Stand Out of Our Light

James Williams

"There's a deep misalignment between the goals we have for ourselves, and the goals out technologies have for us". Williams argues that the liberation of human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time.

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Huxley’s foresight, Postman writes, lay in his prediction that freedom’s nastiest adversaries in the years to come would emerge not from the things we fear, but from the things that give us pleasure (see Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman).

Current State of Affairs

Nine out of ten people never leaving home without their smartphone. Almost half of smartphone users say they couldn’t even live without their device. People spend a third of their waking lives engaged with their smartphone. It's the first and last thing they engage with every day.

Treadmill of Incompetence

Historically, new forms of media took years, if not generations, to be adopted, analysed, and adapted to. Today, however, new technologies can arrive on the scene and rapidly scale to millions of users in the course of months or even days.

Users are in a constant state of learning and adaptation to new interaction dynamics, familiar enough with their technologies to operate them, but never so fully in control that they can prevent the technologies from operating on them in unexpected or undesirable ways.

Persuasive Design

All design is “persuasive” in a broad sense; it all directs our thoughts or actions in one way or another. There’s no such thing as a “neutral” technology. All design embodies certain goals and values; all design shapes the world in some way.

The browser cookie did “more to shape advertising – and social attention – on the web than any other invention apart from the browser itself. (The Daily You, Joseph Turow)

Since 2014, for instance, Google’s advertising platform has been able to track whether you visit a company’s store in person after you see their ad.

Because there’s so much competition for our attention, designers inevitably have to appeal to the lowest parts of us – they have to privilege our impulses over our intentions even further – and exploit the catalog of decision-making biases that psychologists and behavioural economists have been diligently compiling over the last few decades.

There are __literally__ billions of dollars being spent to figure out how to get you to look at one thing over another; to buy one thing over another; to care about one thing over another. This is literally the design purpose of many of the technologies you trust to guide your life every day.

These biases include things like loss aversion (such as the “fear of missing out,” often abbreviated as FOMO), social comparison, the status quo bias, framing effects, anchoring effects, and countless others (see Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Khaneman).

The key element here is the variable reward. When you randomise the reward schedule for a given action, it increases the number of times a person is likely to take that action.

This is the underlying dynamic at work behind the high engagement users have with “infinite” scrolling feeds, especially those with “pull-to-refresh”functionality, which we find in countless applications and websites today such as Facebook’s News Feed or Twitter’s Stream. It’s also used widely in all sorts of video games. In fact, this effect is often referred to as the “slot machine” effect, because it’s the foundational mechanism on which the machine gambling industry relies – and which generates for them over a billion dollars in revenue every day in the United State alone (see Addiction by Design by Natasha Dow Schüll).

Lights of Attention

What do you pay when you pay attention? You pay with all the things you could have attended to, but didn’t: all the goals you didn’t pursue, all the actions you didn’t take, and all the possible yous you could have been, had you attended to those other things.

Three lights of attention, pertain to doing, being, and knowing, respectively: The Starlight, Spotlight and Daylight.

The Spotlight

Our immediate capacities for navigating awareness and action toward tasks. Enables us to do what we want to do.

Notifications are coloured red and placed in the upper-right corner of the user’s vision in order to better grab their attention and maximise the persuasive effect. This effect relies on the human reaction to the colour red, as well as the cleaning/grooming instinct,4 which often makes it hard to resist clicking on the notifications

The Starlight

Our broader capacities for navigating life “by the stars” of our higher goals and values. Enables us to be who we want to be.

When we become aware that our actual habits are in dissonance with our desired values, this self-feeling often feels like a challenge to, if not the loss of, our identities.

It wasn’t just that my life’s GPS was guiding me into the occasional wrong turn, but rather that it had programmed me a new destination in a far-off place that it did not behoove me to visit.

The Daylight

When our daylight is compromised, epistemic distraction results. Epistemic distraction is the diminishment of underlying capacities that allow a person to define or pursue their goals: capacities essential for democracy such as reflection, memory, prediction, leisure, reasoning and goal setting.

Reflection is an essential ingredient for the kind of thinking that helps us determine “what we want to want”.

Notifications or addictive mobile apps may fill up those little moments in the day during which a person might have otherwise reflected on their goals and priorities. Users check their phones an average of 150 times per day (and touch them over 2,600 times per day), so that would add up to a lot of potential reflection going unrealised.

Freedom of Attention

The mantra “AI is the new UI” is informing much of the next generation interface design currently under way (e.g. Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, or Google Home), and the more that the vision of computing as intelligent, frictionless assistance becomes reality, the more the logic and values of the system will be pushed below the surface of awareness to the automation layer and rendered obscure to users, or to any others who might want to question their design.

In 2015, Facebook filed a patent for detecting emotions, both positive and negative, from computer and smartphone cameras.

The company refused to say whether they plan to use information collected from the speech centre of your brain for advertising purposes.

The technology is changing too fast for research to keep up, its users and their contexts are far too diverse to allow anything but the broadest generalisations as conclusions, and the relationships between people and digital technologies are far too complex to make most research of this nature feasible at all.

Ultimately, there is no one to blame. At “fault” are more often the emergent dynamics of complex multiagent systems rather than the internal decision-making dynamics of a single individual.

The broad outline of our goal is to bring the technologies of our attention onto our side. This means aligning their goals and values with our own.

Level of goal alignment between user and Persuasive Technology

This book is available as a free pdf download. Image credits: Stand Out of Our Light by James Williams