Smart technologies and our sense of self: going beyond epistemic counter-profiling

Sylvie Delacroix, Michael Veale

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This chapter focuses on the extent to which sophisticated profiling techniques may end up undermining, rather than enhancing, our capacity for ethical agency. This capacity demands both opacity respect—preserving a gap between the self we present and the self we conceal—and an ability to call into question practices that are ethically wanting. Pushed to its limit, the smooth optimisation of our environment may prevent us from experiencing many of the tensions that otherwise prompt us to reconsider accepted practices. An optimally personalised world may not ever call for any ‘action’ as Hannah Arendt describes it.

Can systems be designed to personalise responsibly? Greater time and research needs to be invested in designing a range of viable ‘perspective widening’ tools, as many such tools either burden users with little guarantee of meaningful engagement, or underestimate the extent to which individuals’ preferences are themselves malleable. Any approach that tries to predict what users might like, or what might change their views, risks the same pitfalls as any other form of personalisation. Instead, we argue that the most promising avenue is to push for diverse uses of newly developed systems, and measure those systems’ success at least partly on that basis. Inviting appropriation and repurposing would help keep users engaged in systems of data collection and profiling. This will not be a straightforward task: sometimes it will be in tension with traditional measures of success and performance. Yet the increasing integration of algorithmic systems in society requires us to widen our understanding of agency beyond a narrow, decontextualised focus on passive consumption preferences.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLaw and Life in the Era of Data Driven Agency
EditorsKieron O'Hara, Mireille Hildebrandt
PublisherEdward Elgar Publishing Ltd.
Number of pages12
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 19 Jun 2019


  • counter-profiling
  • personalisation
  • ethical agency
  • Hannah Arendt
  • serendipity
  • optimisation


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