Avoiding the Tyranny of the Attention Racket: A Review Article

T. David Gordon

Restless Devices: Recovering Personhood, Presence, and Place, by Felicia Wu Song.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2021, xii + 216 pages, $24.00, paper.

In my almost-twenty years of teaching an introductory college course on Media Ecology, among the most delightful aspects of the discipline is how inter-disciplinary it actually is. It is hardly recognized at all in many universities and/or exists only at the graduate level, which has allowed it to avoid and evade being pigeon-holed into either the humanities or STEM and then more so into its own (isolated) department. My most recent syllabus for the course contains a twenty-page bibliography that includes authors from fields as disparate as neuro-biology and theology, English literature and economics, sociology and history, communications studies and psychology. For polymaths, the field is an absolute delight, because the field appears to attract from all fields those who are interested in human behavior and how that behavior is cultivated differently by different media environments or ecologies. One of the “principles” media ecologists discover is that all media change is environmental or total (not additive), that we shape media and they shape us. Its corollary is that all changes in human media create winners and losers.

Felicia Wu Song, a professor of sociology at Westmont College, is well-qualified to write this book. Her professional training in sociology (University of Virginia, previous degrees at Yale and Northwestern) has not only cultivated an interest in human behavior, but it has also refined her ability to evaluate the environments or ecologies that cultivate such human behavior. Additionally, she has two decades of experience teaching on Internet and Society, which I would call “Media Ecology,” especially since her personal biography mentions her indebtedness to Marshall McLuhan, whose The Medium is the Massage she “stumbled upon” in 1995.

In addition to her academic competence, Song is widely read in several areas that pertain to this important book, including:

  • familiarity with important contemporary or recently deceased observers of American culture, such as Charles Murray, Peter Berger, James Davison Hunter, James K. A. Smith, et al.,
  • familiarity with the significant contributors to the field of Media Ecology, such as Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, Jacques Ellul, Walter Ong, Sherry Turkle, et al.,
  • familiarity with the growing literature sharply critical of the digital industry (of which many were once a part, such as Jaron Lanier, Susan Moeller, Catherine Price, David Greenfield, Matt Richtel, et al.),
  • familiarity with significant observers of the human condition, such as Aristotle, Augustine, Pascal, Henry David Thoreau, Hannah Arendt, et al.,
  • and familiarity with a broad range of writers about Christian spirituality, such as C. S. Lewis, Carl Rahner, Jürgen Habermas, James H. Cone, Richard Foster, Tish Harrison Warren, et al.

While her obviously broad range of understanding is impressive, more so perhaps is that the book is not at all “academic” in tone; many readers will not even notice how well-read Song is, and the uncluttered, neologism-free nature of her writing style made me doubt momentarily that she was/is a sociologist.

The book is divided into two parts: Part I consists of three chapters describing the present digital situation (and the commercial motivations behind it), and Part II containing a Christian assessment of the situation and how to live Christianly in the situation. Her chapter titles (with their sub-titles) are both engaging and instructive:

1. Being at Altitude: Understanding the Digital Ecology
2. The Terms of Agreement: What Digital Media Companies Have Known All Along
3. The Industrialization of You and Me: How Social Media Makes Relationships a Business

4. The Good News
5. Created for Communion, Settling for Connection: A Theological Anthropology
6. Digital Practices as (Secular) Liturgy
7. Reimagining Time and Attention: Soul Formation in a Culture of Productivity
8. Embodied and Embedded: Transforming Sites of Faithful Presence and Sacred Spaces
9. The Church as Counterliturgy: Alternative Futures of Faith Communities

Many chapters are followed by what she calls “The Freedom Project: Experiments in Praxis,” that grew out of her twenty years of teaching, and contain a page or two of thoughtful questions and or suggested experiments for her students, either to aid in understanding how addictive, narcissistic, and totalitarian the digital culture/“liturgy” is or in finding ways of replacing or augmenting digital culture with a more distinctively Christian one. I especially resonated with these, because in my eighteen consecutive years of teaching “Christ and the Media,” I assigned similar “experiments” that I labelled as such, especially things like weekend “fasts” or “sabbaticals” from any digital connections or even two-month fasts from one form of digital entertainment (streaming films, computer games, et al.) and one form of social media (SnapChat, Facebook, Instagram, et al.), with concise reflections on the experiments.

For those who have not yet read the growing critical and/or cautionary literature about the digital culture, the third chapter (“The Industrialization of You and Me”) will be the most informative and the most disturbing. What we once called “The Information Superhighway” does not buy and sell information; it buys and sells our attention and competes for it with the aid of neuro-biologists, sociologists, and other experts in human behavior. The industry does not spy on us (extracting information from nearly every touch we make) for the purpose of bribing us; it does not spy on us in order to convict us in a court of law; it spies on us in order to know what digital messages and advertisements would likely cause us to spend money, and then it sells this information to those who desire to have our money. Even when their algorithms “miss,” as it were, and we stoutly resist several links and ads, the industry has still won, because it normalizes its intrusions into our lives. Even when we decline the offer or resist clicking a link, the industry, for that moment, still has attention that otherwise might have been directed to a book, a symphony, a loved one, or anything else. Even when a friend or family member chooses not to answer the phone, its alarm has disrupted the conversation, even for the several seconds it takes to notice that the call is not emergent, and often the thread of the conversation is lost and cannot be recovered. Every decision about posting a photo to some social media platform consumes some of our time, some of our attention, and some of our intellectual energy, each of which could have been (and would have been) expended otherwise.

In one of the most remarkable examples ever of the emperor’s new clothes, many people blithely submit to such monopolizing of our attention, and yet then deny that they have done so. As Song points out, emerging adults spend (on average) one-third of each waking day (five hours) doing something with their smartphones, yet when they are polled about the matter, they routinely report that they were doing substantially less than half of that amount. Students of human addictive behavior call this “denial.” They similarly deny that they send, on average, a hundred texts daily and that they check their phones over two thousand times daily.

Some critics of the industry recommend an entire, cold-turkey break from it. Jaron Lanier, who once worked in the industry, at one point thought individuals could control their use of social media and provided advice in his 2010 book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. His tone soured more recently (2018), writing Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Tony Reinke came very close to doing the same in his 2017 volume 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You,[1] in which he said that he had not yet discarded his smartphone, but I suspect he did after the book was published. Song’s voice is distinctive, possibly unique, in this regard. She recognizes the destructive dimensions of the industry as others have, yet she expresses a little more hope that Christian wisdom, encouraging fellowship, and both formal and informal disciplines, practices, and liturgies may make it possible for individuals, families, and other groups to be more intentional about what and to whom they attend, and how.

It appears that Song’s reading not only of the pertinent literature but also reading her students’ reflections on their experiments for twenty years has provided her with a distinctive voice about how Christians think about and manage the digital industry’s environment. She is certainly not optimistic, but she is not fatalistic either; she appears to have a genuine measure of Christian hope that the Holy Spirit may very well assist some of her fellow believers in finding their narrow way in the twenty-first century (especially chapters 7–9). I have read more than a hundred books (and many articles) in the field of Media Ecology over the last few decades, and I am not sure there is a book I would recommend to Christians over this. It would be very well to read this in a group; those who are accustomed to such reading circles/fellowships would be well advised to put this volume on their menu.


[1] Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010); Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (New York: Henry Holt, 2018); Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017).

T. David Gordon is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is a retired professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, November 2022.

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Ordained Servant: November 2022

After the Election

Also in this issue

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Commentary on the Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapters 1 & 2, Part 2

The Trinity’s Biblical Foundation: A Review Article

After Humanity: A Guide to C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, by Michael Ward


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