It’s not that James Williams, a doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute’s Digital Ethics Lab (motto: “Every Bit as Good”), had a “God, what I have I done?” moment during his time at Google. But it did occur to him that something had gone awry.
Williams joined Google’s Seattle office when it opened in 2006 and went on to win the company’s highest honor, the Founder’s Award, for his work developing advertising products and tools. Then, in 2012, he realized that these tools were actually making things harder for him. Modern technology platforms, he explained to me, were “reimposing these pre-Internet notions of advertising, where it’s all about getting as much of people’s time and attention as you can.”
By 2011, he had followed his literary and politico-philosophical bent (he is a fan of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World) to Oxford, while still working at Google’s London office. In 2014, he co-founded Time Well Spent, a “movement to stop technology platforms from hijacking our minds,” according to its website. Partnering with Moment, an app that tracks how much time you spend in other apps, Time Well Spent asked 200,000 people to rate the apps they used the most—after seeing the screen time it demanded of them. They found that, on average, the more time people spent in an app, the less happy they were with it. “Distraction wasn’t just this minor annoyance. There was something deeper going on,” he told me. “That’s why I came over here to start my Ph.D. on that stuff.”
Williams has most recently been in the media spot light for his essay, “Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Persuasion in the Attention Economy,” which won the $100,000 Nine Dots Prize and scored him a book deal with Cambridge University Press.
Nautilus caught up with Williams to discuss the subversive power of the modern attention economy.
How do the Internet and social media apps threaten democracy?
Democracy assumes a set of capacities: the capacity for deliberation, understanding different ideas, reasoned discourse. This grounds government authority, the will of the people. So one way to talk about the effects of these technologies is that they are a kind of a denial-of-service (DoS) attack on the human will. Our phones are the operating system for our life. They keep us looking and clicking. I think this wears down certain capacities, like willpower, by having us make more decisions. A studyshowed that repeated distractions lower people’s effective IQ by up to 10 points. It was over twice the IQ drop that you get from long-term marijuana usage. There are certainly epistemic issues as well. Fake news is part of this, but it’s more about people having a totally different sense of reality, even within the same society or on the same street. It really makes it hard to achieve that common sense of what’s at stake that is necessary for an effective democracy.
How have these technologies transformed news media?
What’s happened is, really rapidly, we’ve undergone this tectonic shift, this inversion between information and attention. Most of the systems that we have in society—whether it’s news, advertising, even our legal systems—still assume an environment of information scarcity. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, but it doesn’t necessarily protect freedom of attention. There wasn’t really anything obstructing people’s attention at the time it was written. Back in an information-scarce environment, the role of a newspaper was to bring you information—your problem was lacking it. Now it’s the opposite. We have too much.
If you get distracted by the same thing in the same way every day, it adds up to a distracted week, distracted months.
How does that change the role of the newspaper?
The role of the newspaper now is to filter, and help you pay attention to, the things that matter. But if the business model is like advertising, and a good article is an article that gets the most clicks, you get things like click bait because those are the metrics that are aligned with the business model. When information becomes abundant, attention becomes scarce. Advertising has dragged everybody down, even the wealthiest organizations with noble missions, to competing on the terms of click bait. Every week there are these outrage cascades online. Outrage is a rewarding thing to us, because it fulfills a lot of these psychological needs we have. It could be used to help us move forward, but often, they’re used to keep us clicking and scrolling and typing. One of the first books about web usability was actually called Don’t Make Me Think. It’s this idea of appealing to our impulsive selves, the automatic part of us, and not the considerate, rational part.
Tristan Harris, with whom you co-founded Time Well Spent, said tech steers the thoughts of 2 billion people with more influence than the world’s religions or governments. Would you agree?
I think I would agree with that. I don’t know any comparable governmental or religious mechanism that’s anything comparable to the smart phone and social media, in the sense that people give so much attention to it, and it has such a frequency and duration of operation. I think it certainly intervenes at a lower level, closer to people’s attention than governmental or religious systems. I think it’s closer to being like a chemical, or a drug of some sort, than it is to being like a societal system. Snapchat has this thing called Snapstreak, for example, where it says, “Here’s how many days in a row you’ve taken a snapshot photo with someone.” You can brag to your friends how long you’ve gone. There’s a ton of these kinds of methods and non-rational biases—social comparison is a huge one. There’s a guy who wrote a book called Hooked, Nir Eyal, where he teaches designers how to pull a user into a system…