Oxford Philosophy PhD Candidate Wins New $100,000 Essay Prize


James Williams, a doctoral student at the Oxford Internet Institute who works on the philosophy and ethics of technology design, and who previously worked at Google, is the winner of the inaugural Nine Dots Prize. The prize solicits 3,000-word essay responses to a question, and the winner receives $100,000 and to write a book expanding on the ideas of the essay, to be published by Cambridge University Press.

The question in the prize’s inaugural year was: “Are digital technologies making politics impossible?” There were over 700 submissions.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Williams’ essay:

Digital technologies privilege our impulses over our intentions. They are increasingly designed to exploit our psychological vulnerabilities in order to direct us toward goals that may or may not align with our own. In the short term, this can distract us from doing the things we want to do. In the longer term, however, it can distract us from living the lives we want to live, or, even worse, undermine our capacities for reflection and self-regulation, making it harder, in the words of philosopher Harry Frankfurt, to ‘want what we want to want.’ A primary effect of digital technologies is thus to undermine the operation and even development of the human will. This militates against the possibility of all forms of self-determination at both individual and collective levels, including all forms of politics worth having.

There were over 700 submissions.

According to its website, “the Nine Dots Prize is a new prize for creative thinking that tackles contemporary societal issues… The aim of the Prize is to promote, encourage and engage innovative thinking to address problems facing the modern world. The name of the Prize references the nine dots puzzle—a lateral thinking puzzle which can only be solved by thinking outside the box.”

The prize is funded by the Kadas Prize Foundation, which is directed by financier Peter Kadas.


In case you don’t know it, here is the Nine Dots puzzle.

Here are nine dots, arranged in three rows:

Your task is to draw four straight lines through the puzzle
without lifting your pencil, such that when done,
each of the nine dots has at least one line crossing its center.

Try it out.

For the solution, go here.

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