For most people, the relationship we have with our gadgets, especially our smartphone, is, well, complicated.
We love our iPhone. We hate our iPhone. It’s a necessary item. It’s a ball and chain. It’s useful and a distraction. And when the constant barrage of notifications, messages and social media feeds keeps us from the things we actually set out to do, a lot of us feel not only distracted, but also guilty. We blame ourselves for lacking the willpower to be more focused. But what if we were simply fighting an unfair fight? What if the forces we’re up against are much more powerful than us — and designed to hog our attention?
That’s exactly what Oxford University researcher James Williams believes to be true, and it has turned him into a staunch advocate for shifting the conversation towards a critical look at the systems that drive technology today.
About ten years ago, right around the time the first iPhone was released, James was working at Google. As an early adopter, he soon started noticing some unwanted side effects. As a person, he felt more and more distracted from acting on goals that mattered to him. As a member of the tech industry, he found himself increasingly disenchanted with a system designed to keep people hooked to their devices in a battle for their attention.
James left his job at Google and started searching for answers to some of the questions that were nagging at him, namely: How can we create tech that is aligned with people’s intentions, values, and well-being?
Today, he is a doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute, and he recently won the prestigious Nine Dots Prize for his essay on freedom and persuasion in the attention economy.
James graciously shared some of his thoughts and insights with Domain7. We chatted about attention as a beleaguered commodity in today’s economy, the misalignment between tech companies’ (often noble) goals and how success is measured, and how we can create a better system.