100 days into the Ukraine war, Nathan Mladin shares his thoughts and experience of attention burnout. 06/06/2022
A hundred days on, I notice I’m growing indifferent to the war in Ukraine.
But perhaps that’s the wrong way to put it, because when I consciously make it the object of my undivided attention, I am anything but indifferent. I have family and a church community in Romania who remain heavily involved in responding to the Ukrainian refugee crisis. I have a stake in what is going on.
The trouble lies with the conditions that make sustaining attention over an extended period of time difficult, especially in a context of information superabundance. The complex workings of digital media are bumping up against the limits of our human capacities.
The quantity of news stories and commentary on Ukraine seems to have diminished. Reporting and commentary continue, but they are now often relegated to less prominent pages until, of course, the conflict takes another dramatic turn. Then it jumps back to the centre. But the conclusion to draw is not that indifference results simply from diminished exposure to news about the war. Exposure alone is never the whole story. There is more going on, and Ukraine is just the illustration of a deeper problem.
There’s our basic human inability to sustain attention to the story over the long haul; and not just attention, of course, but also the intense, often negative emotions that come with it. As we scroll endlessly though multiple news and social media feeds, we act as if we have an unlimited bandwidth. But we just don’t have endless capacity to attend to and engage with everything out there.
Deeper still, indifference and numbness to news about Ukraine, and in fact to any other significant happening in the world, is what happens sooner or later when we expose ourselves to the conditioning power of digital media. My indifference is to a large extent the predictable result of coming into contact with a system optimised for continually churning out stories for consumption. This is a common side effect of information overload. This is not a bug of the system – it’s a feature. Consumerism, of things or of information, breeds fatigue which breeds more consumerism. We’re steadily conditioned to want something new. We go along. It’s a question of formation, as moral philosophers would put it. And any newness of the nitty gritty, day to day twists and turns of the war in Ukraine, now into its fourth month, just won’t do. A recent poll suggested, for example, that there were many more Americans interested in the Depp–Heard legal drama than the war in Ukraine.
I also remember a few weeks ago seeing a tweet from The Kyiv Independent, an English–language news outlet in Ukraine with over 2 million followers on Twitter. It was reporting on Russia’s threat of nuclear retaliation for NATO countries supporting Ukraine. Had I come across the tweet in the first few days of the war, I would have rushed to find alternative sources that corroborate the information. I would have felt fear and an acute sense that history, my life included, might come to an abrupt end. Instead, a hundred days later, I scroll past, after a brief glance and only a vague sense of guilt. Were I to continue like this, the nuclear apocalypse would catch me unawares. Surely, I am not alone in this predicament.
What, then, is the way out? Is it to unplug ourselves from the relentlessness of the ‘news cycle’? Perhaps. Forget about it all and go off grid? Harder to do. As weak as it sounds, a good place to start is to simply become aware of what’s going on. Awareness of our disengagement and numbness, to which we are both victims and accomplices, can go a long way.
In becoming aware, individually and collectively, we carve out a space of reflection; a space where we might then commit afresh to the important work of mending our broken ways with information, including ‘news about Ukraine’. Part of this will involve coming to terms with our limits as finite creatures. It will also mean, crucially, revaluing our attention. Seeing it not simply as an endless resource to be used or abused, but as our ability to engage the world, “to stretch ourselves towards it, to reach for it, to care for it, indeed, to tend it”1.
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