In his new book Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy (2018, Cambridge University Press), James Williams, a former Google strategist turned technology ethicist, searches for a conceptual and linguistic foundation to describe the nature of the freedom under threat from digital technology.
The publication of Williams’s book is timely. Since reports surfaced of Russian interference in the 2016 election, a flurry of academic work has emerged flagging the potential for the advertising machines of Big Tech to be “misused” or “abused” to harm the democratic process. Their tools of persuasion, these reports warned, could be hijacked for political influence.
But our fear that the advertising machines of Big Tech might be “hijacked” by bad political actors distracts us from the fact that these tools are already dangerous when used exactly as intended: to shape our inner life at the whim of advertisers and corporations.
The threat posed by these tools — even when deployed for purely commercial gain — is the subject of Williams’s book. Williams, by focusing not on political manipulation but on our quality of life, thus offers a much-needed corrective to a debate taking shape around a too-narrow set of concerns. For Williams, these technologies encourage an unprecedented level of distraction, which in itself undermines our capacity for self-determination.
“For too long,” Williams writes,
we’ve minimized the threats of this intelligent, adversarial persuasion as mere “distraction,” or minor annoyance. In the short term, these challenges can indeed frustrate our ability to do the things we want to do. In the longer term, however, they can make it harder for us to live the lives we want to live, or, even worse, undermine fundamental capacities such as reflection and self-regulation, making it harder, in the words of philosopher Harry Frankfurt, to “want what we want to want.”
The danger Williams foresees requires no evil actors, no coordination or conspiracy, merely the onward march of market force. His insight is simple and forceful. Our control of our attention is the prerequisite for imagining — and pursuing — the lives and world we want. But it is our attention, our thoughts, and our desires, which corporations today invest billions in capturing for their own ends.
Our attention — the core of our actual mental processes — is now central to the business models of some of our largest technology firms, yet corporate language around this model is obfuscatory. The business of marketing has many instances of peculiar jargon, but none today is stranger than the calm tallying of human “eyeballs.”
It is common parlance in digital marketing to refer to viewers as “eyeballs.” A Google search for “Facebook eyeballs” easily conjures pages of headlines. Bloomberg soberly reports the alarming news that “Google and Facebook Divide Up Your Eyeballs.” “The Value of Your Eyeballs” is cheerfully calculated by The Wall Street Journal in an illustrated video, while the Financial Times observes that “Facebook Watch Fights for Eyeballs from YouTube.” Scattered among these search results are headlines reporting instances of horrific bodily mutilation (for example, a woman gouging out her eyes on crystal meth), reminding us that we tend to refer to eyes as eyeballs only after they have been separated from the human body. (Indeed, when their spherical shape comes into view.)
Google and Facebook are fighting for our eyeballs because, notionally, our eyeballs are their inventory — the merchandise sold for profit. And that merchandise has been extraordinarily profitable: last year, 84 percent of Alphabet’s (Google’s parent company) revenue and 98 percent of Facebook’s revenue came from advertising.
But business jargon that at first appears to be merely bad writing often turns out to be the useful misnaming of an unpalatable practice. “Eyeballs” is no exception. The lie is, precisely, that our eyes are eyeballs: not attached to anything. Like, say, our brains.
Needless to say, this is not true. And what is bought and sold is not our eyeballs, but the inward effect of our gaze being directed at one thing versus another. For a price, we will be thinking, for a moment, about what a marketer wants us to be thinking about, instead of what we were intending to think about. And that is very valuable, both politically and economically.
In the language of digital marketing, thought is grafted onto the nearest, proximate substance (eyeballs), recasting human cognition into graspable, countable, sellable stuff. This is commercially expedient. But this sleight of hand has another advantage: to block from view the real activity of these tech firms. Google and Facebook are not in the business of bundling eyeballs but of selling access to our minds. Yet they have never correctly named their trade. They have thus invaded our inner territory, plundering its resources, unnoticed and un-resisted.
Because these companies monetize access to our minds, their technologies are designed to capture our attention, and as much of it as possible. In this pursuit, they are extremely effective. They are effective even when we don’t want them to be: when we meant to do something else. This is an experience familiar to us all: watching ourselves reach for our smartphone, scroll through a stream of pictures, or click through articles, when we intended to do something else. The surprise of witnessing this frequent, low-level failure of our will is some of what we mean when we reach for the language of technology “addiction.” Outliers at both ends of the political spectrum — from progressive Silicon Valley venture capitalists raising their children in rigorously screenless homes, to reactionary Christian homeschoolers doing the same thing off the grid in the Rockies — are taking extreme measures to confront what they correctly discern as a perilous threat. But all of us sense the strange conundrum: our devices, which are becoming our whole lives, offer us what would seem to be infinite spaces in which to roam and explore and learn. And yet, in the process of using them, we seem less and less able to achieve the elemental condition of freedom: deciding, in the space of a mind that is our own, what we actually want to do — and then doing it.
In his quest to define the freedom under threat from digital technology, Williams enlists a battalion of canonical thinkers. Most striking, perhaps, is his evocation of John Stuart Mill, who shifts our focus from democratic politics to the more essential freedom that underlies it: individual liberty of thought and belief.
“[Freedom] comprises, first,” Mill wrote, “the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical and speculative.” Secondly, freedom “requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like.” And thirdly, “from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite.” Mill concludes that “[n]o society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified.”
Critics of Big Tech are right to worry about the erosion of our democracy. But we must remember that collective freedom begins with individual freedom, and individual freedom begins not with free action, but with free thought. For our actions to be meaningfully free, they must be the enactment of freely formed thoughts and feelings. Only then does our individual will find expression in the world.
But it is our inward domain that is now bought and sold by some of the largest corporations the world has yet seen. The battleground for our freedom has moved inward. And so, it is there the defense of our freedom must begin.
One can take the temperature of a society by examining the art it celebrates. Last year, the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale was the unambiguous champion of cultural acclaim. The Handmaid’s Tale, set in a future America under military totalitarian rule, has been widely hailed as an important critique in the age of Trump. Yet its vision of oppression is far from the actual, immediate threats to democracy in United States. The population of “Gilead” (the country where the United States once stood) is controlled by the threat of extraordinary violence and armed force. As for the protagonist’s “inward domain”? We are afforded access to her thoughts through an inner monologue. That monologue assures us her mind remains free: her thoughts are fierce and laser-focused on reclaiming her freedom.
Democracy in the United States, however, is less likely to end in spectacular violence than in the banal chug of market force. For Williams, the gravest threat to our freedom today may be the steady erosion of our spaces of mental freedom. As we debate the role of digital technologies in our lives, we must remember that political freedoms require, first, a freedom of the mind.
Alyssa Loh is based in New York, where she is completing a dual MFA(film)/MBA at NYU. She writes and makes films.