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LIVING WELL WITH TECHNOLOGY

Philosophising about Digital Well-Being

Transforming Digital Well-Being

Strategies for online communities and individuals

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on my research

EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES

How might they change our lives, society, & the environment?

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on my research

Ethics of Self-Cultivation

Understanding self-directed character change

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on my research

ONLINE CELEBRITY

Using x-phi to understand digital fame & influence

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on my research

Welcome! I'm an ethicist of emerging technologies, researching digital well-being. I'm currently an ESDT Research Fellow (Philosophy & Ethics, TU/e). Prior to this I was a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow (Values, Technology & Innovation, TU Delft, 2019–21) and an Early-Career Innovation Fellow (Institute of Advanced Studies, 2018–19).

My current research focuses on how we can live well with emerging technologies (AI, social robots, virtual assistants, self-care apps), as well as the influence of gender, education, and intercultural factors. Recently I've published articles in Journal of Value Inquiry, Ethics & Information Technology, Journal of Moral Education, Science & Engineering Ethics, as well as chapters in volumes by Bloomsbury, Routledge, and Springer. My first book appeared in Routledge’s Ethics and Moral Theory Series in 2020.

I have an MA (Warwick), BA (Sussex) in philosophy, and received a Joint Monash-Warwick PhD with highest honours in 2019. I live and work in the Netherlands.

News and Upcoming

NEW: Two articles on the ethics of digital well-being (2021)

My two latest articles explore the ethics of digital well-being and how tech companies can improve their approach to this topic. The latest, "Towards a Theory of Digital Well-Being" (2021), appeared in Science & Engineering Ethics. This builds on an earlier one, "Digital Well-Being Under Pandemic Conditions" (2021), which came out in Ethics & Information Technology. I'd like to thank colleagues at at the Ethics/Philosophy of Technology Section (especially Jeroen van den Hoven) for reading and commenting on early drafts of this work. Thank you!

ETIN article is available here.
NEW: Special issue of Ethics & Information Technology (2021)

A special issue of Ethics & Information Technology on the ethics of COVID-19 technologies has now been published. There's a link to the editors' introduction below, written by Georgy Ishmaev (first author), Jeroen van den Hoven, and me. This is the first research output of the 4TU.Ethics & Delft Design for Values Working Group on COVID-19. I'd like to thank the incredible colleagues at 4TU.Ethics, TU Delft, and Delft Design for Values for their various contributions to the 4TU.Ethics podcast, various funding proposals, and a new book project (Values for a Post-Pandemic Future) which is now under contract with Springer.

Editors' introduction here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10676-020-09568-6

Working Group website here: https://www.delftdesignforvalues.nl/covid-19/

Books and Edited Volumes

MONOGRAPH: Cultivating Our Passionate Attachments
M. J. Dennis (author) (2020). Forthcoming with Routledge, September 2020.

This book offers an original philosophical theory of how we can cultivate our passionate attachments, a theme which remains under-researched in moral philosophy. While this topic was routinely addressed in ancient philosophy, it has become lost in contemporary debate, at the cost of overlooking some of the most powerful and distinctively-human motivations that govern how we lead our lives. Putting the philosophical resources of the Hellenistic tradition into dialogue with the existing literature in practical philosophy, while thinking imaginatively about contemporary forms of passionate self-cultivation, shows the importance of philosophical insight into how we can cultivate our passionate attachments.

Funded by Monash Institute of Graduate Research. Book proposal available on request.
CO-EDITED VOLUME: Ethics and Self-Cultivation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives
M. J. Dennis and S. Werkhoven (eds.), Routledge, 2018, pp. 1–234.

The aim of Ethics and Self-Cultivation is to establish and explore a new "cultivation of the self" strand within contemporary moral philosophy. Although the revival of virtue ethics has helped reintroduce the eudaimonic tradition into mainstream philosophical debates, it has by and large been a revival of Aristotelian ethics combined with a modern preoccupation with standards for the moral rightness of actions. The essays comprising this volume offer a fresh approach to the eudaimonic tradition: instead of conditions for rightness of actions, it focuses on conceptions of human life that are best for the one living it. The first section of essays looks at the Hellenistic schools and the way they influenced modern thinkers like Spinoza, Kant, Nietzsche, Hadot, and Foucault in their thinking about self-cultivation. The second section offers contemporary perspectives on ethical self-cultivation by drawing on work in moral psychology, epistemology of self-knowledge, philosophy of mind, and meta-ethics.

Available here.

Peer-Reviewed Articles

"Towards a Theory of Digital Well-Being."
M. J. Dennis (forthcoming). Science & Engineering Ethics. Online first.

Global lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic have offered many people first-hand experience of how their daily online activities threaten their digital well-being. This article begins by critically evaluating the current approaches to digital well-being offered by ethicists of technology, NGOs, and social media corporations. My aim is to explain why digital well-being needs to be reimagined within a new conceptual paradigm. After this, I lay the foundations for such an alternative approach, one that shows how current digital well-being initiatives can be designed in more insightful ways. This new conceptual framework aims to transform how philosophers of technology think about this topic, as well as offering social media corporations practical ways to design their technologies in ways that will improve the digital well-being of users.

PDF available on request
"Digital Well-Being Under Pandemic Conditions."
M. J. Dennis (2021). Ethics & Information Technology. Online first.

The COVID-19 pandemic has catalysed what may soon become a permanent digital transition in the domains of work, education, medicine, and leisure. This transition has also precipitated a spike in concern regarding our digital well-being. Prominent lobbying groups, such as the Center for Humane Technology, have responded to this concern, offering a set of ‘Digital Well-Being Guidelines during the COVID-19 Pandemic.' These guidelines follow much academic interest in digital well-being over the last decade. In this article, I evaluate (1) the Center for Humane Technology’s approach, comparing it with (2) character-based strategies and (3) approaches to redesigning online architecture. I argue that all these approaches have some merit, but that each needs to contribute to an integrated approach to digital well-being.

Article available here.
"Social Robots and Digital Well-Being: How to Design Artificial Agents."
M. J. Dennis (under review).

Visions of future social robots may bear little resemblance to how these technologies will eventually feature in our lives. Understanding their future morphology is important, however, because it affects the values that we will require social robots to express and exemplify. One such value is digital well-being, a value that will increasingly determine our ability to live the good life in the 21st century. This article investigates how the design of social robots affects digital well-being, as well as how this concern should drive how we think about their future morphology.

Draft paper available on request.
"Unique Ethical Challenges: Online Technology and Virtue Education."
M. J. Dennis & T. Harrison (2020). Journal of Moral Education. Taylor & Francis. Online first.

Living well in the 21st century will present human beings with a unique set of demands and ethical challenges, many of which will require a rapid response to developments in the online space. Online activities increasingly permeate our practical lives. Although there is every indication that this activity will intensify, even experts on digital technology recognise that the precise effects of future emergent technology will be uncertain and remain unknown. We argue that education directed at the cultivation of cyber-wisdom and other cyber-virtues provides our best chance of creating a moral vocabulary that can guide us towards living well in the 21st century. The aim of this article is to offer the first outline of an educational model, founded on neo-Aristotelian theory, that illustrates how these qualities could be cultivated through moral education.

Article available here.
"We Don’t Need Another Guru: AI Ethics and Digital Well-Being."
M. J. Dennis (2020). Conference Proceedings of Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and the Simulation of Behaviour. Taylor and Francis Group.

AI continues to revolutionise the welfare and healthcare industries on multiple fronts. Recently, mental health and self-care app companies have begun employing rudimentary AI technology to radically improve the functionality their products. This use of AI has already transformed – often enhancing – how many users experience online self-care. By dramatically narrowing the gap between offline and online self-care techniques, apps that incorporate AI have come close to replicating much of the face-to-face and personalised input of traditional mental health practitioners and self-care gurus. App developers have spoken persuasively about the many benefits of online self-care, including how their products are liberated from cost and accessibility constraints associated with traditional practices. Nevertheless, using AI to mimic and replace human agents invokes a cluster of interconnected ethical concerns. This article surveys the benefits that various kinds of AI-enabled self-care products offer us.

Article available here.
"Technologies of Self-Cultivation: How to Improve Self-Care Apps."
M. J. Dennis (2020). Human Affairs: Special Issue on Philosophical Reflection and Technological Change .

Recently practical philosophers have become increasingly interested in self-cultivation, both in our moral development and in how we shape our passionate characters. While self-cultivation is a relatively new topic in analytic philosophy, continental ethicists have been interested in it far longer. Thinkers in this tradition, notably Michel Foucault and Pierre Hadot, have claimed Hellenistic conception of self-cultivation can be applied to problems in contemporary practical life, although precisely how they envisage this has so has so far confounded commentators. This article offers one way this could be done by exploring how Hellenistic practices of self-cultivation can be combined with emergent online technologies. To do this, I examine how online technology companies have recently attempted to use app-based technology to cultivate our passionate attachments. This makes good on Foucault's and Hadot's claims about the contemporary importance of the Hellenistic tradition, although does so in a way that they could not have anticipated themselves.

Article available here.
"On the Role of Philosophy in Self-Cultivation"
M. J. Dennis (2018). Parrhesia: A Journal of Critical Philosophy. Vol. 28, pp. 136–55.

(Winner of 2017 ASCP Postgraduate Essay Prize).

Nussbaum's critique of Foucault's work on Hellenistic self-cultivation is severe. Not only is Foucault blind to the fundamentally important philosophical dimension of Hellenistic self-cultivation, his previous work disqualifies him from understanding the central role of reason, rationality, and logical argumentation in this tradition. Although Nussbaum is correct to say that Foucault's notion of the "care of the self" includes a greater range of practices and techniques than her own narrower account of philosophical self-cultivation, in this article I will suggest that the force of her criticisms miss the mark. Fully understanding Foucault's reading of the Hellenistic tradition shows that he thinks of techniques of self-cultivation as a necessary complement to philosophy, although on their own these practices cannot be considered as constituting philosophy itself.

Article available here.

Book Chapters

"Cultivating Digital Well-Being and the Rise of Self-Care Apps."
M. J. Dennis (in press, forthcoming 2020). The Ethics of Digital Well-Being: A Multi-Disciplinary Approach. C. Burr & L. Floridi (eds.). New York: Springer Publishing.

Increasing digital well-being is increasingly viewed as a key challenge for the tech industry, largely driven by the complaints of online users. Recently, the demands of NGOs and policy makers have further motivated major tech companies to devote practical attention to this topic. While initially their response has been to focus on limiting screentime, self-care app makers have long pursued an alternative agenda, one that assumes that certain kinds of screentime can have a role to play in actively improving our digital lives. This chapter examines whether there is a tension in the very idea of spending more time online to improve our digital well-being. First, I break down what I suggest can be usefully viewed as the character-based techniques that self-care apps currently employ to cultivate digital well-being. Second, I examine the new and pressing ethical issues that these techniques raise. Finally, I suggest that the current emphasis on reducing screentime to safeguard digital well-being could be supplemented by employing techniques from the self-care app industry.

Article available here.
"Ethics and Self-Cultivation: Introduction"
M. J. Dennis & S. Werkhoven (2018). Ethics and Self-Cultivation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Routledge, pp. 1–11.

The aim of Ethics and Self-Cultivation is to establish and explore a new "cultivation of the self" strand within contemporary moral philosophy. Although the revival of virtue ethics has helped reintroduce the eudaimonic tradition into mainstream philosophical debates, it has by and large been a revival of Aristotelian ethics combined with a modern preoccupation with standards for the moral rightness of actions. The essays comprising this volume offer a fresh approach to the eudaimonic tradition: instead of conditions for rightness of actions, it focuses on conceptions of human life that are best for the one living it. The first section of essays looks at the Hellenistic schools and the way they influenced modern thinkers like Spinoza, Kant, Nietzsche, Hadot, and Foucault in their thinking about self-cultivation. The second section offers contemporary perspectives on ethical self-cultivation by drawing on work in moral psychology, epistemology of self-knowledge, philosophy of mind, and meta-ethics.

Available here. PDF available on request.
"Reflections on the Value of Self-Knowledge for Self-Cultivation"
Q. Cassam, M. J. Dennis, S. Werkhoven (2018). Ethics and Self-Cultivation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. M. Dennis and S. Werkhoven (eds). Routledge, pp. 222–30.

Philosophers invariably assume a conception of self-knowledge when they discuss self-cultivation, but the precise relationship between between self-knowledge and self-cultivation can be understood in different ways and often remains undertheorised. This epilogue examines how we can understand the relationship between self-knowledge and self-cultivation, making a case for what will be called a low-road explanation of the value of self-knowledge. To do this, the authors draw connections and contrasts with the chapters contained in the volume, and explore the idea that substantial self-knowledge as opposed to trivial self-knowledge deserves to be given more attention by contemporary philosophers

Available here. PDF available on request.

Opinion Articles

Cultivating Character and the Promise of Online Technologies
Insight Series, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtue, University of Birmingham, UK.

Over the last decade, techniques of self-directed character change have undergone a revolution, one that promises to fundamentally rewrite the way we understand the cultivation of character. This revolution has been supercharged by rapid advances in digital technology, as well as increasing public attention regarding the benefits of tracking, monitoring, documenting, and shaping the self. Part of the difficulty in following the march of this zeitgeist is that it is so ubiquitous and diffuse. It infuses our perceptions and values of healthcare, education, business, leisure, in addition to fuelling our seemingly insatiable appetite for the ‘self-care’ industry. The idea that our characters can – indeed should – be actively cultivated is now so integral to the 21st century experience that it would be hard to understand a host of contemporary human practices without this assumption. In this paper, I explore how technology can help us change or improve who we are through digital regimens of self-cultivation.

https://www.jubileecentre.ac.uk/media/news/article/5628/New-Insight-Series-Paper-Cultivating-Character-and-the-Promise-of-Online-Technologies-
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