Distortion of the news, the power of advertising, and the control of minds are not new concerns. What is new is how: electronics has made these influences ubiquitous; the media are controlled by fewer and fewer people; and computing has refined how to get around “our better selves” and insidiously capture our attention. The news that is most effective to do this is emotional and appeals to our baser instincts. It stimulates polarization. It views issues as unresolvable extremes and makes us angry and adamant, or anxious and depressed, not hopeful and energized. It is good for the electronic media whose primary goal is to attract our attention and capture markets. It does not enrich our lives and make them more meaningful. It distracts us from acting on our values and even distracts us from thinking about what our values are. Time and attention are limited resources. Electronics have the ability to be an efficient resource for information, but they can also be used to direct our thoughts without being aware that we are being manipulated.
James Williams has a background which is well-suited to this discussion. He worked for Google committed to their mission “to organize the world’s information and make it accessible and useful.” He left Google when he “came to understand that the cause in which I’d been conscripted wasn’t the organization of information at all, but of attention.” Realizing “that there’s a deep misalignment in the goals we have for ourselves and the goals our technologies have for us”, he left Google to attend Oxford University to study philosophy. The title of the book is from a story about a philosopher, Diogenes, who refused an offer by Alexander the Great to give to him anything that he wanted. His response was to “get out of my light” i.e., don’t distract my attention from what is important in life.
As information has become abundant, the resource which has become scarce is attention. Our attention, like our memory, is an important part of who we are. It is being usurped. Technology and its messages shape our environment which shapes our thoughts and behavior. Persuasion has become industrialized with the assistance of digital technologies.
In addition to heightening our awareness, James Williams outlines what may be done to address this problem. This goes beyond increasing our willpower. Research has made it clear that willpower, like attention, is a limited resource. If you have exhausted your willpower at work or dealing with your children, you are less likely to stick to your goals, especially when your willpower has to compete with an entire industry designed to capture our attention. We need time and quiet to think and to put things in perspective, not just react to the next piece of data. And to have perspective and to figure life out at any age, people need the freedom to be exposed to different ideas, other people, develop an appreciation of the value of the humanities, and to spend time in nature.