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Nine Dots Prize. $100,000. Digital Technology and Politics. Extracts from the Winner. A Critique.
In November 2017, I bought a copy of the Times Literary Supplement (TLS), a fortnightly broadsheet with lengthy and often interesting book reviews.
I started reading the publication on the London-Brisbane, Australia flight.
While reading the publication, I noticed an advertisement for a competition to write a 3000-word essay on the question: “Are digital technologies making politics impossible?”
Those who submitted an essay also had to write an outline for a 40,000-word book proposal with a short outline of each chapter. Called the Nine Dots Competition, the winner would receive a $100,000 prize and a book contract with Cambridge University Press, England.
I continued reading the book reviews and did not give the matter another thought. On the flight home, I had a sudden insight on a theme to explore for this essay. I submitted an essay and will put on the blog later this month.
I saw online that the substantial prize for writing a relatively short essay gave the Nine Dots competition much publicity online and in print media in the UK and USA.
At the end of last month (May 2017), the 10-board members of leading academics, journalists and thinkers awarded the prize to James Williams, 35. The board deemed his essay the “most original and creative” of the 700 submissions.
Williams, a US citizen, worked for Google for 10 years. He currently researches philosophy and ethics at Oxford and runs a project to ‘steer technology design towards having greater respect for users’ attention.’
Cambridge University Press released two extracts.
Two extracts comprise around 440 words.
In the announcement, the board said that Williams makes the point the distracts of digital technology are more profound than annoyances, persuasive design undermines human will and to asset and defend our freedom of attention’ is an urgent moral and political task.
James Williams writes:
“Digital technologies privilege our impulses over our intentions. They are increasingly designed to exploit our psychological vulnerabilities in order to direct us toward goals that may or may not align with our own. In the short term, this can distract us from doing the things we want to do. In the longer term, however, it 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.’ A primary effect of digital technologies is thus to undermine the operation and even development of the human will. This militates against the possibility of all forms of self-determination at both individual and collective levels, including all forms of politics worth having.”
Today, as in Huxley’s time, we have ‘failed to take into account’ our ‘almost infinite appetite for distractions.’ The effect of the global attention economy—i.e., of our digital technologies doing precisely what they are designed to do—is to frustrate and even erode the human will at individual and collective levels, undermining the very assumptions of democracy. These are the distractions of a system that is not on our side.
How, then, should we respond?
First, we must reject the impulse to ask users to ‘just adapt’ to distraction. We must also move briskly past the illusion that ‘media literacy’ will ever be enough. Nor can we reply that if someone doesn’t like the choices on technology’s menu, their only option is to ‘unplug’ or ‘detox’—this is a pessimistic and unsustainable view of technology. And, of course, we can’t expect the attention economy to fix itself.
We must, then, move urgently to assert and defend our freedom of attention.
Asserting our freedom of attention means developing its conceptual and linguistic foundations. We can find precedent for such a freedom in Mill when he writes, in On Liberty, that the ‘appropriate region of human liberty’ … ‘comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness’ … ‘liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative.’ ‘This principle,’ he writes, ‘requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character.’ This sounds to me like a freedom of attention.
A Critique of the Two Extracts
First, a sincere congratulation to James Williams for winning the prize. Williams places emphasis on freedom of attention, as if such freedom had a substantial truth to it. Freedom of attention is largely a social, corporate and political myth. Personal tendencies and demands from others limit freedom of attention to rare moments.
Mr James Williams appears to propagate the notion that the individual self can switch from endless distractions to doing the things that one wants to do and living the way one wants to live.
This seems a naïve and idealistic priority in life. Has the author not reflected on of birth, ageing, pain and death? Has he not reflected on loss, separation, failure, blame, redundancy and sickness? Has he inquired into the conditioning of human beings from conception onward? Has he explored the impact of parents, education, culture, environment, political policies and religious/social beliefs upon our daily lives? These are important ethical, philosophical and spiritual questions.
‘Living the way we want to live?’ and ‘framing the plan of our life to suit our character?”
Most citizens of the world do not live the lifestyle of Mr Williams and the 10 board members, who selected his entry for the prize. The winner writes for the well-educated and privileged sections of society. Such people also have have their endless personal problems – fears, addictions, family conflicts, debts, insecurity and self-doubt. Circumstances force people to give attention to what they resist. Freedom of attention?
Yes, digital media continues to ‘undermine the operation and even development of the human will.’ Given the manipulation of human psychology, we need to engage in campaigns to address these powerful corporations that have created a social media utterly unfit for purpose. We need to protest about these corporations who feed the habits, addictions and obsessions of their subscribers.
Mr. Williams fails to write a word about freedom of protest in his two distracts.
He tells us we must ‘move urgently to assert and defend our freedom of attention.’ How can you assert and defend freedom of attention if you don’t have it due to the distracted mind with an eroded will?
Freedom of attention requires a depth of exploration/meditation/reflection that dissolves the naïve notion of ‘living the way I want to live and getting what I want.’
There are far more important things in life, such as wisdom, compassion, love, values, service to others and community building. To give priority to oneself above all else becomes a distraction to inner-outer change.
The bosses and shareholders at Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, the mobile phone companies etc will be quietly satisfied with the tone and content of such extracts in this essay. The author says he does not want us to ‘unplug or detox’ from social media – nor do the corporations.
Big Brother dominates the consciousness of millions. The author’s solution is to ‘assert our freedom of attention.’ He then backs his solution up with an ill thought out belief of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) on the “inward domain of consciousness and absolute freedom of opinion.” Opinion come out of our conditioning. How could opinions be absolutely free?
If we live in the cult of individualism and personal desires, we lose our freedom of attention to protest at the constant indoctrination in consumer culture.
You cannot find authentic liberty through an unwillingness to protest about the corporations. These corporations manipulate the public mind, engage in surveillance of our daily lives, avoid their civic responsibilities to pay their taxes and avoid paying decent living wages to the workers on the factory floor.
Social media corporations, such as Google, continue to be obsessed with the maximisation of profit through promotion of consumerism, pornography, gambling, Dark-net and much, much more.
Sadly, Mr Williams seems to have a very small area of freedom of attention. His freedom of attention appears to be limited to himself and others like him. He appears to want others to limit their freedom of attention to themselves while staying online. So do the corporations.
Big Brother will surely be giving Mr. Williams a pat on the back.
A well written piece. It is a pity that the author tells us what we should know already about the impact of digital media on our lives. We need personal action alongside collective protest and political action to change the behaviour of these influential corporations.
I certainly hope he will address these issues in his book due out early next year.