New Thinking

Breaking free of our addictions to persuasive technology

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The attention economy of online giants like Google, Facebook, and Netflix thrives by keeping internet users plugged into a constant feedback loop of gratification. Persuasive technology collects user data through social media engagements and content interaction, building information for delivering more tailored content and advertising. This technology maximizes user attention, which is great for the providers, but not always for the user.

The last few years have seen a huge swell in apps that gamify behavior, applying the mechanics of game design to applications to make them more engaging and fun. We are congratulated by apps for having achieved certain tasks, even the mundane: Fitbit rewards us for exercising, Duolingo for learning a language, Headspace for taking the time to cultivate mindfulness. It creates a kind of digital carrot and stick, incentivizing users to attain the reward and get a dopamine hit. Many apps use this reward system to further self-improvement, but users can become so engaged that they petition Snapchat to restore a broken streak or spend hundreds of dollars on Candy Crush.

So how do we learn to adapt to the attention economy? Many people switch off with apps like Freedom, which cut off or block certain websites, or use the Pomodoro Technique to focus attention into controlled bursts. The National Day of Unplugging encourages people to turn off their phones, disengage from conversations about work, and spend some quality time with family, making art, or hiking. A “digital detox” is the new “Dry January.” But disengaging from tech doesn’t address the problems raised by the attention economy. It is in design and ethics that real change could be made.

Tristan Harris, described by The Atlantic as “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,” is working to establish a Design Code of Ethics. He founded Time Well Spent, an advocacy group that seeks to raise awareness about how persuasive technology values (and doesn’t value) our time. A former design ethicist at Google, Harris returned from Burning Man a few years ago with a clear vision of precisely how technology is stealing our time, and wrote a manifesto for ethical design that was eventually shared amongst almost 5000 Googlers. Harris felt uncomfortable about a group of young white men effectively having power over what more than 1 billion people do on their phones.

Harris likens app design to a slot machine: “All tech designers need to do is link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing.” Intermittent variable rewards pepper our digital landscape because they grab our attention, and provide more detailed data on what, or who, we interact with.

App design is frequently tailored to creating a funnel, presenting users with a narrow set of choices, and masking that set as a complete picture, when in fact users only see what the company wants them to. As Harris points out on his blog, “the group falls for the illusion that Yelp’s menu represents a complete set of choices for where to go. While looking down at their phones, they don’t see the park across the street with a band playing live music. They miss the pop-up gallery on the other side of the street serving crepes and coffee. Neither of those show up on Yelp’s menu.”

Technology that seems to assist our choices often actually gives us something we didn’t ask for, in the guise of “discovering” a latent need or desire. Videos that autoplay, suggested connections and “pages to follow” are all used to keep people online for longer, and the behavior they encourage isn’t necessarily in the user’s best interest. Users risk losing both the ability to complete their intended task and move on, and the ability to get lost in their thoughts without a prompt. As MIT Professor Sherry Turkle notes, “The capacity for boredom is the single most important development of childhood. The capacity to self soothe, go into your mind, go into your imagination. Children who are constantly being stimulated by a phone don’t learn how to be alone, and if you don’t teach a child how to be alone, they will always be lonely.” An inherent flaw to the attention economy is that the advertising industry has an insatiable hunger for attention, but humans only have so much attention to give before becoming overwhelmed.

The attention economy is still in a bit of a Wild West state, with limited regulation (at least in the US). As Harris says, “I don’t think any of these companies are evil or that the people are evil. I think there’s some bad incentives. We measure something that’s fundamentally opposed to what’s good for people.” What is key is holding space for conversations about how tech companies can work together to create more choice, and raise awareness of the ways in which tech devalues our time.

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