NEXT17 | James Williams – Distraction by Design: Why the Attention Economy Is in a Moral Crisis

September 28, 2017
Right now, there’s a fierce battle raging for your attention. Many of the technologies you use every day aim to maximize the amount of time and attention you spend with them. To win, they must increasingly use cheap tricks that exploit your psychological vulnerabilities. This results in an endless barrage of ‘persuasive’ designs — e.g. clickbait, auto-playing videos, or notifications — intended to ‘hook’ us and keep us tapping, clicking, watching, and scrolling for as long as possible. This produces effects in our lives that we tend to minimize as ‘distractions,’ or minor annoyances. However, the problems go much deeper than this. 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 digital technology, we’ve made exactly the same mistake. These ‘deep distractions’ pose major moral and political challenges that have so far been largely ignored. Understanding their dynamics, and better aligning technology design with true human needs and interests, is therefore an urgent task.

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