I just recently finished James Williams' Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy. It's a short book - more like a collection of essays - exploring the state of our attentional crisis. It's a bit heady and academic, but it includes some great arguments based on cherrypicked examples from science and philosophy. Notable highlights include the concept of "freedom of attention" - drawing on "freedom of speech" but applying it to our awareness. He also calls for a "designer's oath", drawing on the medical Hippocratic Oath to do no harm, but instead demanding designers of technology to commit to an ethical framework as part of their training. Wonderful ideas.
In the end, I'm walking away with a renewed vigour for our cause. I've also got some fantastic new insight into how to frame the attention economy and what we can do about it from a policy perspective. Clearly he and I agree on many things:
"It’s my firm conviction, now more than ever, that the degree to which we are able and willing to struggle for ownership of our attention is the degree to which we are free."
But it was near the end of the book where James wrote something I simply couldn't accept at face value:
"Above all, we must not put any stock whatsoever in the notion that advancing 'mindfulness' among employees in the technology industry is in any way relevant to or supportive of reforming the dynamics of the digital attention economy. The hope, if not the expectation, that technology design will suddenly come into alignment with human well-being if only enough CEOs and product managers and user experience researchers begin to conceive of it in Eastern religious terms is as dangerous as it is futile. This merely translates the problem into a rhetorical and philosophical frame that is unconnected to the philosophical foundations of Western liberal democracy, and thus is powerless to guide it."
At first I felt a little bummed out. Here was a clearly insightful thinker suggesting the irrelevance of mindfulness in a book about the attention economy. Where as I, on the other hand, clearly believe that mindfulness is an important tool to help us resist how technology and advertising are consuming our minds. I felt like I knew he was wrong about something here, but I am always open to being challenged, so I collected myself and leaned in to understand the anatomy of our disagreement.
As I looked closer at the quote, I found James' hardline position to be surprisingly ignorant on the topic of mindfulness. It's really his first sentence that I disagree with most, where he uses surprisingly absolute language: "Above all, we must not put any stock whatsoever in the notion that advancing 'mindfulness' among employees in the technology industry is in any way relevant to or supportive of reforming the dynamics of the digital attention economy." (emphasis added)
Really? A practice which trains your ability to pay attention that has been empirically shown to influence attentional areas in the brain is not relevant at all to our attention economy? We "must not put any stock whatsoever" in a practice which has been shown to have beneficial effects on the exact same mental health issues that seem to be skyrocketing as a result of tech use? James seems to be lacking knowledge on how far we've come in understanding mindfulness as a secular, psychological process. And that's fair, we can't all be experts on every discipline. But still, as attention activists, we should clarify our position in response.
Let me take a stab at it - would love your feedback.
I couldn't agree with James more that getting tech workers to practice mindfulness will not somehow miraculously solve all our problems or transform our organizations. Yet he treats mindfulness as an ancient esoteric rhetorical philosophy, completely ignoring contemporary scientific understanding. He's suggesting we expect miracles; it appears to be a 'straw man' argument. He draws a hippie-era caricature of mindfulness as religious magic and then attacks it. Times have changed. Today, we can stand on a firm foundation and say that mindfulness is a psychologically-relevant, secular practice being actively explored in scientific laboratories around the world. It's not a panacea, but it's certainly relevant.
The growing body of evidence on mindfulness suggests it can train our cognitive ability and modify attentional subsystems in the brain. It can calm our 'default mode network' which is associated with self-referential thinking, mind-wandering, and daydreaming. There are clear effects on mental health which have been confirmed through meta-analysis. And as I mentioned above, some of the specific mental health conditions which seem to be influenced by mindfulness - depression, anxiety, trauma, etc. - happen to be the same conditions being exacerbated in our connected world over the past decade. According to the World Health Organization, depression will become the leading cause of the global burden of disease by 2030.
On top of the mechanistic science and mental health benefits, those of us bringing mindfulness programs into boardrooms, classrooms, hospital rooms, and governments are creating new conversations and new dialogues about mental health. When mindfulness is brought to a community with integrity (i.e. not in the service of organizational objectives, but in the service of individuals), we inspire our communities to prioritize well-being and balance. It's a systemic movement to empower people to get proactive, taking mental heath into their own hands. And don't get me started on the promising research on unconscious bias, ethical behaviour, and mindful leadership, or this will become less of a 'letter' and more of an 'essay'. Oh shit, it's kind of already becoming an essay isn't it? My bad.
Anyway, one needs only to look to Mindful Nation UK as a great example: they're bringing mindfulness to the highest level of British government. It's not because English parliamentarians are aging hippies who love to do yoga and read about esoteric Eastern philosophy. It's based on scientific implications which promise widespread benefits if we can successfully embed this practice into the systems of our society. And those implications most certainly extend to the manipulative technologies and manufactured outrage we face in the attention economy.
We're only scratching the surface here. If I let go of the need to develop an airtight rational argument based on science and organizational development and look at this as a practitioner myself, James' warning looks even more wrong. We're talking about a practice which directly emphasizes heightened awareness of where we place our attention. A practice which trains us to notice our distractions and handle them skillfully. A practice which clarifies our personal values through self-knowledge and encourages us to open our minds to the perspectives of others. It's hard to swallow the idea that mindfulness is not at all relevant to an economy of distraction, where selfish organizations cross ethical boundaries to harvest our attention, manipulating the conscious awareness of the masses for profit.
For someone who deeply understands the pitfalls of commodifying our attention, it's a shame James has fallen prey to the new age wellness fad. He seems to be thinking of mindfulness as a vague religious practice lacking integrity and rooted in a foreign way of thinking. He uses demeaning and absolute language which betrays his ignorance of the substance beyond the hype. I'm convinced that if he were to review the science and institutional progress of mindfulness, he would see just how relevant it is to his own cause. If he were to understand it as part of the vanguard of modern psychology and neuroscience - a pivotal rethinking of how healthy brains fluctuate between narrative and experiential modes - he would realize the absurdity of drawing lines between east and west as an argument.
We absolutely need institutional reform and regulation as James calls for many times in his book, but we also need a sociocultural transformation. As individuals, we don't all have the means and bandwidth to advocate directly to national governments and giant tech companies. Yet we also can't simply twiddle our thumbs and hope for a Deus Ex Machina from government and industry. We are facing this issue now. It's our attention that's being stolen, why would we wait to take it back? Why not lock our phones up after 9pm? Why not install apps and controls which help us regulate our own use? And why not explore mindfulness: a practice with a growing mass of evidence supporting its ability to integrate brain networks, reduce mental health issues, and train our ability to pay attention to whatever we deem relevant?
I find many of the thinkers exploring this area tend to proselytize government reform and corporate ethics. But they often forget our plight as individuals. These large organizations are slow to respond, and when they do respond, they respond to the will of people: both the people who work within them, and the people they serve. Our behaviour as individuals matters: when we make choices at work, when we vote, when we buy, when we download, and when we tap. Yet as James so beautifully articulates in his book, modern media are directly influencing our behaviour, shaking the foundations of our society. This is precisely why attention activism is important. We certainly do need leading thinkers to advocate to Big Brother, but we also need individuals to take up this fight in their own lives. And we also need the new social norms which will emerge as more individuals become aware of this issue.
James' argument suggests that conceiving of technology design in terms of mindfulness is not the way forward. As a designer, I agree with him on that. But mindfulness' role in this mess is less about design process and more about designers. And engineers, marketers, leaders, investors, and above all, users. It's about all of us as individuals taking up the challenge of reclaiming choice in our own lives. No matter what your job title or what you do for a living, mindfulness can help you find authenticity in our culture of persuasion and influence. Whether you're an industry or government leader, or simply a citizen and user of technology, I believe it's your responsibility to try and make choices which align with deeper reflections on who we are, and who we want to be.
Of course we need to reform our systems, and mindfulness may have a role to play. But perhaps more importantly, mindfulness and other contemplative practices offer us the opportunity to reform how individual agents behave in those systems. Part of that is actively resisting the attention merchants - I recommend buying an old-school alarm clock and keeping your phone far away from your bed as a great first step. But I believe part of it is also about establishing some sort of reflective practice to actively promote and cultivate your own mental health and values.
To establish agency is paramount, whether you're deciding how to spend your day off, or making decisions at work which will influence the minds of millions of people. In either case, you owe it to yourself and to your society to not let the selfish incentives of giant organizations hijack your choices. Certainly mindfulness isn't the only tool that will help us, and certainly it's not for everyone, but the idea that it's not relevant at all is laughable. The whole point of this movement is to restore freedom and choice in the minds of individuals and reduce the mental health burden of all this self-obsessed tech; what could be more relevant?