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Title: Freedom and persuasion in the attention economy
Author: Williams, James Wilson
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2017
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In order to do anything that matters, we must first be able to give attention to what matters. However, as Herbert Simon predicted in the 1970s, the unprecedented abundance of information produced by digital technologies has resulted in a similarly unprecedented scarcity of attention. As the newly scarce resource, our attention is today the primary object of competition among our digital technologies. In the so-called 'attention economy' that has emerged, design wins when it captures as much of our attention as possible-and in order to win, it must increasingly exploit our non-rational psychological biases. This attentional capture is carried out with a view to directing our thoughts and behaviors toward predefined goals-goals that may or may not align with our own. Persuasion, then, is the dominant business model of the digital attention economy, and this persuasion is increasingly powerful, prevalent, and centralized. Major moral and political questions therefore lurk here: questions of attention management that to date have been largely passed over in favor of questions about information management, such as privacy or surveillance. As a result, a full ethical grappling with the digital attention economy is long overdue. But how should we begin to think about, let alone protect, human freedom in such an environment of industrialized persuasion? In this thesis I approach this topic via four main questions. First, what counts as a 'persuasive' technology? Second, what risks to freedom do persuasive technologies pose? Third, how does advertising ethics need to change in order to be useful in the digital attention economy? And finally, how does specifically digital advertising differ in its nature and ethics from advertising as historically understood? I broadly conclude that the digital attention economy has produced several direct as well as systemic effects that pose serious challenges for user self-determination. These challenges have received little serious ethical attention to date and therefore warrant a sustained project of critical analysis and intervention. I then close with a brief, high-level discussion of possible paths for reforming the digital attention economy moving forward.
Supervisor: Floridi, Luciano ; Nash, Victoria Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available