James Williams: Distraction by design and the attention moral crisis

Attention is our most precious resource - and it’s being sucked away from us. We need a Freedom of Attention to match Freedom of Speech - says James Williams.

James Williams is a writer and researcher at the University of Oxford

WARNING: Live-blogging. Prone to error, inaccuracy and howling crimes against grammar and syntax. Post will be updated over the next few days.

In the Information Age, the dominant challenge is managing data. As a society we’ve missed an observation that Herbert Simon made back in the 1970s, that as information becomes abundant, attention becomes scarce. And that has huge implications – and challenges.

A broad way of describing this is to look at the enterprise called advertising. As the scarce resource, attention is the source of competition between businesses. Advertising is now getting good at understanding the psychology of how to make people do things. This, coupled with the power of the network, has created the greatest moral crisis of our time.

The power of persuasion that has come from this technology has consolidated in the hands of a handful of people in a handful of offices, largely in one state in one country. This is the air we breathe, the environment we live in now. This is the attention economy – and they’re really good at it.

The disjunction between the sort of things we measure and design for – clicks, app use – are not aligned to the life goals of people. Technology is meant to help us, so this suggests a profound failure. Reed Hastings of Netflix described sleep as one of his competitors. This is not of benefit to humans.

This is a danger to humanity’s freedom through seduction. Aldous Huxley wrote of the dangers of our almost infinite appetite for distraction. What we love may be more dangerous than what we fear.

Freedom of Attention

We need a freedom of attention, just as we have a freedom of speech and expression. JS Mill’s On Liberty is a good guide here: freedom of thought, and freedom of taste are a pre-requisite for a freedom of speech.

We tend to think about distractions as small interruptions to focus, but there’s a deeper level where technology is facilitation us making bad choices, and acting on bad impulses. It’s not just about stopping us doing what we want to do, it’s also stopping us being the person we want to be.

“Intermittent variable rewards” is the psychological concept that drives slot machine addiction, but also drives habitual use of the newsfeed. The systems we use have values of their own, and when we use them they become the values of our world. The new media became our real world, by reshaping it, said Marshall McLuhan. The medium is the message.

We’re seeing an obsession with fame, but also an increase in pettiness – a focus on details not the bigger picture, like CBS saying that Trump was bad for America – but good for CBS.

We need to be able to want what we want, not what we are seduced into wanting. Outrage is seductive because it gives us moral clarity and social solidarity. That’s great in hunting tribes, but completely counterproductive at a global scale. It turns into public shaming, destroying people for one action. In children we call it cyber-bullying, in adults we call it karma. But it’s exactly the mob rule that Socrates saw turning democracies into new tyrannies.

The distraction triad

So, it’s about doing what we want to do, being what we want to be, and wanting what we want to want. We’re undergoing a distributed denial of service attack on the human will.

  1. Functional distraction – interferences with what we want to do
  2. Existential distraction – interferes with our being goals, stops us being who we want to be
  3. Epistemically distraction – frustration of our underlying capabilities like reason, willpower and reflection.

When the attention economy undermines these things, it dehumanises us. This is a disgraceful situation. This isn’t anyone’s fault – but equally it’s nota. Tolerable situation. So we need to act on it.

Rejection of the technology is an option – but that misses the point that technology is no longer a tool, it’s an environment. Also, we shouldn’t see technology as hostile. Why shouldn’t it help us?

Just adapting doesn’t help – there are legions of people being trained and working to undermine our willpower. Where is the line between ethical and unethical persuasion? Wrong question. The fact we’re asking the question means we’ve crossed the line.


We have an issue of infraethics – the ethics of infrastructure.

We have four questions:

  • What exists?
  • What can we do?
  • What do we want to do?
  • What must we do?

That suggests we need to move user-centred design up from the task level, to the life level. And the area where we might have the biggest impact is in the language of persuasion. Differenciate between different types of technology-driven persuasion by how well they are aligned to our goals and how much they constrain our actions.

Ads have moved from the exception from the medium’s design goal to the normal design logic, as analytics thinking has spread. Digital advertising is no longer the exception to the rule, it is the rule. It is our digital environment. Something like climate change is happening in outer internet environment. We’re reaching a tipping point that we might not be able to come back from.

A photograph of the world from space turned the world into a concept we can consider, and fight to protect. Something like that is happening with the attention economy. We need a photography of our whole lives, and then fight to defend it. Attention is our most precious resource, and it’s being taken away from us.