The Daily Princetonian spoke with James Williams, author of the Class of 2023 Pre-Read, “Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy,” about his book. Williams worked as a technology and business strategist at Google for 10 years and recently received his Ph.D. from the University of Oxford. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Daily Princetonian (DP): Many of us have long suspected that Twitter and Instagram have taken a toll on our functional attentional capacities, but you argue that our devices have taken more than that. You argue that digital technology not only undermines our abilities to do what we want, but also to be who we want to be and to engage in reflection and reasoning to define our values. This has serious implications for our political lives. What worries you the most?
James Williams (JW): What worries me the most is that we don’t yet have the prerequisites in place for the right kind of conversation, and my worry is that the situation might devolve under our feet faster than we can describe the problem. So that’s one thing I was trying to do with the book is figure out how to put a bound on the problem, because it’s described in very disparate ways in societal discourse, from the problems of big tech to social media to distractions. What I was trying to do is just figure out the essential elements and how can we move forward with a shared language for this. I don’t claim to have figured that out, but hopefully the book is a step in the right direction.
DP: Let’s talk solutions. You argue that policymakers, among others, can catalyze corrective action. What are some examples of good and bad digital technology policy?
JW: One example of where regulation can enhance people’s freedom by regulating technology is in the area of net neutrality, where an internet-service provider shouldn’t be able to partner with a content provider to create fast lanes and slow lanes. That’s an example in which regulation can play a great role. In the [United States], some of that has been undone. Hopefully it will be redone before too long.
Where you see negative types of regulation is where the problem is insufficiently defined or where solutions are hastily undertaken. In the [European Union], there’s a law that requires website owners to obtain consent from each user whose browsing behavior they wish to measure with tracking “cookies.” That’s a good idea in principle, but what it means in practice is that every user has to click a button, creating 15 more decisions you have to make each day as a user. There’s a cognitive load cost that isn’t really taken into account. Furthermore, the consent-gathering exercise becomes an exercise in persuasion. Sites will make a dialogue box look like a pop-up ad or use the advertising methods to optimize for whichever type of consent dialogue results in the most consent, so it’s just manufactured consent.
DP: I wonder how employers and employees should understand your book. Some demands on our attention come from around-the-clock work emails. Do emails constitute a similar threat to our attentional freedom, and if so, whose job is it to limit those effects?
JW: The sheer quantity of information that’s out there and the fact that it’s available 24/7 means that we need to figure out where those boundaries are drawn. In France, they passed a law limiting the hours in which employers can require workers to respond to emails. There’s also a question of organizational culture. The question of responsibility will vary from situation to situation. It’s partly a technical and partly a cultural issue, because it’s not only email but things like Slack and other kinds of workplace software.
Email is not a platform like Facebook or Twitter. It’s a protocol, which means there is a decision to distribute it. It’s good in a way, because there may be a case to be made for responding to email, for doctors, for example. So it will depend.
DP: Have you received any feedback from your former colleagues in the Silicon Valley?
JW: I keep in touch with my friends and colleagues in the industry a lot. The reaction has been uniformly positive. One thing they’ve expressed that they appreciate about the book is how there’s criticism but not a kind of moralized blame, like you see in media coverage, and the “fight the monster” mentality you see in news articles because it get clicks and sells ads. They appreciate the nuance and that the book recognizes the systemic issues and does not blame individuals. It’s a solution-oriented book.
One of my aims was to make it be tech criticism in the sense of literary or art criticism. If someone is doing literary or art criticism, you wouldn’t think they don’t like literature or art. They want to tease out the nuances and fundamentally make it better, so that was my aim and I’ve been heartened that that’s been the response from people I know in the industry.
DP: How have your views changed since you wrote the book?
JW: There are certainly ways my view has evolved since I wrote the book two years ago, in the same way the tech landscape and the societal response to it has evolved. When I wrote the book, these questions of tech and persuasion weren’t really part of the day-to-day consciousness of people. They certainly are now, in part because of the various political earthquakes in the past two years, but also because people are thinking more seriously and more critically about the role in these technologies in their lives.
There are so many levels to the problem and so many levels to the solution. But there are a lot more people thinking about it today than there were a few years ago.
DP: Out of personal curiosity, what do you do to limit screen time and cognitive load?
JW: Part of the reason I started looking at this stuff is that I felt it in my own life. There are ways to rearrange technologies in our own lives, but [at] the end of the day it’s a systemic problem. There are minor, simple things I do, but I don’t consider myself an exemplar. I think people should do what works for them. I’m reluctant to be too prescriptive in this regard.
DP: Anything else you’d like to add?
JW: One important thing is to protect and value these enclaves where there’s resistance against this competition for our attention. Two of the institutions I’m most concerned about are journalism and academia.
Journalism seems to me to have already capitulated to the Twitter style of thought and communication, and I think academia is getting there pretty quickly. The more we can see these institutions as essential for democracy and ensure that there are countervailing dynamics against the comp for attention as the core goal — that’s an essential thing for us to be doing more now.
DP: Can you say more about the “Twitter style?”
JW: Twitter is the newswire now. Journalists say they are on Twitter all day every day; it’s where breaking news happens. I see people in academia that are becoming more like Twitter: angstier, less nuanced, and prone to use outrage in a way they weren’t before. It’s something I feel and see. I think this is becoming the main cognitive style in our culture, as epitomized by Trump’s success and presidency. It’s the infrastructure of journalism now.
I asked one of my friends who’s a journalist what he thought journalistic courage looks like today. He said it is writing a piece that won’t go viral, won’t get clicks, but that you think is really important. I thought it was a telling answer.
DP: In academia, too?
JW: Academia is one of the best examples of a self-contained metric economy. The metrics of success have to do with citations, which are academic retweets. There was an article in “The Chronicle of Higher Education” saying that we will soon see a number of viral articles being formalized as inputs in tenure decisions. Practically speaking, we’re probably already there. Academia has always been this enclave where depth of thought is unconstrained by immediate workplace demands. The more it adopts this style of the attention economy and social media, we stand to lose something that is precious.