Balliol DPhil student wins major new literary prize for innovative thinking

Wednesday 31 May

Balliol DPhil student James Williams, winner of inaugural Nine Dots PrizeBalliol DPhil student James Williams has won the inaugural $100,000 Nine Dots Prize, with an essay in which the work of Balliol alumnus Aldous Huxley features strongly.

The Nine Dots Prize, funded by the Kadas Prize Foundation, is a new prize for creative thinking that tackles contemporary societal issues. Entrants from any discipline are invited to submit a 3,000-word response to a set question; this year the question was ‘Are digital technologies making politics impossible?’ James, who is researching design ethics at the Oxford Internet Institute, won the prize with his essay ‘Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Persuasion in the Attention Economy’. It was one of of more than 700 entries from around the world and a board of ten leading academics, journalists and thinkers judged it the most original and innovative.

In his winning essay James argues that digital technologies are making all forms of politics worth having impossible as they privilege our impulses over our intentions and are ‘designed to exploit our psychological vulnerabilities in order to direct us toward goals that may or may not align with our own’. He covers:

  • how the ‘distractions’ produced by digital technologies are much more profound than minor ‘annoyances’;
  • how so-called ‘persuasive’ design is undermining the human will and ‘militating against the possibility of all forms of self-determination’;
  • how beginning to ‘assert and defend our freedom of attention’ is an urgent moral and political task.

Extracts from the essay are available to read on the Nine Dots Prize website. As well as the prize money, James wins a contract with Cambridge University Press for a book in which he will develop his ideas.

On being awarded the prize at the British Library on 30 May 2017, James said: ‘I’m honoured, grateful, heartened, energised and overjoyed to have won this opportunity. I know that many others thought deeply about this question and put substantial time, attention and care into answering it. I’m looking forward to getting to work on producing a book that is worthy of the competition.

Aldous Huxley (Balliol 1913) (photo: Balliol Archives)‘As Neil Postman pointed out in the 1980s, we’re far more attuned to Orwellian threats to freedom such as coercion and force, than to the subtler, more indirect threats of persuasion or manipulation of the sort Aldous Huxley [right] warned us about when he predicted that it’s not what we fear but what we desire that will control us. Yet today these Huxleyan threats pose the far greater risk, and I’m extremely encouraged that the Nine Dots Prize Board has chosen to give its attention to these pressing matters. Their important question is not only compelling but also timely, and this competition is a fascinating and original way of putting such a crucial subject on the societal radar.’

As well as researching the philosophy and ethics of attention and persuasion as they relate to technology design, James is a member of the Digital Ethics Lab at Oxford and a visiting researcher at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. Prior to that he worked for over ten years at Google, where he received the Founders’ Award – the company’s highest honour – for his work on advertising products and tools. He is also a co-founder of the Time Well Spent campaign, a project that aims to steer technology design towards having greater respect for users’ attention. He holds a Master’s in design engineering from the University of Washington and as an undergraduate studied literature at Seattle Pacific University.

The Chairman of the Nine Dots Prize judges, Professor Simon Goldhill, said: ‘We aimed to discover a new voice, and luckily we have: an as-yet unpublished individual with experience of the tech industry and of academia … we hope that a really lively public debate will follow [the book’s] publication. The issue it addresses is hugely important, and this is a new and thrilling way of starting such a discussion.’

Balliol DPhil student and Nine Dots Prize winner James Williams receiving trophy from David Runciman