The ethics of Ambient Persuasive Technology and the idea of environmental policy

A friend and colleague from Bard CEP, Taylor Evans, and I were brainstorming the thesis topic of another BCEP’er, Tim Maher, and we came to a point of contention that demanded a new distinction. Tim’s thesis explores the ethics of Ambient Persuasive Technology (AmPT). AmPT uses “smart” technology to subliminally influence human beings to behave in certain ways that address one problem or another. Essentially, in an ideal world, AmPT manipulates the parameters of the choices immediately available to us so that we have no choice but to make morally desirable choices. Clearly, handing such immense power to technology is morally questionable. If everything goes perfectly, we solve our problems without even realizing it. But if things go poorly, techno-paternalism could spiral into hyper-modern Orwellian totalitarianism.

Naturally, given our common interests, Taylor and I were discussing AmPT in the context of environmental policy. Theoretically, AmPT could be used to improve environmental problems, but it could also represent a paternalistic imposition of environmental values on society–eco-authoritarianism. The difference is a matter of ethics—a matter of how AmPT should be regulated. But therein laid the difficulty. Before we could discuss how AmPT should be regulated, we needed to figure out exactly how the ethics of AmPT connect to the idea of environmental policy. We needed to divulge the relationship between principle and policy. To accomplish that, we needed a new distinction within the meaning of “environmental policy.”

The ethics of Ambient Persuasive Technology entail a new theoretical take on the meaning of “environmental policy.” Environmental policy in the typical sense means public policy that compels people to act differently toward the environment—meaning the atmosphere, land, hydrosphere, and all the life therein—whereas “environmental policy” in the ethics of AmPT means public policy pertaining to the environment’s capacity to compel people. But it’s more than that. The values of the designers of AmPT are inherently embedded in the design of the technology itself. AmPT is the environment manipulating people, but ultimately it is people manipulating the environment—the very space we regularly and immediately occupy—that then manipulates people. Not only do we hand over tremendous amounts of autonomy to technology, the technology itself is value-latent. But the ethics of AmPT also connect to the idea of environmental policy in another more specific sense through the how the technology is applied.

Specifically, AmPT can be used to employ the environment to compel people to act different toward the environment. AmPT, in that sense, realigns itself with the typical mission of environmental policy. Hence Taylor and my (and presumably Tim’s as well—we have to wait for the verdict of his thesis) concern.

The ethics of AmPT and its two senses of connection to “environmental policy” involve the implicit distinction between the built environment and the natural environment. For philosophical reasons, the distinction between the built and natural environment ultimately dissolves—humans and our cities are no less natural than bees and their hives. But in practical terms, the ethics of AmPT in the environmental policy context specifically involve people using the “built environment” to influence the human impact on the “natural environment.”

The ethics of AmPT connect to the idea of environmental policy in several important ways. The regulation of AmPT involves regulating the human influence on the environment and regulating the environment’s influence on humans. But ultimately it entails regulating the human capacity to influence the environment’s capacity to influence other humans. But how AmPT should be regulated is a much deeper question. AmPT, like all technology, carries as much opportunity for progress as for catastrophe. Luckily, Tim is on that for us.

EDIT: The “eco-authoritarian concern” is purely theoretical–I only specify “eco” authoritarianism because of the environmental policy context. Eco-authoritarianism is probably the last kind of authoritarianism we need to be worried about if we assume that AmPT will actually be ubiquitous.