One of the most fundamental terms anyone living in the 21st Century should be aware of is the attention economy. Coined first in the late 90s, Michael H. Goldhaber 1997 wrote almost prophetically:
“If the Web and the Net can be viewed as spaces in which we will increasingly live our lives, the economic laws we will live under have to be natural to this new space. These laws turn out to be quite different from what the old economics teaches, or what rubrics such as “the information age” suggest. What counts most is what is most scarce now, namely attention. The attention economy brings with it its own kind of wealth, its own class divisions – stars vs. fans – and its own forms of property, all of which make it incompatible with the industrial-money-market based economy it bids fair to replace. Success will come to those who best accommodate to this new reality.”
The economy of the web runs today on firms’ ability to capture and keep our attention. Hence the endless scrolling, autoplay, the likes, the suggestions, and more. This is why, though it may be shocking, it is not surprising that the average American spends 2.3 hours a day on social media. This is why we check our phones every 4.3 minutes, and why most Americans check their phones last thing before going to sleep and first thing after waking up.
This being said, it is impossible to ignore the benefits of technology and social media. Finding relevant information, connecting the people we need to connect with, sharing information with friends, and many more benefits. So how do we go about this new phase of human history? To we take it or do we leave it.
In Parshat Nasso—the longest Parsha in the Torah—we read about the Nazir, a person who decides to abandon the physical world, not cut his hair and drink wine, nor will he become impure.
The Rabbis had some very conflicting opinions about the phenomena of a Nazir. Rabbis who believed the ascetic undertaking of the Nazir was a positive thing cite the biblical reference to the Nazir as a Kadosh, someone holy (Numbers 6:4). Those who believed it was wrong cited the Torah referring to the Nazir as someone who had sinned(Ibid, 6:11). “Rabbi Elazar Hakapar says: [what is it that is written (Ibid) he shall atone for him from the soul with which he had sinned? With what sole did he sin? Rather, this is because he denied himself the pleasure of drinking wine.” So which is it? is being a Nazir a good or bad practice?
The Talmud(Nazir, 9A) shares a fascinating story, highlights a middle path on this issue.
The Talmud shares(translation):
(Rabbi) Shimon Ha-Tzaddik said: In all my days, I never ate the guilt-offering of a ritually impure nazirite except for one occasion. One time, a particular man who was a nazirite came from the south and I saw that he had beautiful eyes and was good looking, and the fringes of his hair were arranged in curls.
I said to him: My son, what did you see that made you decide to destroy this beautiful hair of yours?
He said to me: I was a shepherd for my father in my city, and I went to draw water from the spring. I looked at my reflection in the water and my evil inclination quickly overcame me and sought to expel me from the world. I said to myself: “Wicked one! Why do you pride yourself in a world that is not yours? Why are you proud of someone who will eventually be (food in the grave) for worms and maggots? (I swear by) the Temple service that I shall shave you for the sake of Heaven.”
I immediately arose and kissed him on his head. I said to him: My son, may there be more who take vows of naziriteship like you among the Jewish people. About you the verse states: “when a man or a woman shall clearly utter a vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to consecrate himself to the Lord” (Bamidbar 6:2).
When done with the right intention, when serving a specific purpose, being a Nazir is a powerful tool. If, however, it is an escape, fraught with meaninglessness and lacking purpose, then it can be seen as a sin.
A similar idea can be applied to our use of technology and social media. As long as our attention goes places with intention, we know we are in the right place. Like the Nazir, there needs to be a built-in time control, a normalization phase, and an element of spiritual elevation.
When our life is governed by that formula, of attention+intention it will equal connection. It will equal a more meaningful spiritual life.