Pay attention to who’s asking for your attention


There’s a news story I’ve tried very hard not to pay attention to for the last three months. I haven’t clicked on links about it, I’ve stayed away from news channels covering it, I’ve done my best to tune out when friends have brought it up.

I’m not avoiding it because it isn’t interesting. On the contrary, it’s nothing if not interesting. It involves death and drugs, a grieving girlfriend turned murder suspect, an estranged father turned enraged avenger, a boys’ trip to Bangkok, an A-list actress playing investigator, crores of rupees and just as many conspiracy theories, a therapist breaching confidentiality, WhatsApp screenshots, corpse photos, briefcases with leaked documents. Twists, turns, nightly newsbreaks, each relentlessly interesting.

Most interesting of all is, of course, that I know all of this unwillingly, without once going out of my way to learn it. All it’s taken is scrolling through Twitter’s trending topics once in a while. A FaceTime with a friend who heard a juicy rumour and just had to tell someone. An update passed around the dinner table casually, like achaar. Or letting an Instagram video auto-play a second too long before scrolling past. Without wanting to, I’ve seen how fanatically the news anchors are leaping out of their seats to tell this story and how breathlessly the nation has risen up to help.

It reminds me of when I was a bratty infant refusing to finish a meal, and Ma would carry me to the window of our living room. She’d point down at a man on the street, saying he was a raakshas sent here from another world. A woman passerby would turn princess-in-disguise. Ma’s voice would rise and fall with each plot-point and while I got lost in thrall to the fantasy playing out outside, Ma would slip lauki-roti morsels into my now pliant, unthinkingly chewing mouth.

Maybe I pay attention to demands on my attention because being thus duped as a baby taught me a couple of things about attention and distraction, about distraction and vigilance. Or, much more likely, it’s because I spent most of my career working in digital media or, as it’s been referred to since Esther Dyson coined the term in the early 2010s, the attention economy — an ecosystem in which audience’s attentions are gathered for the ultimate benefit of funders and advertisers. I spent years attention-capturing and I know how precious a commodity attention is. I recognise the tricks used to capture it. They paid my bills for years.

In lockdown, we’ve all had plenty of attention to spare. Aside from the occasional mask-on walk, my life for the last six months has been contained to two locations, both in the same room: a bed, on which I sleep and scroll, and a desk three feet from the bed, at which I write and scroll. My entire universe of happenings unfolds on screens. No parties, no travel, no dates, no drinking, no commute. Just endless unoccupied attention, lying in wait to be grabbed.

This is a dangerous way for a citizenry to exist – bored and looking for things to look at. It frees us up to look in some inconvenient directions. Say, at our crashed GDP and unprecedented unemployment numbers. At a pandemic so mismanaged that India has broken global records for illness. An escalating threat of war with China, a farcical Supreme Court contempt charge, wrongfully jailed activists, police pellet-firing at citizens in Kashmir, students being made to risk illness to sit exams, a dangerously invasive health data policy – take your pick. Each of these stories is worthy of a hundred primetime debates.

And yet, twice this week, when panelists brought up the GDP on major news channels, they were shouted down by the anchors for distracting from the real issue at hand: the story I’m trying not to think about.

I’m not going to spin conspiracy theories of my own here, about who wants to distract us and from what. I’ll only tell you what I said to a family member I love deeply earlier in the week: Every single day from today till the day you die, news and content companies will draw your attention to a new story. A new event. Each of these events will be made to feel like the most important thing that’s ever happened – it will feel like everyone is thinking and talking about this thing, and so you must know and think about it too.

When you feel that pull on your attention, that hook tethering you to your screen, when the anchor’s rising and falling voice is ringing through your home, you must ask yourself a few questions. Does this story affect my life or the lives of my loved ones? Is this a story I can do anything helpful about? Is this a story being told to me for my benefit?

If the answer to these questions is no, please look away as soon as you can manage it. Your attention is precious. What you think about is who you are.

You must also ask: Are there other things going on? Things that do impact me or my community, that I’m being made to look away from? Things I can or should do something about? And if those answers are yes, you must turn your head and look. Refuse your reduction to a disobedient infant kept occupied by made-up fantasies. Look for the lauki. When you find it, show it to everyone you know.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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