A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Matthew James Dennis about digital well-being

Interview with Matthew James Dennis, ethicist of emerging technologies at Marie Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow at Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands.


What is the focus of your research?

Matthew James Dennis ESMH scientistMy main research question concerns how we can live well with technology, especially new and emerging online technologies. Basically, I’m interested in the extent to which technology can both inhibit and optimise human flourishing. Since starting my Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellowship at Delft University of Technology, I’ve been looking at how we can cultivate digital well-being using self-care apps. My main focus has been on the new tools these products offer us to cultivate ourselves, as well as the ethical ideals and life goals they direct us towards. I have high hopes that future versions of these products can contribute to maximising digital well-being in the 21st century.

My initial findings are that:
1. the techniques that self-care apps employ offer much potential;
2. whereas the ethical ideals and life goals they direct us towards can be highly problematic.
I’m currently writing on this with respect to gender. Self-care apps and other digital well-being products can be highly gendered, often perniciously promoting gender stereotypes. This is especially important when we consider that apps can be an important source of life guidance for younger millennials.

Nevertheless, the tools and techniques that self-care apps use can be redirected in a fairly straightforward manner. Concerning the cultivation of gender roles, for example, the techniques that these apps promote can be used to promote empowering concepts of gender, as well as to problematise an overly rigid notion of gender. Instead of encouraging young people to conform to existing gender stereotypes, I believe that we can use this technology to promote body positivity, receptivity and critical thinking about gender.

In general, all my recent publications are concerned with the ethical, social and political impact of emerging online technologies. I believe that policymakers, academics and other theoreticians must work in conjunction with developers and entrepreneurs to contribute to improving online technology in ways that align it with human flourishing. This technology increasingly permeates our lives, so it’s important that we have a say in how it is developed in the future.

Emerging technologies will be developed for commercial purposes, whether or not we actively engage with those that create them. Only by engaging with commercial interests can we ensure that new products prioritise human well-being, rather than allowing them to become one-dimensional, product-driven distractions. Furthermore, the tools and techniques that commercial developers currently employ have many uses outside the market place. European research institutes are well placed to make use of the possibilities that self-care apps offer.


Which developments have led to the rise in popularity of online self-wellbeing applications?

Online self-care arose in the early 2000s, when tech entrepreneurs collaborated with self-help teachers and positive psychology theorists to produce digital products to actively cultivate our well-being. These products initially took many forms, but the most popular and long-standing have been self-care apps. These devices help with a number of tasks. Many of them are designed to cultivate emotional intelligence, but apps have been made to cultivate our general well-being too (especially our digital well-being).

Self-care apps are very different from their offline precursor, self-help books and seminars. The focus of self-help products is to fix ourselves when something goes wrong. The focus of self-care is that we actively need to care for ourselves, to develop the skills and character traits to improve ourselves, even before things go wrong. Since the introduction of self-care apps, it has even become fashionable to document and share how we care for ourselves on social media.

Anyway, apps that aim to actively cultivate our well-being fascinate me most, and have been my major research focus so far. This is because these apps aim to replace traditional practices of self-cultivation and techniques for self-directed character change that have been around for millennia. Many of the most important philosophical schools in the ancient world (in particular the Stoics and the Epicureans) strongly promoted self-cultivation, as did the Aristotelians and the Neo-Platonists.

Philosophical techniques of self-cultivation have become increasingly popular in the 21st century. Most popular are the Stoic practices of the self, which have gained widespread attention recently. Over the last four years, several apps have been developed that directly draw from Stoic teachings. Unlikely as it may seem, the Stoics strongly valued focused and uncluttered attention, so their techniques have been easily applied to issues concerning digital well-being.


What risks may arise from the practices and services offered by online well-being applications?

Over the last five years we have seen a spike in concern for the negative impacts online technology has on our practical lives. This focus on well-being has generated a range of potential solutions from users, tech companies and third parties. “Just logging off” is a solution taken seriously by some, as evidenced by the growing market of non-technological self-care products that offer tips for a “digital detox” or an “offline sabbath”. For most, however, extracting themselves from the online world is neither practical nor desirable. An alternative solution is offered by technology itself, with tech companies now enabling users to recognise and regulate behaviours that are harmful to their well-being. The latest iOS 12 update includes a breakdown of users’ screen time and highlights apps that are used repeatedly in what could be considered addictive patterns. Self-care apps offer a more ambitious way to improve our digital well-being.

There are many risks that come with the arrival of self-care technologies, however, as well as some important benefits. Philosophers of technology invariably worry about data privacy. This certainly applies to self-care apps. Since these apps generate large quantities of highly sensitive information, this makes the users of these apps very vulnerable to their information being exposed to unauthorised or malicious parties. Imagine the kind of mortification that we would feel if a stranger read our diary, or overheard us talking to our therapist. Apps scrupulously document all extremely sensitive content. It is also centrally stored and indexed, making vast amounts of data potentially available to hackers.

Another risk regarding self-care apps is that they replace traditional self-care services with online services for which one must pay. Self-care has been provided free of charge by spiritual and religious institutions, teams of monks and nuns, or kindly-disposed individuals for hundreds – if not thousands – of years. By framing self-care and digital well-being packages as something that people are required to pay for, self-care app companies introduce new ways to commercialise and capitalise on a fundamentally important part of human life.

To conclude, it is important that we do not let commercial interests exclusively guide our use and the future development of this technology. Digital well-being products and self-care apps have the potential to benefit us all in multiple ways, especially regarding our digital well-being. In the coming years, we will need products that bolster our digital well-being due to how integrated online services are with our practical lives. By developing technologies that actively cultivate our well-being, we can do our best to ensure that the costs of being online do not outweigh the benefits.


How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected our understanding of digital well-being in terms of initiatives and research?

While the most immediate consequences of the pandemic were medical, over the subsequent weeks and months of global lockdown, understanding how our digital well-being affects the quality of our lives has become increasingly important. For years, there has been an incremental move to shift our lives online, but this process has rapidly accelerated due to the non-medical constraints of the pandemic. In a matter of days or weeks, we have been asked to move our entire lives online, and to work, relax, socialise, and even seek medical attention online. This makes it a very interesting time to study digital well-being, especially as many initiatives that aim to replicate pre-COVID life come with minimal ethical oversights (obedience to regulations, vocational health, etc). Governments and policymakers are more willing than ever to sanction practices that would not even have been considered a few months ago. Take, for example, COVID-19 contact tracing technology. The pandemic has allowed these apps to access unprecedented levels of personal information, which would have been unthinkable previously. This brings me to some of the initiatives that Delft Design for Values and 4TU.Ethics Centre for Ethics and Technology have launched in recent months. We now have a research group dedicated to COVID-19, which will have three main research outputs (so far!). First, we will imminently publish a special issue of Ethics and Information Technology dedicated to the pandemic. This will contain new research on various kinds of COVID technologies, as well as ethical insights on how these technologies could be improved. Second, we will be running a podcast on COVID-19 featuring members of the 4TU.Ethics community. Third, we will run a Philosophy of Pandemics PhD course in summer 2021 (hopefully not only online!) that examines the main ethical dimensions of the crisis. Finally, we intend to publish an edited collection: The Values of the New Normal: Designing for a Post-Pandemic Future, which should appear sometime next year.

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