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Stand out of our light

June 7, 2022

"In order to do anything that matters, we must first be able to give attention to the things that matter." Stand Out of Our Light is a groundbreaking book about freedom and resistance in the Attention economy we all inhabit today.

Today's technology was promised to us by being on our team, not anybody else. Over the last decade, however, it has become painfully clear this premise was a lie. Rather than supporting our intentions, technologies largely sought to grab and keep our attention. We have entered the attention economy and now technology is appealing to the lowest parts of ourselves in order to sell us things we often didn't want in the first place. With each passing day, these technologies get more sophisticated in subconsciously manipulating us as we are increasingly unable to steer our attention, deliberate, and collaborate.

My experience is what I agree to attend to. [...] we must reflect that, when we reach the end of our days, our life experience will equal what we have paid attention to, whether by choice or default.

— Williams James

It is hard to notice it during the day, but sometimes a creeping feeling arises that begs the question: are these technologies comprising the story of my life? What are my goals for these technologies? Or perhaps much more interesting; what our the technologies' goals for me? What are the goals of the people who make these technologies? What are the metrics on the dashboard of the developers which defines what success means for your life? How likely do you think they overlap your definition?

"How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives."

—Annie Dillard

We trust today's technologies to be companion systems for our lives: we trust them to help us do the things we want to do, to become the people we want to be. They ought to function as GPSes to where we want to go. However, they are faulty by design and keep misdirecting us as we keep putting up with it.

As a thought experiment: if one would want to train all of society to be impulsive and weak-willed as possible, how would you do it? You would make a device that is 'free of charge' so it can influence as many people as possible. Let's call it the 'iTrainer.' You would make it highly adaptive with automation and intelligence so as to capture and keep as much time and attention as possible. Then, what if you wanted to go even further? Make everyone more distracted, angry, cynical -- and even unsure of what, or how, to think? You probably want many others to support you by creating an economic incentive to do so. By rewarding culprits to speak to the lowest parts of people, their impulsive selves. if you have done this a decade ago you will probably see by now: that 9/10 users couldn't leave their homes without it. Almost half of the users would say they couldn't go on living without their iTrainer.

They would probably use it to access most of the information in all aspects of their lives. From politics to celebrity gossip, education, news, planning etcetera. As random Pavlovian bells ring throughout the day which could mean anything at any time, it would function as a rigorous impulsivity training program. "Of course, the iTrainer would never pass an ethical review. Launching something like that would be completely outrageous. So it's good that this is all just a thought experiment."

Dive more in-depth into the fascinating book Stand Out of Our Light by the brilliant philosopher James Williams.