The Oligarchs of Tech and the Grave Threat to Our Most Precious Resource

July 23, 2019 Updated: July 24, 2019


What has more influence on people’s thinking than any religion and more control over people’s actions than any government?

According to Tristan Harris, co-founder of Time Well Spent (now the Center for Humane Technology), it’s the big tech companies that hold the metaphorical strings attached to the other end of social media and smartphone technologies.

These companies are very interested and heavily invested in what Harris’s organization calls “the extractive attention economy.” They have discovered ways to distract, extract, and sell the attention of billions of people to advertisers and other interested parties.

Take someone’s attention and you take their time. As with money, everyone has a finite amount of time to spend, and these companies want to make sure you spend a lot of it on their products.

The best way to get people to waste a lot of time is to make them unconscious of how much is slipping away. Casinos and malls are windowless and filled with artificial lighting so the unsuspecting remain unaware of the diminishing daylight and continue spending money.

We gamble and shop on smartphones these days, however, and the casinos and malls of the digital world never close. Moreover, the “free” spaces of social media we inhabit also seem immune to the passage of time. It’s no wonder we lose track of how many hours we spend in them: They’re designed that way.

It’s always been true, as Benjamin Franklin quipped, that “if time be of all things most precious, wasting time must be the greatest prodigality, since lost time is never found again.” But today—to paraphrase Winston Churchill—never in the history of the world has the attention and time of so many been controlled so much by so few.

In order to fortify ourselves against this pervasive vulnerability, this threat to our most precious resource, we must become more conscious of the passage of time and more intentional about how we spend it.

Becoming More Conscious of Passage of Time

In a previous article, I wrote about the virtue of frugality and the way that budgeting can change how we think about money, by forcing us to acknowledge the reality of scarcity. Likewise, the first step toward making good choices with our time is to find a way to become conscious of the scarcity of time.

Credit cards are effective at obscuring the fact that money is finite, and this tactic leads many people to make imprudent choices with their money. Likewise, tech companies employ methods developed at places such as Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab to obscure the passage of time people spend online.

To counter this strategy, I started setting a timer on my tablet for every half hour to help make me conscious of how much time was slipping by. This trick affected my thinking and concentration. Suddenly, my time appeared more precious because I noticed it disappearing.

Eventually, it occurred to me that I was reinventing the wheel, or rather, the grandfather clock. The very function these old clocks were designed to perform is now, though, the very reason why many people don’t like them: They ring out a tone every quarter-hour!

Maybe we should reconsider the use and usefulness of those old clocks. Their original inventors were Benedictine monks whose rule required them to pause seven times in their day for prayer. The tone of the clock made them conscious of time and reminded them where they were in that schedule.

We already know how to be conscious of the passage of time. We do it every time we look at the clock while at work.

We spend our work time clock-conscious, and it makes the day go slowly, but we spend our leisure unconscious of the passage of time, and it flies by. Of course, part of the enjoyment of leisure is that it is time we can “waste,” but most people, I imagine, end up wasting it when they shouldn’t, or wasting it on things they’d rather not.

Becoming More Intentional About Spending Time

In light of the expert forces of distraction arrayed against our determination to spend our time well, we should develop disciplines and make strategic habits that help us be more intentional with our limited time.

In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin included an hour-by-hour schedule detailing how he would spend his day. As with a budget, Franklin decided how he would spend his time before he spent it, and his intentional planning helped him be more productive in his work and take more pleasure in his leisure.

I used to go to bed at midnight and wake up at 7 a.m. Gradually, I realized that I passed the hours from 10 p.m. to midnight usually unproductive and often unintentional. This year, I shifted my schedule so that I still get seven hours of sleep, but now I go to bed at 10 p.m. and wake up at 5 a.m. (coincidentally, the same sleep schedule Franklin chose).

Between the hours of 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., I read passages of varying lengths from a stack of books and newspapers, pray and meditate, and exercise—all before my work day begins. I find that usually nothing before 7 o’clock requires my attention, and so I can set those hours aside as private.

Tech companies and marketers know clever methods to induce us to spend our time and our money in ways we often would not choose if we had all our wits about us. As a people who fancy themselves self-governing, we must fortify our capacity to make good choices in regard to these resources with disciplines and habits that maximize our liberty.

Most grandfather clocks have the same Latin phrase engraved on their faces. It’s etched in the brass as a statement of their purpose, which is to sound a constant reminder that tempus fugit—time flies. How are you spending it?

Clifford Humphrey is originally from Warm Springs, Georgia. Currently, he is a doctoral candidate in politics at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Follow him on Twitter @cphumphrey.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Clifford Humphrey
Clifford Humphrey
Clifford Humphrey is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America and the Director of Admissions for Thales College. He holds a PhD in politics from Hillsdale College, and he resides in Raleigh, North Carolina.