It’s Per­sonal

Elis­a­beth Rib­bans on per­sua­sive de­sign

Business Spotlight - - CONTENTS - ELIS­A­BETH RIB­BANS is a Bri­tish jour­nal­ist and ed­i­to­rial con­sul­tant. She is also a for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of The Guardian in Lon­don. Con­tact: erib­bans@ gmail.com

Ev­ery­one wants to know where this pe­riod of ex­po­nen­tial tech­no­log­i­cal change will take us, but how much at­ten­tion is paid to what it is do­ing to us — to our bod­ies, minds and souls? I am think­ing in par­tic­u­lar of our deep re­la­tion­ship with all things dig­i­tal. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port by the UK tele­coms reg­u­la­tor, Of­com, Bri­tons now spend an av­er­age of 24 hours a week on­line — al­most twice as much as in 2007. The ma­jor­ity of that time is spent on mo­bile de­vices, with the av­er­age per­son fid­dling with the phone for two hours and 49 min­utes a day, ris­ing to four hours a day for peo­ple aged 15 to 24.

We’re on our phones while watch­ing TV, at the din­ner ta­ble, walk­ing down the street. Most of us in­stinc­tively feel this is not good. Many of us think we should mod­er­ate our own be­hav­iour but find it hard to put our phones aside. More peo­ple ask whether our ad­dic­tion to screens will be the “next to­bacco”.

Well, I wouldn’t be sur­prised — and the worry should be that our chil­dren are even more hooked than we are. Par­ents may nag young­sters to put down their phones or tablets, but the fact is that, like all of us, kids are not in a bat­tle against their own weak­ness but against the power of “per­sua­sive de­sign”, the ex­pert mix of be­havioural sci­ence and com­puter tech­nol­ogy that dig­i­tal ser­vices use to keep us ad­dicted.

A fas­ci­nat­ing study called “Dis­rupted Child­hood”, pub­lished by the 5Rights Foun­da­tion, a Bri­tish char­ity cam­paign­ing for the rights of chil­dren in the dig­i­tal world, sounds the alarm for “the dam­ag­ing ef­fects of per­sua­sive de­sign on child­hood”. It points to links with sleep de­pri­va­tion, anx­i­ety and neg­a­tive ef­fects on men­tal and phys­i­cal de­vel­op­ment.

5Rights, which re­ports that 86 per cent of threeto four-year-olds have ac­cess to a tablet, is call­ing for com­pul­sive use of tech­nol­ogy to be rec­og­nized as a pub­lic health is­sue and for in­dus­try to put the best in­ter­ests of chil­dren first. This con­cern is echoed in the US, where the Cen­ter for Hu­mane Tech­nol­ogy — led by Tris­tan Har­ris, the for­mer “de­sign ethi­cist” at Google — de­scribes how plat­forms “point Ai-driven news feeds, con­tent, and no­ti­fi­ca­tions at our minds, con­tin­u­ally learn­ing how to hook us more deeply”.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion of­fers nine tips for tak­ing back con­trol. One is “go greyscale” — change your dis­play to black-and-white be­cause colour­ful icons re­ward the brain. I’ve done this and found that my phone is much less tempt­ing, which as an adult who hoped she was rather more com­pli­cated I find both de­press­ing and won­der­ful. But as the Cen­ter for Hu­mane Tech­nol­ogy tells us, to de­sign hu­mane tech­nol­ogy, we need to start by un­der­stand­ing our­selves.

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