I had never heard of Bo Burnham until I came across a clip of a recent conference at which he spoke about the impact of social media on culture. Burnham is a 32-year-old comedian and musician who received critical acclaim for a comedy special he produced during the COVID-19 lockdowns called Inside. Originally from Massachusetts, Burnham was raised Catholic and even participated in his high school campus ministry program. But now he professes no religion. Through his comedy he offers biting commentary on the depressing superficiality of contemporary life and its inability to offer meaning to people. His words at the conference, which build on these themes, caught my attention. He begins by decrying the market mechanics of social media, which drive companies to “colonize human attention.” He likens them to colonial powers of old. But instead of land, “they are trying to colonize every moment of your life. Every single free moment that you have is a moment that you could be looking at your phone and they can be gathering information to target ads at you. That’s what’s happening…. It’s coming for every free second you have.” He describes this experience as empty and unfulfilling, afflicting its users with anxiety and sadness. Filled with exasperation, he concludes by noting that virtually everyone who uses social media is aware of what’s going on. They try to protect themselves using ironic detachment, “because the truth is completely dead to them and they know it.”
It’s a bleak diagnosis of our current moment. When I was listening to Burnham’s description of the tech industry’s “colonization of attention,” it made me think of the film The Matrix in which human beings are enslaved by intelligent machines that use virtual reality to distract them from their true predicament while harvesting human bio-energy to power itself. In the film, the relationships that people experience in virtual reality (ie: “the matrix”) are artificial, a computer-simulated feeling of belonging and relating, while the machines maintain each power-generating human organism in actual, perfect isolation.
The Matrix is a horrifying dystopia, and the idea that our society might be becoming Matrix-esque, á la Bo Burnham, is disturbing. Why are we so susceptible to the colonization of human attention and time? For one thing, social media platforms are designed to be very addictive, as documentaries like The Social Dilemma demonstrate. But it might also be due to our loss of the sense that time is a gift, and that the life we live in time is a gift. If, let’s say, our life in time is not a gift but just a cosmic accident, then we are left to simply fill it up with whatever helps us endure its relentless passage, whether it be trying to “make the world a better place” or mindlessly scrolling through an endless Instagram feed. But if time, like all Creation, is a gift, then it is the mysterious moment of encounter with the transcendent God who created it and redeemed it so we might live in relationship with Him and His creatures in time – and beyond. Time and life are not things to be colonized but gifts to be shared. As disciples of Christ, we pray for a reawakening in our age to this truth, that it might dispel the profound sadness and sense of futility that plagues the souls of so many young people who want more to life than to be colonized.