Volitional attention marks the difference between a life you choose and one chosen for you
"...when we reach the end of our days, our life experience will equal what we have paid attention to, whether by choice or default. We are at risk, without quite fully realizing it, of living lives that are less our own than we imagine." - Timothy Wu, The Attention Merchants
"I sometimes wonder how difficult it may be for a young person to imagine how un-administered life was just a short time ago." - Matthew Crawford
As a nine-year-old child, my grandfather, who was called "Pop" by all of us kids, drove a covered wagon from Arkansas to east Texas. His parents drove their own wagon which nine-year-old Pop followed on their journey. Pop's early adult years were spent as a ranch hand and, later, a ranch foreman on ranches in west Texas and New Mexico. The practical experience he gained by such close association with the land made him "handy". Days out alone, "riding fence" far from any possible assistance, will do that to a man I suspect. Pop could turn his hand to anything, whether repairing something he owned, or building a small apartment onto his garage to create a modest rental income for himself and his wife.
The cultural and technological changes Pop witnessed during his lifetime were vast. As a child he traveled by covered wagon, but by the time he died in 1976, he had flown cross-country on a commercial airline. And though he had only a grade school education, he was not without a definite point of view about all the changes he had witnessed.
The gist of one of Pop's ideas is illustrated in a story my dad told me about a conversation that took place in the late 1960's. My father had recently purchased a new Chevrolet Impala, probably around 1966-7. When my dad showed Pop his new car, Pop was shocked by the complexity of the engine he found when he looked under the hood. "Can you repair this engine if it breaks down?", he asked my dad. My father laughed and replied, "Of course not." Pop gave my dad a kind of sour expression and responded, "I wouldn't own a car I couldn't work on myself."
One of the lessons that Pop's life of independence and hardship had taught him was that possessions you were unable to maintain yourself created an increased dependence on others and reduced your own freedom in the process.
Pop was putting his finger on an interesting dilemma: technological complexity can become a vehicle for diminishing the sense of one's own human agency.
Pop's reaction to this dilemma regarding technology was to protect his own independence by placing limits on how much technological complexity he was willing to employ. He declined to place himself in day-to-day dependence on things he couldn't maintain himself.
Now Pop wasn't doctrinaire or obsessive about this – he readily took advantage of modern medicine, for example. But in general he enjoyed his independence more than he craved the near term convenience of some recent technological advance. He had always been able to work on, build, and repair his own "stuff" and he saw no reason to give up that kind of independence in his later years.
Lately I've really come to suspect that Pop's retro ideas about dependence and freedom have a lot to offer to our current moment. Looking around, it really feels like Pop's intuition about the freedom-reducing effect of technological complexity has been recognized by other people besides Pop. And the people who seem to have figured this out don't apparently share in Pop's inclination for minding his own business.
Our social dependency on technological complexity, which exceeds the grasp of most normal people, is not only prevalent but is being cultivated, and it is growing.
Anyone in close association with the elderly will know that they are routinely baffled by technology and thereby excluded from managing their own affairs in many areas of their lives. The widespread adoption of exclusively technological means for engaging with their constituents, by both companies and governments, means that many elderly people require assistance to do almost anything related to banking, prescriptions, inquiring about a bill, or any number of other needs which they would otherwise be able to handle for themselves. It isn't simply a matter of gratuitous complexity, though that is certainly widespread. It is the sweeping elimination of human agents from customer service that leaves many of the elderly without recourse other than dependence on friends and family to help them with all of the associated loss of independence that needing such help imposes.
Undermining Our Sense of Competence
There also seems to be a growing sentiment, in both business and government, that adult freeborn citizens are, at best, only slightly more capable of being discerning about their own lives than children are. Businesses and governments increasingly conceive of their constituents as people to be managed rather than as a community whose interests they should serve. This shift in their perspective is not benign.
The signs of this attitudinal shift within businesses and governments have been apparent for some time. The "right to repair" initiative grew out of alarm at the trend among manufacturers to eliminate the right of customers to repair their own possessions. Nowhere is this sort of high-handed attitude more evident than among cell phone manufacturers. The presumed complexity of their products is such that they want to reserve exclusive right to repair them. Which, as Pop recognized long ago, increases the dependency and sometimes helplessness of the owner himself. Cell phone manufacturers dictate to their customers what they can install, what software and versions they can use. Automobile manufacturers do similar things, including building in tracking devices and stalking their own customer's locations. Cell phone makers digitally stalk their customers too.
What interests me about the behavior of these manufacturers has less to do with the fact that they're doing this or that obnoxious thing, and more to do with what engaging in those behaviors implies about the way they are conceiving of those of us who hand them our money to acquire their products. Their high-handed behavior is revealing something important about their awareness of how technological complexity has altered the fundamental dynamics of who is serving whom in the relationship. They now not only accept our money, but they don't then really give us true ownership of the products they are supposedly "selling" us. Prohibiting our ability to do our own repairs, or precluding us by license from doing so, inevitably increases our dependency and diminishes our freedom. Somewhere recently I read a post from someone who made the point that if you can't fire an employee, they don't work for you - you work for them. The corollary might be that if you are restricted by license from repairing something yourself, you have only the trappings of ownership but not the reality.
The technique of imposing complexity as a way to diminish someone's confidence in his own agency is nowhere more apparent than in the modern contexts of climate change and Covid. In both cases, complex computer models, beyond the grasp of most regular people, have been used to stampede public policies into existence that would likely never have been implemented had not the majority of citizens felt overwhelmed by the complexity of it all, unable to separate fact from fiction. Technological complexity is thus being used as a cudgel to overwhelm people's sense that they are able to comprehend the issues of the day. The opacity of complex models drives people inexorably toward the conclusion that they might be better off if they hand their freedom over to "the experts".
What "the experts" are depending on is the general lack of awareness that a computer model prediction is nothing more than a hypothesis. In the case of climate change and Covid, the models have repeatedly failed to demonstrate meaningful predictive power in the face of reality, but one gets the sense that they have succeeded wildly in something far more important to those who want to have their hands on the levers of power. These complex models have convinced millions of people that, though they are adult citizens of erstwhile free countries, they are really only children in a complex world and lack the ability to discern for themselves how they should get on with their own lives. Thus technological complexity is being used to overwhelm and deny vast numbers of people a sense of their own essential competence.
Ask yourself: why does the alleged "science" so consistently point toward centralization of power and a reduction of individual freedom? In a universe containing a random distribution of events, is it really never the case that reducing centralization, or expanding individual freedom, offers more safety and a better quality of life? When we know empirically, through real-life experience, that de-centralized systems are more resilient and less inclined to systemic failure, why do the policy prescriptions of "the experts" so consistently counsel the centralization of decision making and power? We would probably be wise to remember James Forrestal's observation regarding any phenomena for which the dominos curiously only ever fall in a single direction:
“Consistency has never been a mark of stupidity. If they were merely stupid, they would occasionally make a mistake in our favor.”
Likewise, if models produced by "the experts" only ever generate hypotheses which suggest power should be centralized into the hands of the few, the game is probably rigged.
People who despair of their own competence are much easier to manage and direct. They will more easily welcome the oversight of experts. That is the phenomenon, of course, that we all observed during Covid. In hindsight, anyone not emotionally invested in believing themselves to be incompetent can see that the supposed "experts" did not really know what they were doing at all. Their so-called expertise was mostly a pose: they possessed only a kind of narrow technical expertise but lacked any semblance of actual wisdom. Giving power to those who lack wisdom is a foolhardy thing to do. As a result, so many people were panicked and stampeded by the technical complexity of the models that we witnessed a global collapse of human freedom as people sought shelter in the arms of so-called experts.
The resulting loss of life, and the expansion of global poverty, will reverberate in the lives of the innocent for years to come.
Controlling Our Attention
If being overwhelmed by technological complexity reduces a person's sense of her own agency, how much more can such a person be managed by controlling her attention? Our lives are comprised of the things we attend to. One of the things the smart phone has done is to provide a tool for technology companies to manage our attention. By managing our attention, they are in a very real way managing the substance of our lives. Notifications, vibrations, sounds - all of these offer ways for technology companies to leverage reactionary attention to override volitional attention. In other words, technology companies can use our phones to redirect our attention away from the things we have chosen and toward things they have chosen for us. This is being done, you won't be surprised to learn, completely without regard to whether it serves the interest of the owner of the smart phone herself.
It is probably worth noting, as I have observed elsewhere, that the desire to control someone else's attention is a characteristic shared in common with abusers in toxic relationships:
The violence of the jealous man is not always occasioned by his lover's supposed interest in another man...On the contrary, it serves a prophylactic function and helps keep the woman utterly in thrall to him until the day she decides to leave him: for the whole focus of her life is the avoidance of his rage. Avoidance is impossible, however, since it is the very arbitrariness of his violence that keeps her in thrall to him. Thus, when I hear from a female patient that the man with whom she lives has beaten her severely for a trivial reason - for having served roast potatoes when he wanted boiled, for example, or for having failed to dust the top of the television - I know at once that the man is obsessively jealous: for the jealous man wants to occupy his lover's every thought, and there is no more effective method of achieving this than his arbitrary terrorism.
- Theodore Dalrymple, Life At the Bottom
Depriving someone of volitional attention is actually a means of depriving them of their own thoughts. (On a related note, depriving someone of their own thoughts is also one of the long-term effects of controlling another person's speech.) Social media companies are paid by advertisers to monopolize, as much as possible, the attention of their users. That necessarily involves diverting users' attention away from what those users might otherwise choose for themselves.
There is more than a little dark irony in the fact that the very habits of mind needed to build technologically sophisticated platforms like social media - habits like sustained, undistracted attention and deep focus - are being applied in an effort to build technologies that deprive their own users of the very capacities that have made the technologists themselves so successful.
Pop's practical intuition regarding the tension between technological complexity and personal freedom is something I find myself chewing on more and more often. We would be wise to avoid being bamboozled by "the experts" into giving up our freedoms the next time they come running into the public square waving their model and screaming that the sky is falling.
No one should be allowed to choose our lives for us. Denying us confidence in our own minds, and in our own basic competence, is one of the effects intended by those who are anxious for us to conclude that our situation is so complex that we must seek safety in "the experts". The use of complexity to overwhelm and suppress people's belief in their essential competence, to make them question their ability to manage their own affairs, has started to seem curiously intentional and is beginning to emit a rather unpleasant odor.
Eliminating those technologies that - unbidden - clamor to be noticed is an effective way to disarm those who salivate at the prospect of making themselves the center of our attention. Taking control of our attention is a vital first step toward having a life we choose, instead of a life "the experts" have chosen for us.