Pleasure, Happiness and Feedback Loops

We are cyborgs, always connected to the grid, face it. The smartphone our multi-tool serves a variety of high-level needs, from retrieval of highly-personalised information in an endless sea of data to communication in all sorts of ways. It’s deeply intertwined with our behaviour and habits. However, in a attention-driven data economy we live in, optimising for profit can result in employing dark user experience patterns to addict people in dopamine-driven feedback loops. Yes, short-term pleasure is guaranteed, as well as long-term dissatisfaction. Interestingly, big names at Facebook confessed these practices, filled with regret. Can anyone individually fight against these forces that addict us? Though experiments and algorithms, these forces know us better than we know ourselves and still nothing from the governments regarding regulation.

Most of us have an intimate relationship to our smartphone. It’s our personalised gateway to an endless sea of information, data wherever we are. It connects us to our friends and family. It acts as a multi-tool which is deeply intertwined with our behaviour and habits of our day to day life. We are cyborgs (cybernetic organisms), for better or worse, face it.

Attention Economy

But here comes a big BUT, I would argue the most important BUT in an attention-driven data economy. A lot of tech companies have products which monetise by selling our data or targeting for ads. Both require getting as much data of users as possible by optimising for engagement, e.g. how long users keep using the app, are on the site. Of course, optimisation for engagement does not imply that the users are benefitting. Companies employ dark user-experience patterns to hook people on their products. Seeing less than 5 year olds hooked on a screen by parents just makes me sad. Governments are banning drugs that cause addiction and severe health problems, but they tolerate behaviour modification loops that addict people to long-term dissatisfaction and anti-social behaviour. I’m not blaming the companies, every single person can decide how to use their smartphone, or can’t they?

Confessions

Just recently after the US election surprise of 2016, Chamath Palihapitiya, former executive at Facebook admitted, see video:

"The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.” Chamath Palihapitiya, Former Executive Facebook

Dopamine corresponds to short-term pleasure, and to much of it leads to addiction. It is typically experienced alone, and makes the brain say “This feels good, I want more”. Serotonin on the other hand is closely related to long-term happiness, like contentment. It’s generally shared, like spending time with friends, family, colleagues etc. and it makes the brain say: “This feels good, and it’s enough”. Too little of it leads to depression, see The Hacking of the American Mind and This Is Why our Phones are Making Us Miserable. Fundamentally, seeking for pleasure doesn’t make us happy, it addicts us, going down a spiral of long-term dissatisfaction.

"It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology." Ex-facebook president Sean Parker

Regulation

Since we are fighting against our own addiction plus forces that will make us addicted (targeting, re-targeting, network effects, or large-scale experiments on humans) it’s really hard to argue that people can decide on their own. Fortunately, a counter movement emerged, the Centre for Humane Technology. Hopefully, in the future we’ll continue seeing the discussion if optimising for engagement is still the way to go. Technology is deeply intertwined with our behaviour and our thought processes and I strongly believe that regulation to save citizens is in need. Further, I strongly believe, that tech entrepreneurs and developers should take the responsibility, at least in raising awareness about the imminent dangers of just optimising for profit. The topic is very broad as you can see in the human tech reading list referenced below. Hence, this article serves as an opener to a series of articles that might follow.

Reading List


One or two mails a month about the latest technology I'm hacking on.