The liberation of attention could be the defining political struggle of our time

Have digital and social media made us prone to focusing on the wrong things?
Stand out of our Light argues the "attention economy" is corroding our personal and political lives. (Pixabay)

Are digital technologies making politics impossible?

That's the provocative question posed last year by The Nine Dots Prize. The winning answer to that question received $100,000 in prize money and the opportunity to publish a book based on that answer.

Author and researcher James Williams (Anthony Upton)

James Williams won that prize, and now a year later, the book has just been released. It's called Stand out of our Light: Freedom and Persuasion in the Attention Economy. It's a critique of the way today's digital tools and services battle for our attention, and the impact that has on our ability to focus on the things that really matter to us.

The attention economy thrives on advertising. The more time we spend on Google or Facebook, for example, the more advertising is generated.

Williams comes to this topic from an interesting background. He's a doctoral researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University, where his research focuses on the philosophy and ethics of technology. But he also spent over 10 years working for Google. He believes the liberation of human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time.

He spoke with Spark host, Nora Young. Here is part of that conversation, lightly edited.

One of the points that you make early on in the book is that there is this deep misalignment between the goals that we have for ourselves, and the goals that our technologies have for us. What do you mean by that?

Stand Out of Our Light is the new book by James Williams. (Cambridge University Press)

I think if you look at a lot of these digital platforms that we use day-to-day and trust to guide our lives, by and large the goals they have — the success metrics — are what people call engagement metrics. So things like the amount of time we spend, or the number of clicks, or number of times we view pages or ads, this sort of thing.

The things that we want to do with our lives, the things that we'll regret not having done, the things that I think technology exists to help us do aren't really represented in the system and aren't really sort of incentives that are driving the design of most of these technologies of our attention today.

One of the things you talk about is the role of advertising in all this: how advertising is in part the goal of our digital services as well. Of course advertising has long tried to capture our attention. But what's the difference with digital?

I think there are three main things.

One is now that we carry it around in our pocket all day every day. It's sort of unbounded in a way. So it's just this continual flow of the most interesting thing the world has to show me kind of yearning for my attention, from the time we wake up to the time we go to sleep.

I think another piece is the sort of vastly improved intelligence: the way that it can target the right reward at the right person at the right time. In the past it was very hard to measure the effectiveness of advertising, of any kind of media persuasion. But now there's this whole infrastructure of measurement on the Internet, of targeting message delivery.

I think we have to be more concerned about what comes after Trump than what we have with him.James Williams

And then you add to this these new AI systems. It wasn't widely noted, but AlphaGo, the system that beat the world champion at the game Go — which was this long desired feat of AI rigor — one of the first projects it was put toward was the recommendation engine for recommended videos on YouTube. So if the algorithm that beat the world champion at Go is showing me videos that it thinks will keep me using YouTube longer, it's sort of like no contest.

And I think the third thing that's different historically speaking is the centralization of all this. The idea that one company can shape what two billion plus people are thinking and doing on a daily basis. There's really no historical analog, I think, for this type of power. We don't even really have a good word for it.

You describe how in your own use of social media it's caused a proliferation of pettiness in your life. Pettiness meaning pursuing this kind of low level goal as though it were a higher one, as you describe it. So can you tell me a bit about that? What have you noticed about yourself?

I think it's probably what a lot of people have noticed about their own usage. I found myself caring about number of likes or whatever on social media, not because it was itself important. just because it was this thing that was measured and more is better.

Can we talk a little bit about Donald Trump, who you say takes this idea of pettiness over prudence to new heights. That's a quote. So does Trump's use of Twitter have implications for the way all politics is carried out?

I think it's going to be hard to go back to sort of the pre-Trump way of doing things. This is what people didn't realize about him during the election, just the degree to which he just understood the way the media works and orchestrated it. He was just so far out ahead of everyone else and knowing how to do that.

But now people are learning from him, and taking a page of the playbook. There is this feeling among people who oppose him and everything he's about, that when he's out of office we'll just go back to the way things were before. But I don't think there is going back, as long as these media dynamics remain as they are. In a way, I think we have to be more concerned about what comes after Trump than what we have with him.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.