James Williams’ talk, Are Digital Technologies Making Politics Impossible?, is a must-listen. Riffing on the story of Diogenes and Alexander (with an interpretive lens drawn from Peter Sloterdijk) and Herbert Simon’s definition of an attention economy, Williams posits that there is a massive discrepancy between the design of digital technology and what we, the users, genuinely want for our lives.
What does technology want? It wants more clicks, more time on site, higher conversation rates, etc. It wants your attention — as much of it as it can take. And it wants to hold your attention for as long as it can. Your attention is the prize that Facebook wants to win. And keep.
What do we want? Well, presumably our dearest hopes and dreams for our lives go far beyond spending another 20 minutes on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, etc. When you ask most of us what we want, we talk about more time with family, causes we care about, books we want to read (or write), traveling, adventures, experiences, personal achievements, and so on. We don’t tend to define another 20 minutes on social media as a step towards our ideal lives. But we check our phones again, anyway. Hence is the disconnect: technology is designed to hook us into behaviours and activities we don’t want. Williams suggests that it is time to consider the very real possibility that the “industrial-scale persuasion” complex baiting you into your newsfeed might not actually have your personal, human hopes and ambitions in mind.
What if every minute with your newsfeed takes a minute away from what you really want?
Williams says we need to think beyond the daily bait and switch that leads us to ‘accidentally’ getting sucked into Facebook for another 20 minutes. What is ultimately at stake here? Digital media distracts from our personal goals and pursuits in life. 20 minutes at a time, this industrial persuasion apparatus steals attention away from us — attention that might otherwise be invested in activities we feel truly matter. Ergo, the real crisis here is not that we just lost 20 minutes to some mindless activity: the issue that technology is intentionally usurping us from our own lives with “epistemological distractions” that divert us from the goals and activities that we sincerely do care deeply for.
So, should we blame the end user? Williams, a former Google employee himself, disagrees. Every day, millions of dollars and the brightest minds in the world are invested figuring out more effective ways to circumvent our will-power. Surely the answer to this dilemma is not, “Just have more will-power!” These infinitely scrolling newsfeeds are designed to drug us into submission — like “informational slot machines” whose sole purpose is sticking more ads in front of us along the way. Another 20 minutes. We are not only distracted from what we want in life by the promise of another dopamine hit, but we are also distracted from recognizing the opportunity cost of the addiction itself.
As far as Williams is concerned, we need to see “technology design as the ground of first political struggle” moving ahead. The present ‘solutions’ offered by digital technology are not working for us, but corporate interests have successfully usurped our imaginations when it comes to what can happen in 20 minutes of conscience existence on the planet.
Williams, therefore, declares that it is time for collective action to “assert and defend our freedom of attention.”
In an attention economy, your freedom of attention is your freedom. If you do not have the freedom to focus your mind on the things you truly care about, do you really have any freedom at all?
(Interested in getting together with some real live human beings — in an actual room — to critically analyze the prevalence, ubiquity, and power of social media in our lives? Come to Should We Quit Social Media? on Monday, October 16, 2017, 7pm at Central Library, to join the conversation.)