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Ethics, Attention, and the Digital World

A Digital Learning Resource

Our digital devices threaten our attention daily. What problems does this distraction pose to individuals? To society?  

In this learning resource we will explore some of the central ethical questions related to attention and the digital world.

Introduction: Digital Distraction

We live in a digital world. We are rarely without our digital devices – smartphones, tablets, laptops – and when we leave them for too long, they call out to us – through various rings and pings – and remind us to engage with them.

Is it bad that we are constantly distracted by our digital devices? Does what we look at online affect what we come to want or believe, and ultimately how we act? If so, is that a problem for us as individuals, or for us as a society?


These questions are all related to our attention—how we pay attention to things and what we pay attention to. One way to think about attention is as the mind’s cursor: it points us to what we look at, to what we think about, and to what, generally, we engage with. Attention involves selectively directing our minds at something [1]. The distracting pings of our digital devices affect how we pay attention----by drawing it to these devices rather than to, for example, the work we are trying to get done or the people with whom we would like to engage. And technology companies (and the companies that pay them) affect what we pay attention to, by populating the digital world with information and advertisement that is often tailor-made to us.

These questions are also ethical ones, or questions about right and wrong. We can ask whether it is ethically wrong that technology companies design their platforms to harvest as much of our attention as possible; whether there is something wrong about these companies making so much money at the expense of our attention; whether there is something morally problematic about the ways our attention is directed online and by what is it directed to (such as advertisement or sometimes hateful or politically divisive content); and whether we have moral obligations—both individually and as a society—to pay attention to some things and not others.

This learning resource has been developed to introduce students (and anyone else with an interest in these matters!) to some of the central ethical questions related to attention and new digital technologies.  Our approach is to guide students through philosophical reflection on the questions above and to encourage the development of ethical literacy on some of the most pressing issues that arise in our digital world.


[1] Mole, C. (2021). "Attention." In E. N. Zalta and U. Nodelmen (eds.) , The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (winter 2021 edition).

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