Our Screwed-Up Sense of Presence
All the information we consume is packaged as entertainment, and our awareness suffers for it.
Garrett Kincaid — November 27, 2022
Nearly 40 years ago, Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. He wrote it responding to the rise of television, delivering a harrowing warning about mixing entertainment with education. The crux of Postman’s argument is that everything on television is entertainment — even the news. And the success of television caused all forms of media to adopt the entertainment model (lest they become obsolete).
Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death when a household TV weighed 40 pounds, yet his analysis is more relevant than ever because we have failed to heed his warning.
If the subtitle were “Public Discourse in the Age of Social Media,” Postman’s argument would still hold. Today, all the information we consume is packaged as entertainment, and our awareness suffers for it.
We are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge? – Postman
We live in an economy where attention is the scarce resource of value. To be successful, you must capture and keep attention. And, in the attention economy, it’s much more effective to entertain than to educate. The best method is to do both: make people feel informed and knowledgeable while entertaining them — think late-night editorial comedy, Duolingo’s language games, and Netflix’s serial-killer documentaries. (Check out this video by Will Schoder for a thoughtful discussion on the attention economy.)
We mistake ignorance for knowledge because we value being “in the know.” We consume information without discretion and let what we’ve been told shape our opinions. It’s like being a spoon-fed food critic, or one of social media’s many armchair pundits and influencer-advocates.
More than causing us to confuse ignorance and knowledge, social media lulls into a screwed-up form of presence. We focus on the contents of our screens, diluting the contents of our lives. Just as we mistake ignorance for knowledge, we mistake absence for presence.
We spread ourselves thinly across the surface of everything at the cost of diving deeper into anything. But true presence is not everywhere but here. It does not come from without but from within. It is not shallow but deep.
Presence doesn’t mean connecting with everything but with one thing: Now.
There are two modes of the present. There is the ineffable, omnipresent Now. And there is the benign, fleeting “Now…This.” The latter is Postman’s term for our weak, modern attention. It describes the way entertainment corrals our thoughts and governs our emotions.
There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly — for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening — that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, ‘Now…this.’ — Postman
The Now…This mode, Postman would say, is the effect of information-as-entertainment. We consume information without challenging, analyzing, or integrating it into our lives. In the Now…This mode, we forget to ask questions like:
- Why do I care?
- How does this affect my life?
- What am I learning? How can this help me grow?
We forget to ask because we’re too busy amusing ourselves.
Since Postman’s time, the Now…This mode has only become more pervasive. In the age of social media, we’re fed a series of unrelated sound bites and headlines. And we find comfort in knowing that, if we aren’t entertained, we can swipe to conjure completely new content. Today, we change the channel with every flick of our thumb.
Touch, flick; Touch, flick
Now is an end in itself — a moment. Now…This is a means to an end: the next moment.
Distractible and Comfortable
It’s distraction we practice, not presence.
Meditation is the age-old method for connecting with now — for finding presence. It is the practice of returning to awareness from the stream of consciousness. Scrolling on social media is the opposite practice. It is the practice of returning to distraction via the stream of content. We retreat from moments of uncomfortable awareness to our cozy, digital distractions.
- Thought: I’m not happy at my job. Distraction: Scrolling TikTok to pass the work day
- Thought: There’s so much I have to do, and there’s no way I’ll get it done on time. Distraction: Refreshing your YouTube feed
- Thought: I hate Mondays. Distraction: Checking what your friends posted on Instagram over the weekend
So, yes, we may have it backwards. But we can still turn things around.
The late Thich Nhat Hanh — a Vietnamese, Buddhist monk — is known as the father of mindfulness. I have often used one of his gathas in meditation, which is a series of mantras that accompany your breathing. A close friend of mine taught me the following gatha, and it has helped me find moments of presence. (To practice, silently say a line to yourself — one for each side of the breath.)
I know I am breathing in.
I know I am breathing out.
I calm my body and mind.
I dwell in the present moment.
I know this is a precious moment.
With these simple affirmations, you can declare your awareness. You can sink into Now instead of skimming its surface, waiting for the newscaster to say “Now…this.”
If there were a gatha for the Now…This mode, it would be something like this:
I know I’m scrolling on my phone.
I don’t know why I scroll on my phone.
Someone double-taps and follows.
I long for the next moment.
I’ve lost the present moment.
To avoid facing ourselves, we indulge in distraction and deny ourselves genuine presence.
We scroll because it’s easy, comfortable, accessible. But is it fulfilling? Meaningful? Inspiring? Does scrolling make you grateful for life? If not, then it’s the furthest thing from presence.
In the Now…This mode, we’re distracted from the true contents of life. But we can still connect with Now if we make the effort. Instead of asking, “What can I do between now and later?” let’s ask, “How can I dwell in the present moment?”
- Amusing Ourselves to Death – Neil Postman
- “The Attention Economy – How they Addict Us” – Will Schoder
How do you practice presence? What helps you reconnect with yourself? Let me know your thoughts and thank you for reading!