Jan 05, 2015 | By

Postscript: Tech Company Manipulation of the Human – Technology Interface

This week (January 3, 2015) the Economist magazine posted a review of a new book by Nyr Eyal called Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products (2014) that documents the way online companies seek to manipulate our minds in the effort to build users and ad revenues. Remarkably, it is estimated that 4/5ths of smartphone users check their device within 15 minutes of waking up – and check it as much as 150 times a day.   The author tells his story from the inside:  In 2008 he began work with a start-up to build a platform for placing ads in online games. In the subsequent years his research on interface design and the psycho-social factors leading to heavy usage led to his consulting with a range of silicon valley businesses.  He notes one of the key features of successful products is “variable rewards”.  The founder of radical behaviourism B.F.Skinner (1904-1990) first observed that rewarding subjects in variable, unpredictable ways is far more effective at cementing behavior than predictable reinforcement.

According to The Economist:

“It is hard to read “Hooked” without feeling a bit queasy. Companies are at once getting more sophisticated and more shameless.”

“As smartphones become loaded with ever more sensors, and with software that can interpret their users emotional states, the scope for manipulating minds is growing.”

“And the trouble with insatiable desires is that the struggle to sate them leaves everyone as exhausted as they are unfulfilled.”

Perhaps it is not surprising that researchers are concerned Americans are sleeping less than they did in the past.[1] How is your sleep these days?

In the Conclusion of The Human Race and The Technology Race, I recommended following the “A” Rules – AVOID negative or phony satisfiers; ADOPT positive satisfiers; ADAPT technology to your life needs; and become ADEPT at technologies that bring passion and joy to your life. In addition, I recommended that people be self-reflective about how a technology affects them. In light of the quite remarkable sophistication that tech companies are applying to the goal of manipulating our thoughts, feelings and behaviors, the admonishment for self-reflection becomes critically important and increasingly challenging every day.

In this context it is worth considering the latest scientific findings on the question of willpower,[2] that suggest willpower is a limited resource that can be exhausted. For example, sticking to a black and white rule is easier to keep over time than a provisional limit requiring constant monitoring. For example, a rule that says “no dessert during the week” is easier to follow than one that says “I am going to limit my desserts.”

Kevin Kelly (What Technology Wants) and others advocate for setting aside digital free time periods to give ourselves a clear break from the constant barrage of information and stimulation. Based on the willpower findings, setting up fixed commitments for digital free time, and holding to them, is a better strategy than a generalized notion of using the technology less. A side benefit of setting aside such time periods is that it also provide time for the self-reflection essential for making good decisions.

This is easily said but not easy to do. I have not yet done it myself! The siren song of our digital devices is remarkably powerful and our interactions with them instantly and subliminally pleasurable. But if we can also remember that the Tech Companies on the other end of those devices are dedicating massive efforts to the manipulation of our minds and behaviors, then perhaps that can make it easier to establish healthy digital habits.

[1] http://www.wsj.com/articles/sleep-experts-close-in-on-the-optimal-nights-sleep-1405984970

[2] See a summary at: http://swedenborgcenterconcord.org/does-science-proves-religion/

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