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Theorizing Digital Distraction

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This commentary contributes to philosophical reflection on the growing challenge of digital distraction and the value of attention in the digital age. It clarifies the nature of the problem in conceptual and historical terms; analyzes “freedom of attention” as an organizing ideal for moral and political theorizing; considers some constraints of political morality on coercive state action to bolster users’ attentional resources; comments on corporate moral responsibility; and touches on some reform ideas. In particular, the commentary develops a response to an anti-paternalistic line of argument rooted in Mill’s Harm Principle that would oppose state regulation on the grounds that securing attentional capacities is a matter of personal responsibility alone. The commentary engages throughout with James Williams’s recent work on the attention economy by identifying areas of agreement and difference.

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  1. 1.

    In his analysis, Williams (2018, 98) points to the greater power of persuasive tools, faster pace of change, and increased centralization of power.

  2. 2.

    This figure includes multitasking, so that if one simultaneously browses a mobile phone while playing a desktop video game for an hour, this counts as two hours of screen time.

  3. 3.

    Williams speaks of “general-purpose” machines (2018, 10, 14, 17, 28, 87).

  4. 4.

    In other work I develop a detailed account of how digital dependence affects individual freedom.

  5. 5.

    On Hohfeld’s model, person P is at liberty to φ if and only if she has no duty to refrain from φ-ing. P has a claim-right against person Q if and only if Q owes P a duty to φ, where φ usually refers to abstention from interfering with P in certain ways or to the provision of assistance or remuneration to P (see Kramer 2000, 9–10).

  6. 6.

    Perhaps governments can be said to mandate paying attention in compulsory primary education and other contexts involving provision of government benefits or services.

  7. 7.

    This point captures a crucial difference between the physical/psychological and deontic readings. On the latter reading, but not the former one, a person can be free to φ even if she is not able to φ.

  8. 8.

    In making this claim Williams tacitly sides with paternalists, since an anti-paternalist will reject his analogy. The whole point of an anti-paternalistic stance is that the “inner child” of an adult is an “inner child” in a metaphorical sense only. It is her responsibility as an adult to rein it in.

  9. 9.

    Mill ([1859] 1989, 13) puts it as follows: “[T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”

  10. 10.

    It is a different question what steps an anti-paternalist would allow the state to take in treating an already addicted person in certain cases. If her rational capacities are weakened to a significant extent in some situations, the state might be permitted to intervene without disrespecting the agent.

  11. 11.

    For a similar take on the Harm Principle, see Kramer (2014, 119).

  12. 12.

    Note here parallel claims about a lack of meaningful choice with click-to-accept terms of service and privacy policies that are long, convoluted, and potentially incapable of predicting future contingencies of privacy harms (Solove 2013).

  13. 13.

    Indispensability, of course, may only get us so far. For, users could still be accountable for minimizing risks with responsible use of their devices. The implications must be worked out in a lengthier treatment.

  14. 14.

    I say “addict” advisedly, since I agree that framing the challenge of attentional loss in terms of addiction alone puts things much too narrowly (see Williams 2018, 99–100, 113–14).

  15. 15.

    Willful blindness should not be confused with self-deception, thought the latter might also be at play. For one thing, in willful blindness an agent suspects that p but declines to confirm that p. In self-deception, one already has evidence that p but convinces oneself through rationalization that not-p is true (Lynch 2016).

  16. 16.

    Williams (2018, 103) worries that if we foment outrage at ‘evil corporations,’ we will not channel reform efforts productively. Even if he is prescient in flagging concerns about misdirecting political energies, it would not change the fact that corporations may be culpable as a matter of substantive morality.

  17. 17.

    Since such a proposal would be tax-funded, liberal neutralists may regard it as coercive and insist that constraints of neutrality apply. For contrasting views, see Quong (2011, 63–67) and Kramer (2017, 49–63).

  18. 18.

    This idea tallies with Roger Crisp’s claim that what he calls “persuasive” (as opposed to “informative”) advertising is immoral (Crisp 1987). If so, corporations may be duty-bound to cease undertaking such advertising, and their failure to do so, presumably, would be open to blame. This implication sits a bit uneasily alongside Williams’s refusal to ascribe moral blame to technology firms. It is also unclear how Crisp’s thesis relates to Williams’s claim that all design is inherently persuasive (2018, 27)––or even manipulative (2018, 99).


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I am grateful to Matthew H. Kramer, Kostadin Kushlev, Paul Ohm, Stephen F. Williams, and editors of Philosophy & Technology for very helpful comments. All errors are my own.

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Correspondence to Mark L. Hanin.

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Hanin, M.L. Theorizing Digital Distraction. Philos. Technol. (2020).

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  • Digital distraction
  • Attention economy
  • Freedom of attention
  • Harm Principle
  • Paternalism
  • corporate responsibility