Faculty Q&A: Clinton Castro and Tim Aylsworth unpack how smartphones undermine human autonomy

iSchool Assistant Professor Clinton Castro (left), Tim Aylsworth, assistant professor of philosophy at Florida International University. Photos courtesy of Castro and Aylsworth

Americans check their smartphones constantly—by one estimate, more than 12 billion times per day collectively. About 60% of Americans admit to using their smartphones “too much,” but many still struggle to cut back. And research has revealed numerous mental and physical health impacts of an unhealthy attachment to smartphones, including degraded attention spans and memory, worsened anxiety, and impaired sleep.

In light of these facts, philosophers and social scientists are wondering if we really have control over our relationship with smartphones, or if they are limiting our capacity to make decisions for ourselves, thereby undermining our autonomy. In a new open-access book, Kantian Ethics and the Attention Economy: Duty and Distraction, iSchool Assistant Professor Clinton Castro PhD ‘18 and co-author Tim Aylsworth PhD ‘18 argue for the latter. Both philosophers by background, Castro and Aylsworth claim that “a variety of ‘smart’ technologies have captured our attention in such a way that we have forfeited some of our autonomy to our devices.”

Drawing on the work of 18th century German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, Castro and Aylsworth make the case that people have a moral obligation to rethink their relationship with smartphones, which they call “meticulously designed behavior modification machines.”

Castro and Aylsworth (a Badger alum who is now an assistant professor of philosophy at Florida International University, or FIU), discussed how the project started through their friendship, what Kant had to say about autonomy, how smartphones are undermining individual and collective autonomy, and reasons to be hopeful. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What was the genesis of this book?

Clinton Castro: I first started thinking about issues of technology and ethics when I was in graduate school, pursuing a PhD in the Department of Philosophy at UW-Madison. I ended up teaching a course at the Wisconsin School of Business, and it involved discussing how companies were taking data on people and selling it in ways that they couldn’t control and might not fully appreciate. That’s actually where the seeds were planted for this.

But the idea really developed through my relationship with Tim. We became good buddies in graduate school at UW-Madison, and we ended up as faculty members at FIU at the same time. We were both, obviously, really into philosophy—maybe too much. We would go running together, and at that time I was thinking a lot about the ethics of technology, while Tim was thinking about Kant and his writings on the importance of autonomy. Naturally, our conversations began to revolve around these sorts of questions.

In the first paper we ever wrote on the relationship between smartphones and autonomy, we basically argued that you have a moral obligation to yourself to think about how you interact with your phone. Then we began to realize that the obligation extended to others, including family members, students and teachers, and society at large. At that point, we knew there was plenty of material for a book.

Let’s lay some quick groundwork before talking about the book itself. What did Immanuel Kant have to say about autonomy?

Tim Aylsworth: On the heels of the scientific revolution in the late 1700s, philosophers like Kant were trying to understand humanity’s place in a world that suddenly looked much more scientific. They were asking questions like, where does humanity fit into this new world? And what about morality and religion?

Kant was really the main competition for the predominant way of thinking about ethics, which was that all that really matters is having the best outcomes or consequences. Kantian ethics points out that sometimes actions are bad, even if the consequences were good. For example, if you were opposed to taking a particular medicine or supplement, and I snuck it into your coffee, it may end up benefiting your health, but was it the right decision to sneak it in? Did I respect your autonomy?

Sometimes you disrespect someone, even if you don’t end up harming them, because you fail to respect their capacity to make decisions for themselves. That’s a principle Kant held very dear.

How did you begin to connect the ideas of Kantian ethics and smartphone addiction?

Aylsworth: I think a lot of people are having conversations about some of the things that Clinton and I are interested in. There’s a lot of great popular books, like Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus, that explore how technology can make us more anxious or impact our ability to pay attention. But a big unanswered question we had after consuming much of this literature was, what’s the moral upshot?

Kant gave us a way of thinking beyond phones being simply inconvenient or bad for mental health. His thinking was really a way of unifying the set of moral concerns around smartphones because he, perhaps more than anyone else in the history of philosophy, puts such a high premium on respecting other people’s autonomy.

How do smartphones keep us hooked, and what are some of the implications you discuss in the book?

Castro: To the first question, it can be helpful to look at design guides that tell people how to pull on our psychological levers and essentially teach us to be distracted. These guides, one of which is literally called Hooked, show tech developers how to set a goal for users and how to reinforce the pursuit of that goal. And that goal is often getting you to a time-wasting website rather than focusing on what really matters to you. This is one way smartphones and social media negatively affect your capacity to attend to what you’re doing and set your goals for yourself.

As far as implications, we go through a laundry list of empirical research that points toward smartphones hindering all sorts of basic capacities. Research shows that people often feel more anxious around their phones or have trouble with sleep because of them. In addition, excessive smartphone use has been shown to harm our working memory and executive function, which are intimately tied to our ability to get things done in the world.

Aylsworth: I’ll add that in our day-to-day lives, when we explain something from one of these studies, it often resonates very deeply with people’s experiences. Folks are glued to their phones, even when they don’t want to be, and it makes them feel distant from their own desires.

Your book is making a larger case than simply that smartphones are bad for autonomy. Can you sum up the core arguments of your book?

Aylsworth: First, we explain what autonomy is and why it matters morally. Then, we have this big empirical dump of all how smartphones affect our capacities, how we’re being manipulated by them, why we feel we have no choice but to use them.

Having made the case that autonomy matters and that phones are bad for autonomy, our core argument then is that you have a duty to yourself to change that situation by being more intentional about how you use your devices.

Castro: And flowing out of that is a second set of ideas, which is that the societal context matters here. We have an obligation to others to rethink our phone use, whether within families or in classrooms, in order to respect others’ autonomy. And regulators should be thinking about how to protect people’s agency, particularly children, when it comes to things like smartphones and social media.

The cover of the new open-access book by Castro and Aylsworth, Kantian Ethics and the Attention Economy: Duty and Distraction. Image via Springer.

So what can be done? How can we, as individuals and as a society, improve our relationship with our phones?

Castro: First, let’s think about the context of a university like UW-Madison. As instructors, our cell phone policy in class has the potential to deeply affect the classroom environment, so it should be implemented thoughtfully. I think a new critical thinking skill is the ability to work and focus and accomplish things in a world where we have too many distractions. That’s a new skill that students can hone and teachers can talk about and set some policies around.

At the personal level, Tim and I have experimented with our own relationship with our devices. I have an impossibly small smartphone that’s very frustrating to use, and I like it because it makes using a smartphone annoying enough that I don’t use it all the time. I have no notifications, especially on my desktop screen, so they don’t intrude into what I’m doing.

Aylsworth: I have an even more restrictive device, because what Clinton and I both found was that certain halfway steps that people advise, like turning your screen to black-and-white or deleting your social media apps, are only piecemeal and don’t get to the root of the issue.

In the book, we quote James Williams, the former Google engineer, on this point. He says these short-term digital detoxes are not the solution, “for the same reason that wearing a gas mask two days a week outside isn’t the answer to pollution.” It might offer a temporary, partial fix, but it doesn’t get to the crux of the problem.

To really make meaningful change, I think certain social changes need to happen around how we engage and relate with one another. For example, we need to change how we feel about people taking a while to respond to a text message or email. Employers can make a difference here, too. Some countries in Europe have adopted the so-called right to disconnect, where employers of a certain size must negotiate after-hours email policies, because people checking email at night can feel like they’re never truly off the clock. So there are individual changes, social changes, and even possible legislative changes to be made.

I really do think there is some room for hope on these issues. The conversation around these technologies has changed recently, and people are now much more aware and critical. The steps we make now as individuals and as groups could alter the future of how we relate with smartphones. So it’s not as hopeless as it may seem.

For more information on faculty research at the iSchool, including on information ethics, visit our Research Areas webpage.

To download the open-access book Kantian Ethics and the Attention Economy, access the book via Springer.