MT22 Uehiro Seminar: Dr Matthew J. Dennis

Reimagining Persuasive Technologies for Digital Well-Being

In-person Venue: Suite 1 Seminar Area, Littlegate House, 16-17 St Ebbe’s Street, Oxford OX1 1PT (buzzer 1)

Speaker: Dr Matthew J. Dennis (Eindhoven University of Technology; Visitor, Ethics in AI Institute, Oxford). Matthew J. Dennis specialises in the ethics of artificial intelligence and persuasive technology. His recent publications focus on how we can live well with emerging technologies (data-driven algorithms, recommender systems, virtual assistants, self-care apps), as well as how our digital well-being is affected by gender, income, and cultural factors.

Abstract: Persuasive technologies (e.g., micro-targeting, e-nudges, digital choice architecture, gamification) threaten our digital well-being. They do this by undermining our ability to focus, deliberate, and act autonomously, which ethicists view as necessary conditions for leading a flourishing life. To date, the most influential ethical approaches to digital well-being have been user-focused, concentrating on the capabilities (Oosterlaken 2015, Johnstone 2012), character-traits (Harrison 2016, Vallor 2016), or reflective capacities (Sullivan & Reiner 2019) that users need to flourish online. Nevertheless, such approaches require users to take complete responsibility for their digital well-being, which makes little sense given the manipulative power of persuasive technologies (Dennis 2021a, 2021b).

Value-sensitive designers (VSD) have responded to these concerns by suggesting that online technologies should be designed in ways that nudge us towards a better online behaviour. Prominent NGOs (such as the US-based Center for Humane Technology) and tech corporations (Google) are now considering VSD as a way to improve the digital well- being of their users. A value-sensitive design approach proposes repurposing persuasive technologies, so these technologies actively promote digital well-being, rather than simply increasing user engagement (scrolling, clicking, swiping). This shifts the bulk of responsibility for digital well-being from users to providers.

Repurposing persuasive technologies for digital well-being may appear promising, but it is fraught with ethical challenges. Those wishing to enlist persuasive technologies to promote better digital well-being must design in ways that do not violate key values (e.g., autonomy, responsibility, self-determination) or weaken paradigmatic human faculties (e.g., focus, deliberation, choice). This presentation will show how we can tackle the complex ethical issues of repurposing persuasive technologies for digital well-being by integrating cutting-edge empirical research on persuasive technologies with a normative account of what it is to flourish online. 

Zoom option available: email for links