by Ben Cooke
As well-written as it is, James Williams’s Stand out of Our Light is very hard to pay attention to. That’s not to do with the book itself, but because every time you pick it up, a buzzing noise in your pocket tells you that you’ve got a Facebook message or that you should wish some long-lost acquaintance happy birthday.
It’s the incessant volume of these distractions that Williams thinks we should all be thinking about more. His book, winner of Cambridge University’s Nine Dots Prize, is an investigation into the personal and societal consequences of us being constantly distracted by our devices.
Williams begins his book with the epiphany that made him write it. One day, while working for Google, he realised: “There was more technology in my life than ever before, but it felt harder than ever to do the things I wanted to do. This was some new mode of deep distraction I didn’t have words for. It felt like something disintegrating, discohering.”
The feeling of being deluged by distracting notifications is such a familiar one that it’s easy to miss the irony in Williams’s distress. If technology is for anything, it’s for helping us achieve our goals. The problem is that the devices and programs that now saturate our lives – smartphones, social networks, search engines – are designed to steer us away from our goals and towards those of their designers.
Nobody wakes up and sets themselves the task of spending as much time on social media as possible, but that’s what thousands of technicians, with billions of dollars of financial backing, are trying to make us do.
Williams thinks it’s understating it to deem this assault on our attention a mere “distraction.” Distractions are trivial, tolerable – what he describes as the “surface-level static we expect from day-to-day life.” They redirect what Williams calls the spotlight of our attention, “the direction of our moment-to-moment awareness.”
But our devices might be redirecting our attention in more profound ways than that. As well as steering its spotlight, they might also be distracting us from its starlight, by which Williams means the long-term goals towards which we steer our lives to give them meaning.
Learning a language, writing a book or learning to play a musical instrument are the kinds of feats that give our lives purpose. But to technicians at Facebook, Snapchat, Apple and so on, it’s all just time we could be spending checking our messages or looking at adverts. The way to make us do that instead is to appeal to the most disengaged parts of our brains, so we don’t even notice our long-term goals slipping away.
It’s hard enough to quantify the effect of this manipulation in our own lives, but even harder to say what it’s doing to society at large. Williams posits that as well as undermining our personal goals, our devices might be disrupting public conversation about how we want society to be.
By training us to prioritise simple and eye-catching content, they could be training us to pay attention to simple and eye-catching politicians. Enter Donald Trump, “the logical product of a petty media environment defined by impulsivity and zero-sum competition for our attention,” according to Williams.
What makes Williams’s book so pertinent is the way it connects the dots between the apparently trivial distractions in our own lives, and the political tumults shaping the lives of everyone. Of course, you can’t explain the election of a president who governs via tweets just by discussing Twitter and other attention-grabbing media, but that discussion is an essential part of the broader explanation.
Although it’s disheartening to realise just how wide and deep the effects of our new attention-stealing technologies have been, there’s a silver lining to Williams’s discussion of them. If we can fix our technologies so they work for instead of us working for them, then that might help fix our politics too.
Stand Out of Our Light
Cambridge University Press
Available now from booksellers and online
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Featured Image by Riot Communications