From Poacher to Protector of Attention: The Therapeutic Turn of Persuasive Technology and Ethics of a Smartphone Habit-breaking Application

AHP readers may be interested in a new piece in Science, Technology, and Human Values:

From Poacher to Protector of Attention: The Therapeutic Turn of Persuasive Technology and Ethics of a Smartphone Habit-breaking Application,” by Alex Beattie. Abstract:

This paper critically investigates the ethical perspectives and practices of individuals and organizations who make persuasive technologies (“persuasive technologists”). An organization that claims to be at the forefront of ethical persuasion is behavioral software company Boundless Mind. Yet Boundless Mind sells ostensibly oxymoronic software products: an Application Programming Interface for third-party applications that optimizes the capture of end user attention, and an application for end users on how to make third-party applications less persuasive. Drawing upon Foucault’s interpretation of ethics as an “aesthetics of existence” and the related concept of “therapeutic authority,” I argue Boundless Mind justify the “poaching” and “protecting” of user attention based on a view of the human subject as fixable and their capability to instrumentalize user subjectivity to socially desirable ends. I walkthrough Boundless Mind’s technology-habit-breaking application Space and highlight a behavioral technique administered by Space called stimulus devaluation, which enables the user to develop a transformative relationship with their technology habits and persuasive applications. I conclude the paper by arguing that a persuasive technology ethics based on fixing the user obfuscates the power of persuasive technologists by limiting the scope of ethical inquiry to the activities of the user.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.

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