one theme emerges from the media coverage of people’s relationships with our current set of technologies: Consumers want digital willpower. App designers in touch with the latest trends in behavioral modification–nudging, the quantified self, and gamification–and good old-fashioned financial incentive manipulation, are tackling weakness of will. They’re harnessing the power of payouts, cognitive biases, social networking, and biofeedback. The quantified self becomes the programmable self.
the trend still has multiple interesting dimensions
Individuals are turning ever more aspects of their lives into managerial problems that require technological solutions. We have access to an ever-increasing array of free and inexpensive technologies that harness incredible computational power that effectively allows us to self-police behavior everywhere we go. As pervasiveness expands, so does trust.
Some embrace networked, data-driven lives and are comfortable volunteering embarrassing, real time information about what we’re doing, whom we’re doing it with, and how we feel about our monitored activities.
Put it all together and we can see that our conception of what it means to be human has become “design space.” We’re now Humanity 2.0, primed for optimization through commercial upgrades. And today’s apps are more harbinger than endpoint.
philosophers have had much to say about the enticing and seemingly inevitable dispersion of technological mental prosthetic that promise to substitute or enhance some of our motivational powers.
beyond the practical issues lie a constellation of central ethical concerns.
they should cause us to pause as we think about a possible future that significantly increases the scale and effectiveness of willpower-enhancing apps. Let’s call this hypothetical future Digital Willpower World and characterize the ethical traps we’re about to discuss as potential general pitfalls
it is antithetical to the ideal of ” resolute choice.” Some may find the norm overly perfectionist, Spartan, or puritanical. However, it is not uncommon for folks to defend the idea that mature adults should strive to develop internal willpower strong enough to avoid external temptations, whatever they are, and wherever they are encountered.
In part, resolute choosing is prized out of concern for consistency, as some worry that lapse of willpower in any context indicates a generally weak character.
Fragmented selves behave one way while under the influence of digital willpower, but another when making decisions without such assistance. In these instances, inconsistent preferences are exhibited and we risk underestimating the extent of our technological dependency.
It simply means that when it comes to digital willpower, we should be on our guard to avoid confusing situational with integrated behaviors.
the problem of inauthenticity, a staple of the neuroethics debates, might arise. People might start asking themselves: Has the problem of fragmentation gone away only because devices are choreographing our behavior so powerfully that we are no longer in touch with our so-called real selves — the selves who used to exist before Digital Willpower World was formed?
Infantalized subjects are morally lazy, quick to have others take responsibility for their welfare. They do not view the capacity to assume personal responsibility for selecting means and ends as a fundamental life goal that validates the effort required to remain committed to the ongoing project of maintaining willpower and self-control.
Michael Sandel’sAtlantic essay, “The Case Against Perfection.” He notes that technological enhancement can diminish people’s sense of achievement when their accomplishments become attributable to human-technology systems and not an individual’s use of human agency.
Borgmann worries that this environment, which habituates us to be on auto-pilot and delegate deliberation, threatens to harm the powers of reason, the most central component of willpower (according to the rationalist tradition).
In several books, including Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, he expresses concern about technologies that seem to enhance willpower but only do so through distraction. Borgmann’s paradigmatic example of the non-distracted, focally centered person is a serious runner. This person finds the practice of running maximally fulfilling, replete with the rewarding “flow” that can only comes when mind/body and means/ends are unified, while skill gets pushed to the limit.
Perhaps the very conception of a resolute self was flawed. What if, as psychologist Roy Baumeister suggests, willpower is more “staple of folk psychology” than real way of thinking about our brain processes?
novel approaches suggest the will is a flexible mesh of different capacities and cognitive mechanisms that can expand and contract, depending on the agent’s particular setting and needs. Contrary to the traditional view that identifies the unified and cognitively transparent self as the source of willed actions, the new picture embraces a rather diffused, extended, and opaque self who is often guided by irrational trains of thought. What actually keeps the self and its will together are the given boundaries offered by biology, a coherent self narrative created by shared memories and experiences, and society. If this view of the will as an expa
nding and contracting system with porous and dynamic boundaries is correct, then it might seem that the new motivating technologies and devices can only increase our reach and further empower our willing selves.
“It’s a mistake to think of the will as some interior faculty that belongs to an individual–the thing that pushes the motor control processes that cause my action,” Gallagher says. “Rather, the will is both embodied and embedded: social and physical environment enhance or impoverish our ability to decide and carry out our intentions; often our intentions themselves are shaped by social and physical aspects of the environment.”
It makes perfect sense to think of the will as something that can be supported or assisted by technology. Technologies, like environments and institutions can facilitate action or block it. Imagine I have the inclination to go to a concert. If I can get my ticket by pressing some buttons on my iPhone, I find myself going to the concert. If I have to fill out an application form and carry it to a location several miles away and wait in line to pick up my ticket, then forget it.
Perhaps the best way forward is to put a digital spin on the Socratic dictum of knowing myself and submit to the new freedom: the freedom of consuming digital willpower to guide me past the sirens.