receptivity wider than my preoccupations, I will not notice this at all.”

Iris Murdoch, a renowned novelist and philosopher, posited that virtue is our reward for a sort of “morally disciplined attention”, particularly in regard to others and their needs. Do something good for others. Get out of yourself. Of course, we don’t want to venture into the realm of intrusiveness or nosey behavior. So, often, our attention for others may be likened more to listening than talking. But in order to give ourselves a shot at this “morally disciplined attention”, or disponibilité as Gabriel Marcel called it, we need to remove ourselves from the attention economy; take ourselves off the market, as it were.

“In the mid-twentieth century, Josef Pieper already worried that ‘the average person of our time loses the ability to see because there is too much to see!’”

Tune in to The Cale Clarke Show weekdays at 5pm CT

John Hanretty serves as a Digital Media Producer for Relevant Radio®. He is a graduate of the Gupta College of Business at the University of Dallas. Besides being passionate about writing, his hobbies include drawing and digital design. You can read more of his daily articles at and on the Relevant Radio® app.