On 21 October 2017, James Williams – winner of the inaugural $100,000 Nine Dots Prize, Oxford doctoral candidate and former Google employee – will give a talk at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas entitled Freedom and Persuasion in the Attention Economy. Here's a sneak peek.
Right now, there’s a fierce battle raging for something you possess: your attention. Though you may not realize it, the goal of most digital technologies you use is to maximize the amount of time and attention you spend with them. In order to have any chance at winning, their designs must increasingly resort to cheap tricks that exploit your psychological vulnerabilities. This results in an endless barrage of ‘persuasive’ designs – e.g. clickbait, auto-playing videos, or notifications – that are intended to ‘hook’ us and keep us tapping, clicking, watching, and scrolling for as long as possible. This produces a set of effects in our lives that we tend to minimize as ‘distractions’, or minor annoyances. However, such a view greatly underestimates their nature. In the short term, these effects can indeed ‘distract’ us from doing the things we want to do. In the longer term, however, they can distract us from living the lives we want to live, or, even worse, undermine our capacities for reflection and self-regulation, making it harder, in the words of philosopher Harry Frankfurt, to ‘want what we want to want’. In Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley lamented that the defenders of freedom in his time had ‘failed to take into account ... man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions’. In the design of our digital technologies, we’ve made exactly the same mistake. These deeper ‘distractions’ pose enormous moral and political challenges that have, to date, gone largely unaddressed. Understanding their dynamics, and better aligning technology design with real human needs and interests, is therefore an urgent task.
• Freedom and Persuasion in the Attention Economy is organised by CRASSH, Cambridge University Press and the Nine Dots Prize. The event promises to be one of the highlights of this year's Festival. Bookings open 25 September.