Sunday June 04, 2017

Attention exploitation: the indirect threats of online persuasion

Listen 14:46

The new  Nine Dots Prize was created to encourage creative thinking on a societal issue.

And it's a big deal. Along with the $100,000 prize money comes a book deal with Cambridge University Press.

The inaugural question was: "Are digital technologies making politics impossible?"

358 James Williams

James Williams (Anthony Upton)

Prize winner James Williams says yes. Or actually, he says "Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Persuasion in the Attention Economy."

Which is the title of his award-winning entry, selected from 700 entries around the world.

James is a doctoral candidate researching design ethics at Oxford University. He's also a former Google employee.

So what made James' answer to the question so compelling?

It's all about our attention. And the way that attention is exploited. James believes that digital technologies are all competing for our attention.

"Technology ought to be like a GPS for our lives...it ought to help us get to where we want to go. And if technologies are distracting us, it's like if a GPS took us to a completely different state or province or country." - James Williams

And they do this by appealing to our impulsive nature.

Over time, all these minor distractions can add up and create distracted lives.

And that may be keeping us from being who we want to be, on both an individual and a collective level.

And James thinks that could be undermining the very assumptions of democracy.

358 nine dots

Oxford student and former Google employee, James Williams has won the inaugural $100,000 Nine Dots Prize with his answer to this question.