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.
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?
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
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.
- Humane Technology Reading List
- How a Handful of Tech Companies Control Billions of Minds Everyday
- How Better Tech Could Protect Us From Distraction
- Radio Lab Trust Engineers Podcast Episode
- What I Learned in 24 Hours Without My Phone
- This Panda is Dancing - Time Well Spent Video
- Your Brain Is Getting Hacked Video
- The Guarding, Sean Parker’s Confessions
- Simon Sinek on Millennials in the Workplace
- An Algorithm Will Be Your Best Therapist, But It Can Be Hacked Too Talk