WINNER OF THE INAUGURAL $100,000 NINE DOTS PRIZE
Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy
Published by Cambridge University Press on 31 May 2018
Paperback or Open Access
Clickbait. Fake news. Notifications. Auto-playing videos. In the ‘Information Age,’ our world often seems like an endless avalanche of distractions. However, far from being mere minor annoyances, these ‘distractions’ are in fact symptoms of a deep, darkproblem that lurks at the heart of modern media: our digital technologies – those products and services we increasingly trust to guide our thoughts and actions – are not on our side.
In Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy, James Williams – a former Google strategist, now Oxford-trained philosopher and the winner of the inaugural Nine Dots Prize – warns that the infrastructure of intelligent, adversarial persuasion that now dominates the digital environment is undermining the human will, not only at an individual level but at wider societal and even global levels too.
With his unique insider perspective, Williams examines:
- How the internet enabled the rise of the largest, most effective, and most centralised system of behavioural and attitudinal manipulation in human history.
- How we have sleepwalked into a world in which the heads of a small handful of tech companies are able to influence what billions of individuals think and do.
- How taking a wider view of the concept of ‘attention’ enables us to see the full set of implications the attention economy carries for human freedom.
- How the dynamics of the digital attention economy amplify outrage and mob rule, and may even play a role in the rise of populism.
Ultimately, Williams argues that the digital attention economy represents a new form of political power, one that subjects us to a sort of ‘attentional serfdom,’ and that reforming it may be the defining moral and political task of our time. Furthermore, the prospect of emerging technologies such as AI, VR, and brain-computer interfaces make doing so now an even more urgent task. Helpfully, Williams points toward several categories where such reform may be usefully developed – in areas of language, design, business, policy, and more – and he also warns of pitfalls we should avoid. In particular, he argues that we urgently need to ‘reset’ advertising – to rethink its nature and purpose in an information-abundant world.
Stand Out of Our Light is based on Williams’ entry to the inaugural Nine Dots Prize, a new prize for creative thinking that tackles contemporary societal issues. The name of the Prize references the nine dots puzzle – a lateral thinking puzzle which can only be solved by thinking outside the box. Every two years, entrants are asked to respond to a question in 3,000 words. The winner receives US$100,000 to write a short book expanding on their ideas, which is published by Cambridge University Press in a variety of formats, including open access, meaning the book can be downloaded free of charge.
The inaugural question was: Are digital technologies making politics impossible? Williams beat over 700 other entrants from all over the world to be named the winner by a judging panel consisting of leading academics, journalists and authors.