This is the memorable phrase which James Williams uses on pg 114 of Stand Out of Our Light to describe proposals that platforms find technical solutions to the problem of ‘fake news’. It punchily conveys the ironic predicament that treating problems of ‘fakeness’ technically, as engineering challenges to be addressed by better calibrating information flow, kicks the can down the road. The only way to do this is to infer standards of reliability from user behaviour when it is the inability of those users to generate binding standards which generates the problem in the first place. Finding technical solutions to ‘fake news’ inevitably operationalises ‘fakeness’ in precisely the consensual terms that prophets of post-truth fulminate against.
This is the provocative phrase which James Williams uses to describe the attention economy on pg 87 of Stand Out of Our Light:
Uncritical deployment of the human-as-computer metaphor is today the well of a vast swamp of irrelevant prognostications about the human future. If people were computers, however, the appropriate description of the digital attention economy’s incursions upon their processing capacities would be that of the distributed denial-of-service, or DDoS, attack. In a DDoS attack, the attacker controls many computers and uses them to send many repeated requests to the target computer, effectively overwhelming its capacity to communicate with any other computer. The competition to monopolize our attention is like a DDoS attack against the human will.
I find this a curious description because a DDoS attack is a deliberate action undertaken in a coordinated way with malign intent. None of these descriptions are true of the attention economy, with even its deliberateness being a matter of individual action rather than aggregate outcome; the problem comes because multiple actors make demands on our attention at once, rather than there being a concerted effort to overwhelm us. In fact overpowering us might even be contrary to their interests.
I find the force this description has for Williams strange because it’s an obviously bad description in an otherwise well written book. I suspect it reflects the politics underpinning the book which I want to write about in a different post. As he says on pg 89, he sees this as a politics beyond politics, a meta game which define stage horizon of political life. It’s a framing which reduces the complexity of politics into the detrimental effects of tech firms upon our attentional capacities:
As a result, we ought to understand them as the ground of first political struggle, the politics behind politics. It is now impossible to achieve any political reform worth having without first reforming the totalistic forces that guide our attention and our lives.
It can be hard to take distraction seriously as a political factor because it is rooted in personal life. It tends to be understood as an individual ailment, perhaps significant in someone’s experience of their own life and exercising a diffuse constraint over their effectiveness but nonetheless beyond the bounds of the political. However individuals changes have aggregate consequences for political life. As James Williams puts it in Stand Out of Our Light pg 10:
But I also knew this wasn’t just about me – my deep distractions, my frustrated goals. Because when most people in society use your product, you aren’t just designing users; you’re designing society. But if all of society were to become as distracted in this new, deep way as I was starting to feel, what would that mean? What would be the implications for our shared interests, our common purposes, our collective identities, our politics?
Addressing these questions pushes at the boundaries of a disciplinary separation between psychology and sociology. If we reduce to distraction to a costruct of experimental psychology, we lose track of why our goals and tasks matter to us and the significance of our declining capacity to attend to them. If we approach distraction in a purely sociological way, we over-socialise it and obscure the subtle variability of its development in individuals. Furthermore, it necessitates resisting the evisceration of the human, reclaiming the language of human purposes in the face of attempts to reduce our meaningful action to digital metrics.