“The gate to salvation is narrow, and closing quickly” (xii). The urgency of this most Adventist-sounding warning in the introduction to James Williams’ Stand out of our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy stresses the book’s timeliness and importance. But, rather than predicting the nearness of the Second Advent, Williams’ apocalyptic message is much more immanent. He focuses on what is already here — flickering screens which provide us instant communication and near limitless information, capturing our collective attention in a way so completely engrossing that their corrosive individual and social impact may be irreversible. Williams’ (a former Google advertising strategist turned philosopher) purpose is to explain why he thinks the liberation of human attention is the defining moral and political challenge of our time — and to ask for our help in keeping the light of our attention lit.
The book’s title comes from a story that Williams relates in the introduction. Diogenes of Sinope was a notoriously offensive, impulsive, and even rude ancient Greek philosopher. In our internet age, he would likely be called a “troll.” Even so, Alexander the Great was an admirer of Diogenes. Visiting him one day as he sunbathed, Alexander stood before the reclining philosopher to share his admiration and confidently make an astounding offer. He promised to grant Diogenes any wish he desired — to which the eccentric philosopher-troll gruffly responded, “Stand out of my light!” (3).
Alexander’s offer was based in his own power and ability as a political leader. Many would have considered his attention alone a great gift. Beyond this, his offer was an extraordinary opportunity to be relished and received with servile gratitude. And yet, his mere presence frustrated Diogenes’ more immediate desire — for light. Diogenes may have been a curmudgeon, but he knew what he wanted. I wonder if we know what we want. Figuring that out is going to be essential as we explore the challenges of the technology facing us in the information age, or as Williams prefers, the age of attention.
In order to take up this challenge, we will be reading through Williams’ book together for the 2018 Spectrum Summer Reading Group. You can see in the reading/posting schedule below, we have an able group of facilitators ready to assist us in grappling with the challenge of focusing our attentions in an age of distraction:
September 28 — Chapter 12: Marginal People on Marginal Time and Chapter 13: The Brightest Heaven of Invention, Keisha McKenzie
As in past years, you are invited to order or download a copy of the book and join in the discussion. An electronic version of Williams’ book is available free/open access through the Cambridge University Press website. (For those who prefer a physical copy, Amazon has it in paperback for about $15 at the time of this writing.)
Feel free to leave a comment if you plan on joining us or if you want to respond to anything in the preface and/or first chapter.
Brenton Reading lives with his wife and three children in Shawnee, Kansas (a suburb of Kansas City), where he practices Pediatric Interventional Radiology.
Image courtesy of Cambridge University Press.
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