Track Thyself? The Ethics of Self-knowledge Through Technology
Yeah, I'm happy to be here and to talk about the ethics of self-knowledge through technology. So the idea of this presentation is to look at the technologies that can provide us or promise to provide us with insights into who we are, with self-knowledge, with information about ourselves, and then look at the ethics of self-knowledge. So we also seem to have ethical reasons to know ourselves.
And there are different types of self-knowledge so we can look at to which types of self-knowledge does technology contribute and what our ethical issues arise there. That's the plan of this talk. Sorry. I hope I can...Yes. This is just a very brief outline. So I'll start by looking at what kind of information we can get through technology. What kind of self-knowledge is being promised by current technologies, to then look at self-knowledge and specifically look at these different types of self-knowledge so we can distinguish between impersonal, critical and relational self-knowledge, and then can put this together and look at the ethics of self-knowledge.
So look at how do these technologies contribute to different forms of self-knowledge and in which issues arise there. Before we conclude and then we can have a little discussion together. Okay. So when you look at self-knowledge through technology, I think two types of technologies are particularly important here. The first is bioinformation technology. So these are technologies that give us information about our bodies or about our brains. And one I think the most common example are health and activity trackers, they can be smartwatches or also apps on smartphones that track your step count, or your heart rate, or even just a menstruation calendar or something.
And then we also have direct-to-consumer genetic testing. So you may have heard of these tests where you can send in a genetic sample and then they will analyse your genome and tell you something about who your relatives are, where your ancestors are from, but also potential genetic disorders or many other characteristics. There's a long list of things that they can tell you based on your genes. And a newer technology of the market of the-direct-to consumer newer technologies, An example of this is in the bottom right of the slide, So these are these devices, they typically use EEG, so they measure your brainwaves. You can just order them online and put them on and then they measure your brainwaves and at least allegedly can tell you something about your emotional states or stress levels in real time. So through technology, we can gather a vast range of information about ourselves, of parameters from heart rate, sleep cycle, temperature, blood, oxygen level.
As I said, emotional states and stress levels, also your ancestry, genetic levels, relatives, genetic disorder. And much more. So these are just a few examples of the kinds of bioinformation we may gather through technology and that might contribute to knowing ourselves, to knowing our bodies. And then a very different type of self-knowledge we may acquire through technology is found in algorithmic profiling. So algorithmic profiling uses either your online behaviour or other databases to infer characteristics about you.
So to create a profile about who you are, and this is being used, for example, in recommender systems. So Netflix creates a profile of their user to recommend movies, or Amazon to recommend products, then also for targeted advertisements. So Google has a profile of their user to send them ads that they are more likely to engage with, but also for decision-making about individuals. So, for instance, to make decisions about job markets, platforms or employers create an algorithmic profile to decide who will see the job ad, or whether a candidate will make it to the next round. They're also used in the health care system for health care allocation, and in the justice system.
Algorithmic profiling has been used to assess recidivism risk. So you get a score depending on how likely you are to re-offend. And this is being used to determine the sentence.
Or it is influencing the sentencing. So these algorithmic profiles are used again to infer a vast range of characteristics from spoken languages, to age, to political opinions and preferences. You can even infer from social media posts whether one is likely to have insomnia or depression, and, as I said, is being used to assess the suitability for a job or for recidivism risk and more. And of course, this type of information is not as in the bioinformation case, personal information that is fed directly to you, but this is information that is generated, these statistics and profiles that are generated to inform other people about you, typically like companies or institutions. But in many ways it feeds back to us. So we will get a feedback on what Google thinks of us by the ads that they send to us or. For Google, you can actually look up how they characterised you as a special case, but also through the decisions that are being made about us in the justice system, for instance, or the movies that are being shown to us in Netflix or the music on Spotify, we get a feedback on how our profiles look like, and in this way these might also be a source for self-knowledge, a source for getting insights into who we are. Yeah.
So these are the two types of technology. I think there are more technologies that might provide us with information about ourselves. But I think those two are special because they have been designed with the intent of characterising us, of generating information about us. Yeah. So this is for what's out there in terms of technology for our self-knowledge or like some important examples for this. And now we can look at self-knowledge.
So first of all, we may wonder, like, Why should we know ourselves? And there's a lot of good reasons why you might want to pursue self-knowledge. So first of all, it is just pretty straightforward and useful for yourself to know yourself. You can plan your life better. You're less likely to make decisions that you will regret later if you know yourself well.
You avoid certain health risks if you if you know your body well. And it's also useful for others. So you're likely a better collaborator if you only can commit to projects you will actually follow through because you have, you know, your preferences and your beliefs and so on. And many have also argued that self-knowledge is important to develop virtues, interact morally right. So to know why you act, to have an understanding of who you are, it helps to act right, to interact morally right. And then some philosophers have set what they label more like "high-road reasons".
So not like straightforward, like practical usefulness, But self-knowledge might also be important for ideals and concepts like authenticity or autonomy for responsibility and for critical reasoning. And finally, someone also argued that you may have a duty to yourself to know yourself. So you might owe it to yourself to know who you are. This might be just a dimension of self-respect or self-love, too, to know yourself.
There are many good reasons to know ourselves. But then what does it mean to know ourselves? And how can we know ourselves in a different ways? And here we can distinguish between three types of self-knowledge. So I would like to distinguish between three types of self-knowledge, and the first one is impersonal self-knowledge.
That is the idea that there are certain facts about ourselves which we can just discover, which are kind of independent of our agency and what we think about them. So we are kind of passive recipients of like, "Oh, it seems that I happen to like this, think that, believe this". And this type of impersonal self-knowledge is gathered by the same or analogous methods that are used to know other people.
So, for example, you look at your behaviour, you identify behavioural patterns to know something about yourself, just as you do with other people. Or you ask someone what they think of yourself and they tell you, or you use one of these technologies. This would also be straightforwardly a source of impersonal self-knowledge to discover that your heart rate is like this, your emotional state is like that, that you have a mental disorder. So these these would all be aspects of impersonal self-knowledge, and it is connected to idea of the self or of your identity, something to be discovered. So there's something that you can just, like, take in and find out about yourself.
And then we can contrast this with critical self-knowledge. So critical self-knowledge is here that the content is not just discovered by the individual, but it is actively generated. So it is kind of when you make up your mind about something, then you also learn, "Oh, my beliefs are this, or my attitudes are that"; not by passively discovering, but by thinking, by looking into the world and deciding, what do I have reason to believe and desire. So in this sense, you already author of those beliefs, attitudes and intentions, and you take responsibility for it because you can avow them, you can change them, you can criticise them, and you can kind of bring them about and make up your mind about.
And this is connected to an idea of the self as actively and dynamically created. And we can also critically engage with the impersonal type of self-knowledge so we can. Let's say someone goes hiking and then she discovers that she really likes hiking and she's going for it first time and she sees this is more like an act of discovery. "Oh, it turns out that I really like that, this preference of mine". But then she may engage critically with that. She may make this into an important part of who she is. She may plan her future around that, or she may, to the contrary, think, "oh, this is kind of a waste of time.
This is a yeah, it might be a preference, but I kind of reject that as a preference of mine". I make up my mind about this thing that I have discovered about myself and react to it and then go into this more like critical relation to it. So they are also connected in many ways. And then the third type of self-knowledge I want to mention is relational self-knowledge. So this is kind of knowledge about how you fit into the world, we could say. So we are also defined in many ways by others and by how others see us.
So this is knowledge and relationship. The relational knowledge is knowledge about how others define you through, for instance, concepts and norms which we acquire in a social context. So what does it mean to be a liberal or black, or woman, or to be a friendly person? So we acquire these concepts and norms in a social context, and they shape how we see ourselves and how we see the world and so on, and others define us through our relations to them. So you are someone's sibling or father, or you are a member of an ethnic group or of a book club.
And I think a very incisive way about how all of this can define us are through constraints and opportunities. So others can constrain our scope of action by giving us access to or denying us access to institutions or places, or giving opportunities for jobs or connections and many other things. And for example, you may think. A woman in Afghanistan who can no longer go to a university.
She is constrained in her scope of actions through others. But of course, in a way she's still the same person, like she may still have all the abilities to study. But insofar as we are defined by our actions, this woman will just not become a doctor who can dedicate her life to her patients and find meaning in that and define herself through that.
So insofar as we are defined by our actions and others can constrain our scope of actions, others can define who we can be and who we can become. And in this way, knowing ourselves can entail knowing how we are constrained by others and which spaces, which actions are open for us. And it is connected to ideas of the self as defined by others. So insofar as others can define us, we can also know ourselves with relation to how others define us. Okay, so now we have some idea of different types of self-knowledge and some technologies that can provide us with information.
So now I'd like to bring this together and look at how technology can contribute to these different types of self-knowledge. And think about that. And when you look at impersonal self-knowledge, so this is kind of The most common type of self-knowledge which we get through technology because they gave us all this information which we can just discover about ourselves. Right. And here I think one of the issues that arise is an issue of quality over quantity, so that we might want to strive for quality, over quantity.
So if the information that technology can provide is reliable and substantial, it can of course broaden our self-knowledge in important ways. You may learn that you have this disease you didn't know of or that you had the sibling you didn't know of. And that can be and can become substantial self-knowledge.
But also, we have to keep in mind that personal information through technology is very often inaccurate, biased and or trivial. So especially these neurotechnology devices that have been shown to be pretty inaccurate in many cases. There is many biases in these, especially in these algorithmic profiles.
And of course, a lot of information is also just very trivial. So it's not very substantial self-knowledge to know how many steps you take at what rate. That will not really broaden your horizon of who you are as a person. Yeah. And then I think an important issue with it in terms of impersonal self-knowledge is that marginalised groups are often disadvantaged in terms of accuracy, bias, as well as detail/ extensiveness. So for instance, smartwatches have been shown to be less accurate for people with black skin.
Many of these algorithmic profiles also influenced important decision making processes have been shown to be biased. And for detail/ extensiveness, there's an interesting example with the 23 and Me company, that's a company for delivering genetic testing. This company can track down the genetic origin of your ancestors, to any geographic origin of your ancestors, to over 2000 regions worldwide. And only 167 of those are in the continent of Africa, compared to 164 in the UK alone.
But if your ancestors are from the UK, they can basically tell you which village they're from, and if they're from Africa it might just be somewhere in Nigeria or just like a much less detailed and extensive information that you can you can get from them. And in this way marginalised groups are disadvantaged in many ways to profit from the self-knowledge that these technologies may provide us with. And to summarise these in terms of impersonal self-knowledge. It seems that given the high cost and the often lacking quality of this personal information, but of course it depends on the specific technology.
But I think often those resources should be invested elsewhere with an increased contribution to self-knowledge. So maybe we should seek other sources of self-knowledge than very expensive technologies with questionable accuracy. But of course, you also have to keep in mind that other sources of self-knowledge are also not perfect. So. Yeah.
We are also comparing against an imperfect standard, of course. Then for the critical self-knowledge. I think what is interesting here for technologically sourced personal information, is that it can make this sort of critical engagement a bit difficult. And one reason is that this technologically sourced personal information can be really hard to understand and assess. So, for example, what do these neurotechnologies, How do these brainwaves translate to emotional states or to stress levels? It's very hard to really understand and to understand in which situations is this information reliable? When can you trust this device? When can't you and what does it really mean if it detects a certain stress level? And this information is also often of statistical nature. And for example, genetic tests may tell you have a 20% risk of developing Alzheimer's, and it can be hard to critically engage with statistical information.
It can be hard to know, like, what do I do with this information? What does it mean to have like a 20% risk of something? Humans are just not very good at engaging with and understanding statistical information. And it's also hard to know, especially if the likelihood are pretty low. And it's hard to know how to react to that or how to engage with that.
And these types of technologies can also foster the belief that we do not really have direct control over who we are. And of course, in many ways we don't. But to some degree we have this capacity for actively, dynamically creating who we are. But if you have these technologies, they kind of pinpoint all your like preferences and your physical characteristics, and what you want to buy and what you should watch. It can create a shift towards an image of the self that, "oh, I'm just someone who's like, passively discovering who I am". It seems that it's all already, like measured and fixed instead of an image where it's up to you to make up your mind of who you are, what you prefer, what you believe, and so on. But in some cases, these technologies can also encourage self-constitution, self-management.
So for example, if someone makes up their mind that they want to be more active and they want to, let's say, go for a run every day, then activity trackers may help them to live up to this decision that they've made, so they can remind them of their training plan. So it can help to make whatever you have made up your mind about, you make this come true. They can help you enact that. But typically these personal information technologies do not encourage and facilitate critical self-knowledge. It's more of this discovery mode of yourself.
And in terms of the relational self-knowledge, I think what is interesting here is to see that even if an algorithm is very flawed and biased, it can in some way reveal the role or place you have been assigned in the world or like the way others see you and the opportunities and restrictions you face. So it can be hugely important self-knowledge, to know, for instance how you are assessed in terms of your recidivism risk. If you face a trial. And which parameters go into this assessment and how the algorithm works, this can be hugely important knowledge. And I would argue about this type of self-knowledge because it is something that will define who you are and what you can do in your life and who you can be. But so far, the algorithms that make those often far reaching decisions about us are often highly untransparent.
So we often don't know what parameters go into it. We often don't know how the algorithms work or how those parameters are taken into account. And we often don't even know that algorithms are being used, especially for the job market. This is not clear which companies are using hiring algorithms to select their candidates. Or also for health care allocations. So it is all highly untransparent and it will be very valuable self-knowledge in terms of relational self-knowledge.
And lastly, I want to mention that technology also influences which characteristics are considered as meaningfully defining a person, as well as how those characteristics are defined and measured. So again, we can look at the example of genetic testing. So because this technology has become much more accessible and available and cheaper, people are now much more likely to consider their genetic heritage as something that is defining themselves in an important way. So certainly being 25% Croatian is an important part of someone's identity. And also the availability of genetic testing makes it more likely that heritage is defined in terms of genetic heritage in contrast to cultural heritage, for example. So it does change what we consider is important about us and how we measure these and define this.
And overall, the value of self-knowledge speaks in favour of transparency, of information technology, and especially in terms of those important decision making algorithms. We should advocate for transparency also to profit from all the values self-knowledge gives us. Okay, so to conclude, we can say that self-knowledge is a good and we have practical and moral reasons to pursue it, and technology has the potential to give us more of it, if we use it right and if the technology is designed right and regulated right. And therefore, we should ensure that these personal information technologies not only serve commercial interests, but our self-knowledge interests through accurate and transparent and inclusive and accessible and controllable personal information. Okay, So thank you for listening. There's some suggestions for further reading.
What I've talked about now is part of the paper that's in the review process. So it's not out yet. And I don't know when it will come out or if hopefully it will. But there are other great sources on the topic that you can read, if you want to know more. Thank you. And now we can open the room for discussion.