When an artefact prescribes an action, it does so with a certain force. When an artefact invites an action, there is no force, but its characteristics rather make the agent aware that that particular action can be performed, and that there is some reason to do that particular action.Footnote 7 When a restaurant owner in a Greek tourist resort invites a passing tourist into his establishment, he is not forcing the invitee to come in, but rather suggesting that she could come in, and that there are good reasons for doing so: his wine is excellent, he plays authentic Greek music, etc. Of course, these facts might not be (good) reasons for the tourist: perhaps she detests wine and authentic Greek music. An invitation does not carry force, but neither is it always enticing.
The idea that artefacts can invite actions is suggested by Verbeek (2005), who extends the earlier work of Ihde (1990). Ihde is mainly interested in how technologies affect perception. He claims that technologies mediate our perception of the world: they give shape to our perception, and thereby influence how we experience the world. This mediation can take several forms, for example embodiment, where an artefact used to perceive the world, like a pair of glasses, becomes part of the agent, or representation (the hermeneutic relation), where the agent perceives an artefact that represents the world in some way, like a thermometer.
Verbeek argues that artefacts do not only mediate perception, but action as well: artefacts actively shape our actions as well as our perception.Footnote 8 Like Ihde, he distinguishes several possible ways in which artefacts can do so. The most important way for our present purposes is translation, where the artefact changes our relation with the world by inviting certain actions and inhibiting others.Footnote 9 Verbeek (2008) illustrates the translation relation with the example of obstetric ultrasound technology. He claims that on the one hand, this technology can be said to invite abortions, since it can make parents aware of inborn deficiencies or risk factors for hereditary diseases of the fetus. On the other hand, it can also inhibit abortions by confronting the parents with the fetus as a real, live human being, which can strengthen the emotional bond between the parents and the unborn child.
As I mentioned before, when an artefact invites an action, its characteristics make the agent aware that there is an opportunity for action, and that there is some reason to perform that action. Note that this awareness does not have to be conscious: the agent just needs to have access to those facts in some way. With simple artefacts, making an agent aware of an opportunity for action can be easy: humans can often quickly see what they can do with artefacts and other objects, though the actual perceived action opportunities may depend on the need of the observer (Gibson 1979: ch. 8). With more specialized or complex artefacts the observer might need knowledge of a use plan to see them (Houkes and Vermaas 2004).
Inviting is not only about making the agent aware of an opportunity for action, but also about providing a reason for doing that action and making the agent aware of that reason, or making the agent aware of an existing reason for action. Again, this does not necessarily mean that any agent will consider the relevant fact to be a proper reason for action, let alone a good reason. Artefacts are usually designed with typical (groups of) users in mind who are likely to respond to the invitation, that is, who would consider the provided reasons good reasons for action. The artefact would invite other agents as well, but they might just not consider the provided reason to be a reason. And even if they would, they might not consider it to be a good reason, or have other reasons not to respond to the invitation. For example: a comfortable chair can be said to invite sitting, even though the fact that it is comfortable might be a good reason for me to sit in it, insufficient reason for you to sit in it (perhaps you have more important reasons to hurry on) and no reason at all for a baby to sit in it, who might need firm support in order to sit upright at all. Whether a fact is a (good) reason for action depends on both observer and context.
Like prescription, invitation has a soft and a hard variant. In the soft variant, the balance of reasons is not altered by facts about the artefact; its characteristics only make the user aware of opportunities for actions and facts that count as reasons for performing those actions.Footnote 10 Persuasive technologies, artefacts that are intentionally designed to change the user’s attitude, behaviour or beliefs, often work in this way (Fogg 2003; Spahn 2011). For example: in cars, the presence of a prominent speedometer makes you aware of a reason to drive faster or slower (that you are under or over the legal speed limit). In some cars, however, the most prominent place is now given to the air-fuel meter that shows the efficiency of your engine. This also makes you aware of reasons to drive faster or slower, but here the intended result is increasing engine efficiency rather than adjusting driving speed. In these cars, facts about the speed of the car and the efficiency of the engine are not changed, but different facts are made available to the user that may constitute reasons for different actions.
Returning to Verbeek’s example of obstetric ultrasound technology, it seems that this technology invites agents to act by making them aware of facts that were already reasons for them. The fact that a certain fetus has an inborn deficiency might be a reason for abortion, the fact that it looks human already might be a reason against it, but such facts are not accessible without ultrasound technology.Footnote 11 Ideally, the characteristics of such technology would make you aware of all the relevant facts for considering what to do. In practice, though, it often leaves the user unaware of certain relevant facts, for example, because of the low resolution of an image. Or worse, distortion of the facts might occur, for example, if the ultrasound machine screen shows the fetus as larger than it actually is. Here, something is presented as a fact that might be a reason for action, while the ‘fact’ is actually not the case.
Incidentally, this example highlights an important difference between Verbeek’s account and my reasons account. Verbeek focuses on technology: it is the ultrasound machine that invites or inhibits abortions. The reasons account focuses on the facts that count as reasons, e.g. facts about inborn deficiencies, that happen to be made available to the agent by a certain technology. On the one hand, this difference in focus does not matter for the purpose of explaining behaviour: the fact that an unborn child has certain inborn deficiencies cannot make a difference to what we do if we cannot know about them. On the other hand, Verbeek’s use of ‘invitation’ suggests that the ultrasound machine is primarily responsible for any change in behaviour, where it seems that we might rather want to say that ‘inborn deficiencies invite abortions’ whenever we come to know about them - through ultrasound machines or otherwise. Furthermore, ‘invitation’ seems to be a comparative term, which raises questions about how it should be used. For example, suppose that a new type of ultrasound machine highlights inborn deficiencies, whereas the old type doesn’t. Should we say that the new type of machine is ‘more inviting’ when it comes to abortions than the old type? The reasons account avoids questions of this kind because it focuses on the facts (about the inborn deficiencies) that are reasons for action, and states that the normative force of those reasons is independent from our uncertainty with regard to or limited knowledge of the facts.Footnote 12
Next to the soft variant of invitation, there is also a hard variant, where the user is not only made aware of opportunities for actions and facts that count as reasons for performing those actions, but also about facts about the artefact that do alter the balance of reasons. This can be done by creating or intensifying a reason to perform an action, or by creating new opportunities for actions that agents might have reasons to perform. An example of the first kind would be the piano staircase where piano notes are played as one walks up and down the steps, adding a reason for using the stairs rather than the escalator next to existing reasons, like the beneficial health effects.Footnote 13 An example of the second kind would be the bath that looks inviting because it makes an activity possible which the agent may have a reason to perform (e.g. because bathing can be relaxing). In fact, it seems that every artefact that makes an action possible for which the agent can have a reason also invites it, assuming its characteristics make the agent aware of the fact that the artefact makes the action possible.
A second form of strong invitation is where facts about artefacts destroy, disable, or attenuate facts as reasons against doing those actions, where there are also reasons for performing those actions. For example: reckless driving may get you to your destination faster, but it increases the risks of you getting involved in an accident where you will suffer bodily harm. SUVs diminish the risk of suffering bodily harm for their drivers when involved in an accident relative to other cars, due to their sheer size and weight.Footnote 14 The fact that they do so destroys a fact that is a reason against reckless driving. In that way, an SUV may be said to invite reckless driving. The fact that the car is safer may thus not be an reason for reckless driving, but it certainly removes a reason against it, and the agent might have other reasons for reckless driving that then tip the scales. To give an example of how this works:
Reckless driving increases James’s risk of suffering bodily harm
Suffering bodily harm is bad for James (enables 1. to be a reason for James to not drive recklessly).
So James has a reason to not drive recklessly.
In an SUV, reckless driving does not increase James’s risk of suffering bodily harm (destroys the fact in 1. that is a reason for James not to drive recklessly).
So James has one less reason to not drive recklessly while driving an SUV.
Generally speaking, we can say that an artefact can invite an action in two ways. The first is when its characteristics make the agent aware of an opportunity for action, and existing reasons for performing that action. Those reasons can be false reasons if the ‘facts’ provided by the artefact are not the case, but would have been reasons if they had been the case: here, the invitation is also a deception. The second possibility for an artefact to invite an action is when the artefact provides an opportunity for an action which the agent has a reason to do, or when facts about the artefact provide the agent with reasons for that action or intensify existing reasons, and the agent is made aware of that. Alternately, the artefact may invite an action if facts about it destroy, disable or attenuate facts as reasons against performing that action and the agent is made aware of that, provided that there are also reasons for performing that action.