“At Netflix, we are competing for our customers’ time, so our competitors include Snapchat, YouTube, sleep etc.”

What an extraordinary thought, don’t you think? Sleep is one of their competitors.  Netflix is just like any other business – it desires to grow, to improve market share; part of its mission statement is even to promise its employees huge impact – presumably, it wishes to influence the world and become a global giant. And one of its competitors, which must presumably be beaten, is sleep.

In Friday’s assembly, I held up a little yellow book written by a man called James Williams, called Stand out of our light; freedom and resistance in the attention economy. Williams had been working for another global giant, Google, whose mission statement is “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. The world’s information – that is a pretty high ambition, and Williams admired it. Yet after a few years, he realised that, despite the fact that he had more technology and access to knowledge in his life than ever before, he was, in fact, finding it harder than ever to do the things he really wanted to do.

Think of your goals in life. For many adults, it might be ‘spend more time with the family’, ‘be a better father’, ‘sail across the Atlantic’; for you, it may be ‘get to grade 8 in the violin’, ‘play for the 1st XV’, ‘become a monitor’, ‘go to Cambridge’.  Technology, if it really is aiming to be useful, should be supporting us achieve these life goals. But what is our actual experience of technology? What we actually find is an endless list of products which are designed purely to catch our attention, measured by number of views, time on their site, number of clicks, total conversions. Their purpose is to hold you in, to pray on your needs and to feed addiction. Their purpose is to grow; to sell advertising; to make money. Why else would Microsoft and Oracle compete to pay huge money for TikTok? And they are winning: how much time do you spend on your phone? Why? Are you checking social media? Are you binge-watching TV series? Are you playing computer games? Are you viewing endless websites that offer ‘top 10 most grotesque animals’ or news articles like ‘Exclusive: James Norton kisses girlfriend Imogen Poots as they enjoy a romantic gondola ride’ or ‘Sue Barker AXED as BBC plan shake up of Question of Sport’ – those last two from the Mail Online yesterday! Well, yes, we are. The Mail has more online readers than any other newspaper. And you can count the clicks on your phone; in fact, it will do it for you and then horrify you with the hours you have been on it that day.

The question Williams asks in his book is: if technology is everywhere, and takes up so much of our lives, then presumably something which we had before is also losing out – something has to make way for technology to be so successful; and that something is our attention. And we need our attention to be in the right place, otherwise we cannot achieve the human goals that we wish to achieve. The most provocative paragraph in an already provocative books reads like this:

“What do you pay when you pay attention? You pay with all the things you could have attended to, but didn’t; all the goals you could have pursued; all the actions you didn’t take; and all the possible ‘you’s you could have been had you attended to those other things. Attention is paid in possible futures foregone. You pay for that extra Game of Thrones episode with the heart to heart talk you could have had with a friend. You pay for that extra hour on social media with the sleep you didn’t get and the fresh feeling you didn’t have the next morning. You pay for giving in to that outrage inducing clickbait about that politician you hate, with the patience and empathy it took from you, and the anger you have at yourself for allowing yourself to take the bait in the first place. 

We pay attention with the lives we might have lived. When we consider the costs in this wider view, the question of attention […] becomes the question of having the freedom to navigate your life in the way you want, across all scales of the human experience.”

So, when you are next online, ask yourself a few questions. Are my goals the same as this company’s goals? (almost certainly not) How is this going to help me achieve the life I wish to lead? Am I, in fact, being led by something which is out of control? Do I want that? Can I regain control? Because the question of where we place your limited attention is critical to the person we end up being; so try to use your attention wisely.

Back to all news