James Williams, a doctoral candidate researching design ethics at Oxford University and former Google employee, has won the inaugural $100,000 (£77,730) Nine Dots Prize.
Established to promote and encourage innovative thinking to address problems facing the modern world, the Nine Dots Prize is It is funded by the Kadas Prize Foundation, an English registered charity established to fund research into significant but neglected questions relevant to today’s world, and supported by Cambridge University Press and the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), both departments of the University of Cambridge.
Up against competition from over 700 other entrants from around the world, 35-year-old Williams’ 3,000-word answer to the set question ‘Are digital technologies making politics impossible?’ was deemed the most original and innovative by the 10-strong board of academics, journalists and thinkers judging the prize.
His entry 'Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Persuasion in the Attention Economy' 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".
As well as the $100,000 prize money, Williams has been awarded a book deal with Cambridge University Press for a book in which he will develop his ideas on this topic. He will be supported by the editorial team at Cambridge University Press and will spend a term at CRASSH.
Born in Cape Canaveral, Florida and raised in Texas, Williams is currently a doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute and Balliol College, Oxford, where he researches the philosophy and ethics of attention and persuasion as they relate to technology design. Prior to that he worked for over 10 years at Google, where he received the Founders’ Award – the company’s highest honour – for his work on advertising products and tools.
Williams 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.
“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 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.”
Professor Goldhill said: “This competition was uniquely exciting: all the entries were anonymous, and we had no idea whether we were reading the proposal of a professor, a novelist, a postman, a student or a lawyer. It turned out afterwards we had plenty of all of these among our more than 700 applications. 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. There were several proposals that the board felt would make excellent books, but we think we have the best – and we hope that a really lively public debate will follow its publication. The issue it addresses is hugely important, and this is a new and thrilling way of starting such a discussion.”