School of Religion, Philosophy & Classics

UKZN Master’s Graduate to do PhD at Technical University of Delft

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UKZN’s master’s in philosophy graduate, Mr Ryan Timms has earned a place in a PhD programme at the Technical University of Delft in The Netherlands to pursue research on manipulative technologies.

This follows his recent graduation with a summa cum laude Master’s degree in Philosophy, on the topic: Hostile Scaffolding. Timms has also co-authored a paper on this topic with his supervisor, Professor David Spurrett.

Timms is thankful to have been given this chance as he believes it will enable him to grow his work in new and exciting directions which will result in his research making a tangible difference. ‘Collaborating with engineers and designers gives me an opportunity to help create good design values in a truly interdisciplinary area, he said: ‘For me, my work must have implications in the real world, especially with fast evolving technology such as artificial intelligence (AI),’ adding that he was drawn to the University’s focus on Design for Values and comprehensive strengths in engineering.

Timms’s dissertation examined how external structures are used to support cognition (cognitive scaffolding). Everyday examples of helpful scaffolding include road lane markings, object reminders (such as leaving an empty bottle on a kitchen counter to prompt replacing it), and emergency exit signs. His dissertation focused on the relatively neglected topic of how cognitive scaffolding can be used to exploit or manipulate. To this end he developed specific criteria for deep hostile scaffolding, providing concrete examples including gambling machines which are used to manipulate a player’s cognition and distort the apparent odds of winning (making them appear higher than they are).

Timms believes his dissertation adds to the body of knowledge on cognitive scaffolding. ‘I demonstrated the reality and applicability of deep hostile scaffolding and offered some directions for future research – such as using my hostile scaffolding criteria to study dark patterns, gamification, and AI systems.’

Praising his supervisor’s input, Timms shared that throughout the process, Spurrett went above and beyond the norm and genuinely assisted him in becoming a better philosopher, leaving him feeling energised and with a better grasp of the subject after their meetings.

He offered words of encouragement to his peers: ‘Even if you can’t see the finish line, don’t lose hope – writing a dissertation is more like a marathon than a sprint. Be sure to create deadlines and set smaller goals for yourself so that you can always see progress. You’ll finally arrive.’

Read the dissertation at: