In Stand Out of Our Light, James Williams’s goalis the liberation of human attention. In that quarter of our day allocated to the internet, we are tempted by ads, games, notifications and reminders prefaced by our first names of how our lives have been enriched. Williams argues that this adds up to a loss of control. The compulsion to knock down one more sequence of Tetris blocks serves as his synecdoche for the condition he diagnoses.
Drawing on the philosophers William James and Harry Frankfurt, Williams seeks a return to the spotlight of doing, the starlight of being and the daylight of knowing. Even when we don’t engage, we lose focus on what matters. We cave in to pettiness, “pursuing a low-level goal as though it were a higher, intrinsically valuable one”. We post words and emojis and check on response traffic instead of talking to friends. The dominant tone in political discourse too often descends to reflexive outrage.
“It is now impossible to achieve any political reform worth having without first reforming the totalistic forces that guide our attention and our lives,” Williams writes. To him, Cambridge Analytica was Fort Sumter in the struggle to defeat the “politics behind politics”. But my civil war metaphor is not quite right, for this is a non-violent battle for the mind’s terrain. We can defeat the stimuli to erupt and linger with awe and wonder.