Unlike most wars against democracy, we love and depend on our current adversary. In fact, we carry it around with us everywhere.

Smartphones and their accompanying apps might be fantastically useful, but for the last several years these beeping and vibrating personal assistants have been waging a war on your attention. True, you no longer get lost or miss an email, but at what cost? Democracies, it is often said, are only as good as their citizens. But it’s hard to be a good citizen when you are surrounded by devices designed to distract you. It’s far harder to concentrate, focus and grapple with complicated, long-term questions if you reach for your pocket every 30 seconds. Checking is our generation’s epidemic. But good citizenship – and subsequently good politics – requires thinking, not checking.

I suspect you already know what’s driving this. As the saying goes ‘if it’s free, then you’re the product’. More accurately, your attention is the product. Many internet companies have a direct financial incentive to keep you hooked in as long as possible, because more time online means more user profiling, more ads, more sales, more subscriptions. Every font size, notification alert colour, refresh option has been carefully designed and split tested on thousands or millions of users to work out what can keep us connected in for longer. Do you know that in the bowels of every inspirationally branded tech firm some of the world’s smartest minds are paid small fortunes to work out why you click on things, and get you to click on more things? 

This is the largest undirected mass experiment ever conducted and the results are not in yet – but early signs are worrying. The first thing a time traveller from 1995 would notice is not the rounded cars or glass buildings, but that half the population seems attached to a small device via a thin wire. According to Ofcom we spend on average three hours per day on our phones – and anyone under 24 checks the little devices once every eight minutes. Nowhere is safe. Around 40 per cent of us check our phones first thing in the morning and last thing at night. The result? By my estimate, the aggregate attention span of the nation has fallen by around 25 per cent in the last decade. (Mine by significantly more). Psychologists now talk of thoughtful ‘deep reading’ being replaced with skimming over texts. Numerous studies find a surprising number don’t read articles they click or share, and will ditch a website if it doesn’t load up inside one hundredth of a second. I struggle to keep on a page for more than a few seconds before I feel the urge to reach for the phone and seek out something more interesting. 

It’s no use blaming the tech firms. We’re all complicit, because we’ve signed up to the deal, and they churn out stuff we want. It turns out that both Aldous Huxley and George Orwell were half right. Brave New World predicted we’d entertain ourselves into blissful indifference about the world around us. 1984 imagined a world of total surveillance. Neither guessed that the same device could do both – and in a self-perpetuating loop! The more you’re entertained, the more you’re monitored. And the more you’re monitored, the better you’ll be entertained. 

This new logic – which is sometimes called ‘the attention economy’ – is directly reflected in our politics. Citizens are distracted by beeps, bombarded with info 24/7 and faced with infinite data options. As a result, we are collectively less able to attend to what matters, more easily swayed by simplistic arguments because there’s no time for reflection, and more prone to emotional reflex as it’s the only way to handle the confusing noise. I used to read entire government documents, but haven’t for years now. Consequently, I find myself more open to simple ideas, and demand swift and immediate solutions from my leaders. An old saying went ‘if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention’. But we are all outraged all the time, because we’re not paying attention. Not properly, anyway.

The style of our politics is evolving to match the new mood. Have you noticed that every modern populist – whether from the left or right, since trend crosses the spectrum – embraced social media early, and is spectacularly good at it? Seen from a marketer’s perspective (and these platforms are advertising companies after all) it makes sense: the loud, outraged, table-thumping politician is a more sellable product when attention is short. Just as the telegenic Kennedy was a product of the television so Donald Trump is the first genuine politician of the social media age. Democracy depends on reasoned debates, compromise, and long-term planning. All of which are harder when no-one’s listening to each other. 

We might one day look back on ours as an era still relatively undisturbed. The number of devices connected to the internet is growing quickly, and the opportunities for distraction and addiction – tailored to your exact hopes, precise fears and algorithmically calculated aspirations – will grow with them. What happens when your car, your fridge, your baby monitor and TV are also data collecting computers? Imagine an algorithm in ten years from now that has access to your mood, health, well-being, marital status, wealth, age, and so on. It might help grapple with difficult decisions. Should I buy organic food? Who should I vote for? What should I read? Deny it if you want, but we already rely on machines like this. There are well-meaning and proliferating apps designed to help you decide how to vote. You put in your preferences and the machine spits out a party for you. That millions of people have asked an app that they barely understood how to fulfil their most important civic duty bothered exactly no-one, even though they replace thinking with clicking. 

Futurists sometimes talk about the ‘technological singularity’. It’s the point at which machine self-improvement sparks a runaway, self-replicating cycle – building ever smarter versions of themselves. Ray Kurzweil, capo di capi of futurists, thinks it will happen around the middle of the century. Far sooner (and more likely) is what I call the ‘moral singularity’ – the point at which we start to delegate substantial moral and political reasoning to machines. We’ll become too lazy and distracted to engage in the tedious business of thinking about things – especially when machines seem to make a decent fist of it. This too would be a self-perpetuating singularity moment of no return. Life might be easy, but we’d be a nation of non-thinkers, of non-citizens – easily swayed, nudged and moved, either by demagogues or algorithms. Probably both.

This is why attention is now a foundational skill for citizens – and holding on to it is a duty up there with voting, buying newspapers and protesting. Schools should add it to their citizenship classes. It’s always been a delicate resource of course – I once sat glued to a TV – but it’s now under assault on an industrial, and yet very personalised, scale. That means you need to work on attention like you would on a diet or fitness. Have switch off times, especially at night. Focus carefully and thoughtfully on the things you read, rather than allowing yourself to be distracted by a beep or ping. If you have children, try not to outsource childcare to the tablet (I know it’s hard). And never, ever hit refresh. These devices are designed by the smartest minds and machines to be difficult to resist, which is why a higher purpose is necessary. Knowing you’re doing your bit for the future of democracy might give you that extra motivation to put the phone down, concentrate, and think for yourself.

By Jamie Bartlett

About the writer

Jamie Bartlett is the author of three books: The People Vs Tech (2018) about data and democracies, Radicals (2017) about political outsiders and The Dark Net (2014) about internet subcultures. He is the Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think-tank Demos, where he specialises in online social movements and the impact of technology on society. He is also a regular commentator on national and international media outlets and recently presented the two-part BBC documentary series 'The Secrets of Silicon Valley'. 

For Anyone//Anywhere: The web at 30, the British Council is proud to be collaborating with the Barbican on a series of essays from leading international writers and thinkers whose work explores the impact of technology on our lives. Find out more about the Barbican’s Life Rewired season, which throughout 2019 explores what it means to be human when technology is changing everything.

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