Modern media is a DoS attack on your free will.

How the economy of attention overthrows our decision-making ability and democracy


It’s not that James Williams, a PhD in the Oxford Internet Institute’s Digital Ethics Lab, suddenly thought, “Lord, what have I done?” While working at Google. But still it seemed to him that something in life had gone wrong.

Williams went to work at Google’s Seattle office in 2006, the year it opened, and after several years earned the company's highest award, the Founder's Award, for developing ad products and tools. And then, in 2012, he realized that these tools actually made his life worse. Modern technology platforms, as he explained to me, “once again impose pre-Internet concepts on advertising, according to which the main thing is to take as much of their time and attention from people as possible.”

By 2011, he, following his inclinations in politics, philosophy and literature (he is a fan of "1984" George Orwell and "Brave, new world" by Aldous Huxley), went to Oxford, while working in the London office of Google. In 2014, he co-founded Time Well Spent, “a movement to stop technology platforms from attacking our mind,” according to its website. Cooperating with Moment, an application that tracks how long you use other applications, Time Well Spent asked 200,000 people to evaluate the applications they use more than others — after they see how much screen time they consume. It turned out that on average, the more time a person spends behind the application, the less it suits him. “The distractions were not just something annoying. Something more serious was happening, he told me. “That's why I came here to write my dissertation on this issue.”

Williams recently came to the attention of the media with his essay: “Exit our ray of light: freedom and economic attention,” winning the Nine Dots Prize of $ 100,000 and allowing him to sign a book with Cambridge University Press.

We contacted Williams to discuss the subversive capabilities of the modern economy of attention.

How do the internet and social networks threaten democracy?

Democracy involves a set of abilities: the ability to think, to understand different ideas, a reasonable discussion. This justifies the authority of the government, the will of the people. So one of the ways to discuss the impact of these technologies is to compare them with denial-of-service (DoS) attacks on human will. Our phones are the operating system of our lives. They hold us, forcing to look and click. And this wears out some abilities, such as free will, forcing us to make more decisions. The study found that persistent distractions reduce a person's effective IQ by up to 10 points. Due to the long-term use of marijuana, your IQ drops twice as much. There are epistemological problems. In particular, not real news, but for the most part it is that people have a completely different sense of reality, even, perhaps, in the same community, and on the same street. In such conditions it is very difficult to reach the common sense necessary for the effective work of a democracy.

How have these technologies changed the media?

What happens is that we are experiencing a very rapid tectonic shift, a shift in information and attention. Most of the systems of our society - news, advertising, legal systems - imply that there is a lack of information in our environment. The first amendment protects freedom of speech, but does not necessarily protect freedom of attention. At the time of her writing, nothing bothered the attention of people. In an atmosphere of lack of information, the role of newspapers was in delivering information - and your problem was its absence. Now it's the other way around - we have too much of it.

How does this change the role of newspapers?

Now the role of newspapers is to filter out, help you direct your attention to important things. But if a business model is similar to advertising, and a good article is an article that collects the most clicks, then you come to such things as click bait, because these metrics coincide with the business model. When information becomes a lot, there is a lack of attention. Advertising brought everyone, even the richest organizations with noble goals, to the level of creating baits for clicks. Every week on the Internet there are cascades of outrageous cases. Perturbation is felt by us as a reward, because it satisfies a multitude of our psychological needs. It can be used for development, but it is often used to force us to click, scroll through pages and write. One of the first books on web page usability was called "Don't make me think." This is the idea of ​​turning to our impulsive sides, to our automatic part, and not to the rational and thinking one.

Tristan Harris, with whom you co-founded Time Well Spent, said technology changes the minds of two billion people more than religion or government. Do you agree with this?

I will agree. I don’t know government or religious mechanisms that are comparable with smartphones and social networks, in the sense that people pay them a lot of attention, so often and so long. It seems to me that they interfere in life at a lower level, closer to the attention of a person than the government or religion. I think they are closer to some kind of chemical, to a drug, than to some kind of social system. Snapchat has such a thing, called Snapstreak, where they say, for example: "This is how many days you have taken photos with such a person." You can brag to your friends how far you have come. Such methods and irrational patterns of influence of the heap - social comparison is a serious thing. One friend wrote the book “On the hook” [Hooked], his name is Nir Eyal, in which he teaches designers to lure people into the system.

In your essay, you claim that these technologies, turning to our impulsive "I", break down the three kinds of attention that are necessary for democracy.

This is more a heuristic rule than scientific evidence. First, what cognitives call in their perception the “ray of attention”, or the “spotlight”. This is what stands out in my environment, how I choose it and interact with it. Secondly, the "starlight". If the spotlight is about how I do something, then the starlight is who I want to be, not just what I want to do. These are goals that are important in their own right, and not to achieve something else. And the way in which we continue to move towards these goals, and how we see the connection between the tasks we are performing today and the more long-term goals. Third, "daylight." As the philosopher Harry Frankfurt says, this desire for what you want to want is the domain of metaconsciousness. Simply put, if a searchlight and starlight are associated with the achievement of a certain goal, value, result, then daylight is an opportunity that allows us to distinguish and recognize these very goals and results.

It is easy to understand how stubborn technology can distract the “spotlight” of our attention. But what about the two remaining?

One of the ways, in general, is the ability to create habits for us. If something distracts you every day in the same way, it will add up to distant weeks and months. Due to repetition, or something else, it can make us forget about those stars under which we want to live, or not think about them too much. We begin to switch to lower goals, because they have their own value - the phenomenon of pettiness arises. Something like if my favorite team wins, it doesn't matter if the political situation worsens.

How do these technologies affect policy?

As we can see, at least in Western-style democracies, there is a major shift in populism. All these societies are alike in their mainstream media. This suggests that this is what strengthens their influence. This is not a new dynamic, but it has an unrealistic ability to pump, which was not there before. I can not imagine such a thing in the world of telegraph or newspapers, or even television.

But didn’t the print media criticize radio in the 1930s for fueling anti-democratic tendencies?

Radio played a huge role in the coming of Hitler to power. Therefore, he placed the radio to each house. This is an interesting comparison. Marshal McLugan, a Canadian media theorist, wrote about this: when a new technology emerges, to which we still don’t know how to relate, there is an initial period when our senses, our perception goes through acclimatization, a certain hypnotic moment. He argues that the hypnotic moment of Hitler's oratorical style was reinforced by the hypnotic moment of a new type of media, which led to an information overload in people's lives.

But don't we get used to new media technologies over time?

If you remember how long we got used to the dynamics of the radio, telephone, etc., it was about one or two generations. Since the era of electric media, the time required for distribution to 150 million people has decreased. It took about 60-70 years for radio, 30-40 for television. Today, in order for technology to reach 150 million people, it may take only a few days. I think that we simply do not have time to come to this state of stability and domination of technology. We are always on the learning curve with little competence. We can use it well enough, but not so well to fully master it, before a new one appears.

Are we to blame for being so easily distracted? Maybe we just need more self-discipline.

Such statements, behind the scenes, imply that there is nothing wrong with technology resisting us. But the whole purpose of technology is to help us better do what we want. Why else do we need them? I think that these industries have taken this path in particular because when we adopt a new technology, we don’t ask: “Why is it needed?” If we asked what a smartphone is for, it would be a very funny question . For all that he is capable of now!

Does personal responsibility matter?

I do not think that personal responsibility is important. I think that it is not suitable as a solution to this problem. Even people who write about these issues every day, even I - and I worked at Google for 10 years - have to remember the huge amount of resources that are spent to make us look at one thing after another, click on one link after another. The cleverest people, thousands of doctors of sciences, designers, statistics, engineers work in this industry. They go to work every day to make us do the only thing to undermine our will. It is unrealistic to demand that we increase our willpower. That is what they are undermining!

Do you think information technologies are on our side?

If the design goal is to capture and hold our attention, then they are mostly not on our side. I do not see how they can be on our side, if they do not even have the opportunity to learn our goals. I think that this kind of information exchange would be necessary for IT to develop in the right direction. One of the standards I use is GPS. If GPS distracted us in the physical space as other technologies distract in the information space, no one would use GPS.

How to make persuasive technology stop encouraging our impulsive "me"?

I think a lot of things should happen at the level of a business model, regulation, organizational design of corporations, prioritization. I think that one of the most important ways available to us in the short term is to come up with good ways to talk about the essence of the problem, because I think that campaigning for changes without a suitable language is more difficult. Sometimes they talk about it in terms of distraction or attention, but we tend to associate it with more immediate attention, rather than long-term effects that affect life.

How long will it take?

I don’t think that it will happen in one day - much depends on the change in how we speak about human nature and interaction. Much of how we talk about this, especially in the United States, comes from discussions about freedom of choice. My intuition tells me that the further we can get away from conversations in terms of choice, and the sooner we can start conversations in terms of chances - which results were preferable, and what actually happened - the better. The choice is too erratic to go deep into it, because in the end it becomes clear that no one knows what it means to choose.

What exactly could companies do right now to stop destroying our attention?

I would like to know exactly what the ultimate goal of that site or the system that forms my behavior or thinking. What exactly do they form my experience for? Companies will say their goal is to make the world open, interconnected, or something else. All these are sublime marketing statements. But if you look at their development plans, on those metrics, and which they are oriented, then this will not be seen. You will see other parameters - frequency of use, time spent on the site, such things. If the application could somehow inform the user: “That's what this application wants from you in terms of your attention,” it would be great. For me, this would be the main way to make decisions about which applications I will download and use.

Are you optimistic about the future?

In terms of people working in these companies, I am still optimistic, since every designer or engineer is also a user. Nobody goes to work as a designer to make life harder. But problems usually turn out to be structural - either these are existing business models of companies, or how certain legal structures in companies do not give people space to balance short-term goals and more noble things. It is difficult to say in the long term technological evolution, it looks optimistic or not. I hope that the moment will come when we realize that the current state of affairs cannot be maintained from the point of view of business and from the point of view of our quality of life.


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