'Our minds can be hi­jacked'

The tech insiders who fear a smart­phone dystopia

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - INTERNATIONAL -

choices will steer what a bil­lion peo­ple are think­ing to­day,” he said. “I don’t know a more ur­gent prob­lem than this,” Har­ris says.

It all be­gan in 2013, when he was work­ing as a prod­uct man­ager at Google, and cir­cu­lated a thought-pro­vok­ing memo to close col­leagues. It struck a chord and spread.

He ex­plored how LinkedIn ex­ploits a need for so­cial rec­i­proc­ity to widen its net­work; how YouTube and Net­flix au­to­play videos and next episodes, de­priv­ing users of a choice about whether or not they want to keep watch­ing; how Snapchat cre­ated its ad­dic­tive Snap­streaks fea­ture, en­cour­ag­ing con­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween users.

The tech­niques th­ese com­pa­nies use are not al­ways generic: they can be al­go­rith­mi­cally tai­lored to each per­son. An in­ter­nal Face­book re­port leaked this year, for ex­am­ple, re­vealed that the com­pany can iden­tify when teens feel “in­se­cure”, “worth­less” and “need a con­fi­dence boost”. Such gran­u­lar in­for­ma­tion, Har­ris adds, is “a per­fect model of what but­tons you can push in a per­son”. Tech com­pa­nies can ex­ploit such vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties to keep peo­ple hooked; ma­nip­u­lat­ing, for ex­am­ple, when peo­ple re­ceive “likes” for their posts, en­sur­ing they ar­rive when an in­di­vid­ual is likely to feel vul­ner­a­ble, or in need of ap­proval, or maybe just bored. And the very same tech­niques can be sold to the high­est bid­der.

Har­ris be­lieves that tech com­pa­nies never de­lib­er­ately set out to make their prod­ucts ad­dic­tive. They were re­spond­ing to the in­cen­tives of an ad­ver­tis­ing econ­omy, ex­per­i­ment­ing with tech­niques that might cap­ture peo­ple’s at­ten­tion, even stum­bling across highly ef­fec­tive de­sign by ac­ci­dent.

The most se­duc­tive de­sign, Har­ris ex­plains, ex­ploits the same psy­cho­log­i­cal sus­cep­ti­bil­ity that makes gam­bling so com­pul­sive: vari­able re­wards. It is the pos­si­bil­ity of dis­ap­point­ment that makes it com­pul­sive.

It’s this that ex­plains how the pull-tore­fresh mech­a­nism, whereby users swipe down, pause and wait to see what con­tent ap­pears, rapidly be­came one of the most ad­dic­tive de­sign fea­tures in modern tech­nol­ogy. “Each time you’re swip­ing down, it’s like a slot ma­chine,” Har­ris says.

James Wil­liams does not be­lieve talk of dystopia is far-fetched. The ex-Google strate­gist who built the met­rics sys­tem for the com­pany’s global search ad­ver­tis­ing busi­ness, has had a fron­trow view of an in­dus­try he de­scribes as the “largest, most stan­dard­ised and most cen­tralised form of at­ten­tional con­trol in hu­man his­tory”. He em­barked on years of in­de­pen­dent re­search. He saw the Google memo cir­cu­lated by Har­ris and the pair be­came al­lies.

The same forces that led tech firms to hook users with de­sign tricks also en­cour­age those com­pa­nies to de­pict the world in a way that makes for com­pul­sive, ir­re­sistible view­ing. “The at­ten­tion econ­omy in­cen­tivises the de­sign of tech­nolo­gies that grab our at­ten­tion,” he says. “It priv­i­leges our im­pulses over our in­ten­tions.”

That means priv­i­leg­ing what is sen­sa­tional over what is nu­anced, ap­peal­ing to emo­tion, anger and out­rage. The news me­dia is in­creas­ingly work­ing in ser­vice to tech com­pa­nies, and must play by the rules of the at­ten­tion econ­omy to “sen­sa­tion­alise, bait and en­ter­tain in or­der to sur­vive”. In the wake of Don­ald Trump’s stun­ning elec­toral vic­tory, many were quick to ques­tion the role of so- called “fake news” on Face­book, Rus­sian- cre­ated Twit­ter bots or the data- cen­tric tar­get­ing ef­forts that com­pa­nies such as Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica used to sway vot­ers. But Wil­liams sees those fac­tors as symp­toms of a deeper prob­lem. The at­ten­tion econ­omy it­self is setup to pro­mote a phe­nom­e­non like Trump, who is mas­ter­ful at grab­bing and re­tain­ing at­ten­tion of­ten by ex­ploit­ing or cre­at­ing out­rage.

All of which, Wil­liams says, is not only dis­tort­ing the way we view pol­i­tics but, over time, may be chang­ing the way we think, mak­ing us less ra­tio­nal and more im­pul­sive. “We’ve ha­bit­u­ated our­selves into a per­pet­ual cog­ni­tive style of out­rage,” he says. (Cour­tesy The Guardian, UK)

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