This is the second post of Spectrum’s 2018 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of the book Stand out of our Light by James Williams. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.
Last week while out riding with my daughter, I started wondering about the weather in Denver. Turning to my handy phone, I was updated by numerous notifications; fifteen minutes later I realized I still had not found the answer to my original question, instead, I had wasted time. Williams points out that this kind of distraction is a new phenomenon that encroaches on personal function and believes it will prove to be unwise — maybe even catastrophic to society — to continue with such misalignment. Yet, the problem is so insidious as to be practically invisible.
The example Williams uses is that of a faulty GPS, one that consistently leads people to destinations they did not intend. One would not put up with a GPS that failed in this way. It would be annoying to be directed to somewhere nearby or to some place similar to the desired destination, but not the actual destination. Yet, we tolerate and utilize information technology that is not designed to help us do what we want to do or go where we want to go. A self-directed person sets goals, then selects tools that helps her achieve these goals. Yet, technology today, argues Williams, cumulatively reverses that order; tools set the goals, directing users.
Williams’ task at Google was not to organize information but to organize the attention of those who would interface with technology. Thus, he thinks “The Information Age” is a misnomer when it comes to describing today. He points out that those in “The Bronze Age” did not know they were living in “The Bronze Age,” and society may lack the self-awareness to name the current era. “The Information Age” seems plausible when one considers how for most of history people faced a scarcity of information. During such times, the tent evangelist did people a great service. Distribution of Christian literature addressed a need to access information. But in the face of an overabundance of what was a scarcity, “The Age of Attention Scarcity” might be more accurate when it comes to us. Herbert Simon, an economist, noted that as information becomes abundant, attention becomes the scarce resource. There is an inversion of information and attention.
Williams observes that “when most people in society use your product, you aren’t just designing users; you’re designing society” (10). Who is addressing the ethical responsibility of this power? Designers, guided by monetization, are shaping the attention of the masses, supplanting the role religion used to play, as they take on the role of being societal guides that provide benchmarks for what is worthy of attention. Now, in effect, people outsource to small devices a bit (or a lot) of the task of curating what gets their attention.
Spiritual leaders have historically been the voices that provide hedges and reference points to guide the attention of followers. Williams does not write as a spiritual authority, but the problem he describes has spiritual implications. Culture will win every time, if not critiqued by the gospel. Are those who form the interface between people and information, in effect, functioning as sorts of priests or religious guides — teasing, bombarding, numbing the masses so that in the end one will relegate a large part of her attention to the goals set by others, goals that are not in alignment with her own?
The Enlightenment celebrated reason and autonomy and the human ability to choose their own goals and live self-directed lives. Online information abundance with its ways of diverting and attracting attention will change society in ways that one cannot fully ascertain. What good is reason and proficiency if people are too distracted to set their own goals and accomplish what is needed to achieve their goals?
One might “detox” and unplug for a period of time, and this might allow her to attend and focus the old-fashioned way. Travel to rural settings with poor Internet coverage also provides space to think and imagine in an environment without the encroaching technology-distraction-demon. But perhaps this is not enough. Later in the book, Williams will propose steps that could lead to a more structural remedy for technology induced attention deficit. He points out that most societal structures were created with the assumption that information will be scarce; he points to law, education, and advertising as examples. He believes that information abundance will require some new kinds of structural containment.
The book, in my view, establishes a succinct case for the need to address a particular aspect of the problem created by information technology. In my view, the bigger problem comes from how social media notifications divert our attention collectively as a society, “blocking the light” in unplanned ways. First, information technology has allowed people to build soft towers of self-esteem based on the likes and approbation of others. This is not authenticity. For Christians, this fact deserves consideration.
My second concern relates to broader societal function, and it is this: A device that controls attention can hook people into escalating groups of imitation that has nefarious outcomes. Human beings fight, not because they are different, but because they are the same. They compete for the same things: land, resources, and praise. Reciprocal violence pervades human history. People are imitative and violence spreads contagiously. A person or small group can now easily make and distribute a meme that identifies a target group, or issue, as the source of all societal problems. Once a viewer sees something, it is almost as though she is experiencing it. Like therolling blackouts in the Western United Stateson steamy summer days,rolling outrage spreads all around us. Mirror neurons kick in.i Then, the imitation train leaves the station. Outrage is contagious. Information technology has provided an easy pathway to create a mob.
A well-defined, differentiated, society can quickly deteriorate into all against all. With rapidity and increased effectiveness, one person or one group can be labeled as responsible for what troubles a community. The selection of a scapegoat — usually an outsider or a king or a group with some peculiarities — and its elimination, unites a people, as Rene Girard has pointed out. Collective hatred and lynching, for example, are archaic ways that unite society.
A divided society whose attention is mathematically coopted by information technology can easily resurrect the archaic way of soothing a splintered community. Online scapegoating differs from the archaic in that now one is spared from the faces of those being scapegoated. This time of abundant information and attention deficit has allowed us to ignore the mysteries of others. With information technology creating an attention deficit for the masses, anything can happen. We can ride on a rollercoaster of scorn, unchecked, and detached from its effects. We have taught ourselves not to see and have cultivated cultural and spiritual cataracts.
Information technology has blocked one’s light, as the book title implies. Truth and empathy are early casualties. What can happen and what should be done are important discussion points.
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.)
Notes & References:
Carmen Lau is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum. She lives and writes in Birmingham, Alabama.
Image courtesy of Cambridge University Press.
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