A former Google strategist says tech is warping our attention spans — and it's terrible for humanity
- James Williams, a former Googler who quit to become a philosopher, has written a new book about the way tech companies exploit our attention.
- He argued that tech distraction is much bigger than just looking at your phone constantly — cumulatively it stops people from achieving bigger goals and leads to crises like fake news.
- He said companies like Facebook and Google might put out friendly messages about how they want to help people connect with the world and each other, but their actual metrics for success are different.
- Williams said the tech industry should re-evaluate advertising as a business model.
If you have a passing interest in technology, you might be familiar with terms such as "the attention economy" or "the distraction economy."
This is the idea that human attention is like any other commodity: It's scarce, and people only have so much of it to divide between their various tasks and interests.
The term has become more popular since the smartphone boom, as different apps and services try to compete for your attention, taking its scarcity into account.
As Netflix CEO Reed Hastings put it in 2016: "At Netflix, we are competing for our customers' time, so our competitors include Snapchat, YouTube, sleep, etc."
It's almost become a little cliché to talk about digital distraction and the gimmicky things people do to avoid it — from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey's 10-day silent retreat to digital detox camps where people ditch their phones for a week.
But according to James Williams, a former Google product strategist who became a philosopher at the University of Oxford, the way tech companies distract and compete for our attention has a much deeper cumulative effect.
Williams worked at Google for more than a decade on its search ads business, analytics, and other projects before quitting in 2016 to focus on his doctoral studies.
"I realised this environment of competition for people's attention was manageable in a pre-internet time, a time of information scarcity," Williams told Business Insider. "But in a time of information overload, it's spilled into something qualitatively different. It's become an all-encompassing, persuasive environment.
"There's something really new here, a set of human considerations that weren't really being pulled into the equation — people's higher goals, their values, and their well-being."
The three levels of human attention — and how they are being warped by tech
In a new book published on Thursday, "Stand Out of Our Light," Williams argues there are multiple levels of human attention. Williams won the inaugural Nine Dots Prize last year with the original essay version of "Stand out of Our Light."
In the book, he likens those different attention levels to different types of light.
The most superficial type, or "the spotlight," is about your immediate attention — for example, glancing away from a book to press on a Candy Crush notification on your phone.
Williams calls the second layer "starlight" and defines it as your wider values. He says that allowing yourself to be distracted on a daily basis means that you end up veering away from the higher goals you've set yourself.
You might have the life goal of always staying humble — but taking selfies every day and checking back on the "likes" might distract you from that over time.
He calls the third layer of attention "daylight." It's probably the most broadly defined layer, and his examples of distraction here include societal issues such as fake news and constant online outrage.
In other words, technology has contributed to people being unable to process what is true and what is false, and what is worth paying attention to. And that, in turn, has perhaps contributed to the rise of populist politicians such as Donald Trump.
"At an individual level, the prioritisation of fame is concerning," Williams told Business Insider. "The success metric for people has become similar to the success metrics for ad campaigns and in lots of ways, Trump embodies the end result of that process. It's essentially a kind of supercharged narcissism."
Technology firms should be more upfront about their goals
For Williams, part of the reason our deep distraction has come about is because technology companies are not neccessarily upfront about their business models.
A company might say that it wants to connect you to the world. But its actual product goals are more like "maximising the amount of time you spend with their product, keeping you clicking or tapping or scrolling as much as possible, or showing you as many pages of ads as they can," according to Williams.
Google and Facebook, whose business models are entirely reliant on advertising and user engagement, never state such product goals upfront.
"It's striking that we don't have this, that we don't have more transparency around what the persuasive design goals are of the services we use," Williams said.
"For example, if I downloaded an app on Android and it not only told me what information it wants access to, but also that the app has X, Y, Z design goal, this is what it considers to be a success. There's no transparency at the level of apps or platforms."
Williams thinks regulators should ask questions not just about data privacy, but about psychological manipulation as a business model. He also said the tech industry should reconsider advertising as a business model as a whole.
"There's a broader conversation about the types of persuasion that we want to have as business models," Williams said.
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