Reimagining Persuasive Technologies for Digital Well-Being

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.

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.