Slow living and the release of attention
We live in confusing and contradictory times. We are simultaneously caught between the apparent “normality” with which most companies still operate, the collapse of the system with multiple interconnected crises, and the rapid transformation that will (hopefully) lead us to the desired future.
And in the meantime, life is passing us by. A life that, as Neil Levy says in “Neuroethics“, we hope will represent our core values and have a narrative meaning: a life that we can tell ourselves and others as a story that explains where we came from, how we got here, and where we are going. A life with meaning and purpose.
But what’s going on out there constantly distracts us from our purpose. Every morning I sit in front of my computer to work on my projects but the temptation to look at what is on my mobile phone is simply too tempting. We have to make a superhuman effort to digest what is relevant, to handle the real knowledge properly, and to make time so as not to be overwhelmed by the latest novelty. Just this month we have been introduced to ChatGPT, a free and open AI that replies with natural language to whatever you ask her. There has been an explosion of blogs and posts about its use and already we are being warned about its dangers. It is impossible not to give in to a beautiful video about the generative movement or to immerse oneself in reading a post about the concept of “dépense” in degrowth. Or in front of a fantastic post on critical thinking or retweeting a post about the nefarious news that ExxonMobil had accurate data on what was going to happen to the planet despite having denied it for decades. It’s impossible not to be sucked into trend studies from your favourite consultancies or articles that talk about our resilience to change or what we can learn from nature. Not to mention what’s happening on Instagram and tik tok, the real cocaine for our addictions.
In all this turmoil, we miss the pauses, the tempo of our own physiology, which moves on an imperfect compass and has serious difficulties in doing more than one thing at a time. We need anchor points, to discern the wheat from the chaff, and quiet time to reflect and absorb. We cannot simply leave the old behind and embrace the avalanche of the new, without a net.
Despite the allure of the latest post on our infinite scroll and the podcasts we listen to on any occasion, books provide us with that time of yesteryear, the time of the circular, of the four seasons, of the earth, and of pregnancies that are still 9 months long.
We no longer read in the same way. We need constant dopamine shots. We pause to log on to our favourite network, and this always keeps us overly entertained and diverts our focus, often for hours at a time.
And all this is much more serious than it might seem at first glance.
Liberating human attention could be the decisive ethical and political struggle of our time.
This is the main message of James Williams’ book “Stand out of our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy”. Without attention, we can do nothing worthwhile. Big tech has stolen it from us with treachery and malice aforethought, “resorting to the meanest wiles, to our basest impulses, to that lower self that our nature has always tried to fight and overcome. With the sole intention of keeping us clicking, typing, or swiping and showing us as many pages or ads as possible.
As Jeff Hammerbacher, former Facebook research director, said, “The best minds of our generation are thinking about how to get people to click on their ads; it is very sad” James makes us see that neither nature nor habit has prepared us to recognize this new system of persuasive forces that today weighs so deeply on our attention, our behavior and our lives.
The attention is always paid non-refundable. It is paid in possible futures that one must give up: conversations with people you love that will never take place, hours of sleep that we will never recover, and snippets of life that we have lost forever.
The attention economy is the child of the unsustainable excesses of capitalism and its competitive logic. You have to be able to capture and exploit the attention of the consumer at any price. Extract millions of data with the sole objective of obtaining profit. And for this alone, companies invest billions, which they could use to solve the great challenges of this world.
This gigantic structure of persuasion weakens the faculties that allow the individual to define his objectives or to persevere in them. Faculties such as reflection, memory, prediction, calm, logic, and goal setting. They have managed to fill all the gaps and wait with addictive apps and notifications. The average user consults their mobile 150 times a day and touches it more than 2,600 times.
One of the most terrible consequences is that outrage and hatred go viral on a daily basis. This gives rise to chain reactions that cause ochlocracy, the rule of the mob, and the law of the street with consequences as dramatic as those that have been experienced in Brazil a few days ago. The attention economy amplifies the worst of being human.
It is clear that their objectives and ours do not match. No one gets up saying “today I want to spend 3 hours on social networks” but they have managed to make people love the oppression they are subjected to and adore the technologies that make them unable to think.
Today it is more difficult for us to be who we want to be, we feel that our self is fragmenting and disintegrating. When you finally notice that the habits you have been acquiring differ from your values, deep down you feel something that resembles a questioning or even a loss of identity.
The power to shape our attentional habits (and therefore our lives) is in very few hands. It’s a large-scale will manipulation project. It undermines the foundations on which democracy rests. And we can expect that in the future the technologies of the digital attention economy will know us even more intimately in order to persuade us more effectively.
The philosopher Charles Taylor points out that the danger is that of citizenship unable to set a common goal and carry it out just when we most need it. Forgetting the history of our shared identity can have dire consequences.
And yet, James Williams points out, this does not have to be so. Algorithms can and should be designed to bring out the best in people. It is in our hands and we must do it as soon as possible.
They should aspire to promote kindness, friendship, mutual understanding, and shared humanity. Foster a patient and tolerant willingness to see and look for the good instead of obsessively dwelling on the bad.
Today we face great challenges in all areas of life: on a planetary, social, organizational, and individual scale. We cannot afford to be distracted. It is important to pay attention to what deserves it and this should be the goal of information technology.
As James Williams tells us, we can’t blame anyone. Not a single person in the entire industry of the digital attention economy intends to turn off the lights of our attention, disrupt our lives, create a more divided and angry society, or undermine the foundations of democracy. But the system, in order to perpetuate itself, has been forced to go straight to the end. And no one is warning us that we live surrounded by a global infrastructure of intelligent persuasion.
A discussion on the compatibility of technological design and the goals and values of the human being is missing. People should not be asked to fight against the armies of industrialized persuasion. Alfred North Whitehead said that some of humanity’s worst disasters are due to the narrow-mindedness of people with good technology.
We have, on the one hand, an entire industry that spends millions trying to get your attention with the help of the most powerful computers in the world, and on the other…your attention. You have to promote people’s ability to refuse to have their attention harvested, says James Williams. Give you the power to decide if you want to pay for online content with your money or with your attention. Investors should discourage this type of business model. Users must have a voice during the design process.
We have to stop thinking we are powerless, reject novelty for novelty, and change for change’s sake. Lethargy, fatalism, and belligerent speeches must be resisted. Good has to prevail.