Western Buddhist Review

Freedom and persuasion in the attention economy

On Sat, 8 September, 2018 - 11:32
Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture
Dhivan Thomas Jones

We’re delighted to present a review by Akasapriya of an important new book of philosophical reflection on the effects of contemporary social media:

James Williams, Stand Out of our Light

Cambridge University Press, 2018, pb £13, or available as a free ebook

Readers of Vaddhaka’s book The Buddha on Wall Street (reviewed here) may recall that he dedicated a chapter to the attention economy. The term refers to the various ways in which internet-based companies make money, often indirectly, from the users of their services. Stand Out of Our Light is a book-length examination of the same topic by James Williams, a former Google employee turned philosopher at Oxford. 

As awareness grows of the economics of the web, so too does awareness of how it affects users. If an online service is free to use, as Gmail and Facebook are, then the price of using it may be hidden. That price is often attention and personal information, summed up in the popular phrase ‘you are the product’. Although news headlines tend to focus on Facebook, partly because of its scale, the attention economy is not restricted to social media. Any online service that depends upon advertising is part of the attention economy, whether a search engine or a newspaper website. 

The development of the internet has resulted in an abundance of easily accessible information, and this abundance presents challenges. The more information there is, the more important good search becomes: hence the rise of Google. Choosing what to look at also presents problems. Williams quotes Herbert Simon:

when information becomes abundant, attention becomes the scarce resource.

Attention is notionally under our control, but choosing what we attend to can require willpower. When there is widespread competition for our attention and that competition is highly sophisticated, then individual willpower may not be enough.

The rapid pace of innovation means that significant amounts of time and energy may be needed just to keep up with new developments. Online products often change their features and interfaces, as users of Gmail and Facebook will have noticed, and the user has little or no choice in the matter. The online environment is thoroughly designed and much of that design is persuasive, built to serve the purposes of the designer first and the user second. This is especially the case with advertising, persuasive design par excellence.

Advertising is the default business model for most digital services that do not charge for their use. And advertising can be embedded in every aspect of the user’s experience, whether in between news articles or as links embedded in YouTube videos. The effectiveness of adverts depends on getting attention, which can lead to clicks and ultimately purchases. With so many adverts, there is considerable competition between those adverts for your attention. And whereas advertising was once relatively passive – a billboard or a magazine advert, whose effects could largely be measured only in increased sales – the effectiveness of adverts can now be measured at the level of the individual user.

Williams doesn’t think too highly of this. In tracing the brief history of these developments, he writes:

This is how the twenty-first century began: with sophisticated persuasion allying with sophisticated technology to advance the pettiest possible goals in our lives. It began with the AI behind the system that beat the world champion at the board game Go recommending videos to keep me watching YouTube longer.

YouTube’s ‘next up’ feature is just one method of competition for your attention. Another part of the design strategy is variable reward. Facebook’s news feed changes each time you visit, with the prospect of another update always there, but even checking for email is an example of variable reward: you don’t how many new messages you have until you look. Design often persuades you to stay within the system, and to return once you’ve left. In many ways the strategies are similar to those employed by casinos.

Persuasive design is not necessarily bad, and it can be used to ‘nudge’ people to healthier behaviours. But the predominant use of design that Williams explores is to grab our attention and sell advertising. These developments are very new, and we are constantly catching up with the demands they make upon us. Just as laws are sometimes inadequate to keep up with digital developments, Williams argues that our language needs to evolve too. The new and extensive demands on our attention prompt him to find better ways of talking about attention.

Rather than asking what attention is, Williams asks how we might be paying when we pay attention. He turns to John Stuart Mill’s discussion of freedom to suggest that attention can be seen much more broadly than the moment-to-moment decisions about what to look at. Attention can be as much about our plan for our whole lives as a decision to click on an online advert or not. At this point of the book some Buddhists might think that Williams is trying to reinvent the wheel. Whether talking in terms of smṛtisamprajanya or apramāda, or the more fine-grained analysis of processes of attention in the scheme of fifty-one mental events described in Sangharakshita’s Know Your Mind, Buddhism has a rich language of attention. Williams’s approach throughout the book draws upon the western philosophical tradition, but he goes further and invents a threefold analogy of light to describe our faculties of attention. The “Spotlight” is our immediate capacity for navigating awareness and action toward tasks. It enables us to do what we want to do. The “Starlight” describes our broader capacities for navigating life “by the stars” of our higher goals and values. This enables us to be who we want to be. And by “Daylight” Williams implies our fundamental capacities – such as reflection, self-awareness, reason, and intelligence – that enable us to define our goals and values to begin with. It enables us to “want what we want to want”. There are clear overlaps between faculties described in the Buddhist tradition and Williams’s terms.

Williams’s goal in the book is to go deeper in his analysis than similar accounts have done. He questions the usefulness of a model of addiction, or indeed any medical models, because it’s not the only way that technology can be problematic. Instead, as suggested in his model of types of light, he sees the problems as much larger, potentially affecting our overall moral direction. 

Competition in the attention economy is not just between various services vying for the individual’s attention, but also pits individuals against one another. Systems of ‘likes’ can encourage people to compete with each other and also with their past selves, seeking attention from others in ever more dramatic ways. In 2017 a man filmed a stunt in which he asked his wife to shoot a gun at a thick book he held in front of his chest. The book was not thick enough to stop the bullet, which killed him. The video had been intended for YouTube in a bid to increase the number of subscribers to the couple’s channel, and Williams describes several such tragic incidents. Reflecting on his own relationship to online activity, he came to realise that his behaviour was being shaped away from his deeper values towards somewhere that was not to his benefit. Instead, he highlights the necessity of reflection and leisure for remaining in touch with our deeper values. But it needs to be true leisure, away from the apparently innocent scrolling through a news feed.

In the end, the attention economy is structured to encourage behaviour quite opposed to reflective leisure. At one extreme, this can take the form of mob rule and public shaming, an unfortunate aspect of behaviour seen on the social media platform Twitter, and can even play a role in genocide. The UN’s Special Rapporteur has said that Facebook played a significant role in helping to incite violence towards the Rohingya in Myanmar. The platform has unfortunately been used by nationalist Buddhists to propagate hate speech towards the Muslim minority, many of whom have had to flee the country. These are tragic and unintended effects of the attention economy, but its larger project is unquestionably the manipulation of the will, often in a way that does not serve humanity well.

The book is mainly devoted to describing the problem rather than suggesting solutions. Williams rejects the idea of a balanced account because he sees the technologies as fiercely adversarial by design. The challenges are new in kind, and clarity about their effects is impossible because technology keeps changing. However Williams does believe that technology can improve the world, and points to the potential of the internet to spread awe and wonder, as well as more divisive emotions. Despite focussing on problems, he also wishes to avoid the risks of overt moralism. Metaphors of consumption – such as addiction – can be signs that this is happening, as much as their converse, such as the idea of a digital detox. Individuals might find taking a break from online activity quite helpful, but in the end Williams questions whether adaptation can be enough as the competition for our attention is too great.

In passing, Williams dismisses mindfulness as irrelevant to these issues. Although it is implied that he would see mindfulness practices as an insufficient antidote to the problems he describes, Williams has more philosophical reasons for rejecting it. He sees as futile the application of Eastern religious terms to a problem which that is attacking the basis of Western democracy, itself founded on very different philosophical foundations. This is a sweeping judgment, but might point to one of the potential shortcomings of the secular mindfulness movement: its lack of an overtly ethical dimension.

When it comes to attributing the problems, Williams seems rather too quick to say that no one is to blame. Notwithstanding his arguments that a complex technological culture has arisen that goes beyond the decisions of any individual, it’s tempting to think that loyalty to his past at Google may be influencing him. Systems are designed by individuals and every design decision in services such as Facebook will require many hours of work to program and test. Those designs will be motivated by business goals, set by human beings, all of whom have made decisions about how those goals should be implemented. The wider effects of those decisions may be unintended, but that does not mean that some individual responsibility cannot be sought. Mark Zuckerberg for one has become extremely rich as a result of overseeing Facebook’s model and methods of selling advertising. 

This assessment also sets up an apparent contradiction with one of the solutions proposed. Williams introduces the idea of a kind of Hippocratic oath of designers, a code of conduct for design to work in humanity’s best interests. This seems a worthy aim. But if no one designer can be held responsible for the faults of the attention economy, and a widespread culture has grown up with a particular ethos, how likely is it that some designers adopting a code of conduct would be able to turn the tide? 

Williams’s larger theme is the threat to democracy that the attention economy presents. When online services steer individuals towards less wholesome directions, the quality of public debate and even democracy itself can be undermined. Williams was writing before recent revelations about the use of Facebook’s data and advertising in attempts to influence the outcome of Britain’s EU referendum, but that event only underlines how relevant this book is. Democracy is partly about the freedom to make choices about how we govern ourselves, but there is another kind of freedom at stake. Ultimately, our capacity for attention can be equated with our bigger freedom to make ethical choices – and with the ability to set the direction of our whole lives. Stand Out of our Light is a valuable contribution to our understanding of how and why our ability to pay attention is threatened as never before.

Akasapriya is a historian of art and museums living in London, who also makes paintings and designs websites.

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