Monday, April 18, 2016

Tech Companies Design Your Life, Here’s Why You Should Care

[ed. Doesn't it get fatiguing? All that energy spent every day trying not to get screwed or manipulated by somebody? Landlords, credit card companies, doctors, lawyers, hospitals, banks, airlines, insurance agencies, contractors, cable companies, phone companies, car salesmen, tech companies, politicians, and on and on and on...? (and that's not even counting Ex's) It's the picture of modern day life -  the monumental effort expended by everyone just to not get screwed or manipulated by somebody... day in and day out.]

Four years ago, I sold my company to Google and joined the ranks there. I spent my last three years there as Product Philosopher, looking at the profound ways the design of screens shape billions of human lives — and asking what it means for them to do so ethically and responsibly.

What I came away with is that something’s not right with how our screens are designed and I left Google to tell the public what they should know about this. I’m writing this to help you understand why you should care, and what you can do about it.

Why does this matter? Billions of us turn to smartphones every day. We wake up with them. We fall asleep with them. You’re looking at one right now.

New technologies always reshape society, and it’s always tempting to worry about them solely for this reason. Socrates worried that the technology of writing would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they [would] not use their memories.” We worried that newspapers would make people stop talking to each other on the subway. We worried that we would use television to “amuse ourselves to death.”

“And see!” people say. “Nothing bad happened!” Isn’t humanity more prosperous, more technically sophisticated, and better connected than ever? Is it really that big of a problem that people spend so much time staring at their smartphones? Isn’t it just another cultural shift, like all the others? Won’t we just adapt?

Invisibility of the New Normal

I don’t think so. What’s missing from this perspective is that all these technologies (books, television, radio, newspapers) did in fact radically change everything, we just don’t see it. Each replaced our old menus of life choices with new ones. Each new menu eventually became the new normal — “the way things are” — and, after our memories of old menus had faded into the past, the new menus became “the way things have always been.”

Consider that the average American now watches more than 5.5 hours of television per day. Regardless of whether you think TV is good or bad, hundreds of millions of people spend 30% of their waking hours watching it. It’s hard to overstate the vast consequences of this shift– for the blood flows of millions of people, for our understanding of reality, for the relational habits of families, for the strategies and outcomes of political campaigns. Yet for those who live with them day-to-day, they are invisible.

So what best describes the nature of what smart phones are “doing” to us?

A New “Perfect” Choice on Life’s Menu

If I had to summarize it, it’s this: our phone puts a new choice on life’s menu, in any moment, that’s “sweeter” than reality.

If, at any moment, reality gets dull or boring, our phone offers something more pleasurable, more productive and even more educational than whatever reality gives us.

And this new choice fits into any moment. Our phone offers 5-second choices like “checking email” that feel better than waiting in line. And it offers 30-minute choices like a podcast that will teach you that thing you’ve been dying to learn, which feels better than a 30-minute walk in silence.

Once you see your phone this way, wouldn’t you turn to it more often? It always happens this way: when new things fill our needs better than the old, we switch:
  • When cheaper, faster to prepare food appears, we switch: Packaged foods.
  • When more accurate search engines appear, we switch: Google.
  • When cheaper, faster forms of transportation appear, we switch: Uber.
So it goes with phones: when it gives us a new choice that’s “sweeter” than being with ourselves or our boring surroundings — we switch.

But it also changes us on the inside. We grow less and less patient for reality as it is, especially when it’s boring or uncomfortable. We come to expect more from the world, more rapidly. And because reality can’t live up to our expectations, it reinforces how often we want to turn to our screens. A self-reinforcing feedback loop.

And because of the attention economy, every product will only get more persuasive over time. Facebook must become more persuasive if it wants to compete with YouTube and survive. YouTube must become more persuasive if it wants to compete with Facebook. And we’re not just talking about ‘cheap’ amusement (aka cat videos). These products will only get better at giving us choices that make every bone in our body say, “yeah I want that!

So what’s wrong about this? If the entire attention economy is working to fill us up with more perfect-feeling things to spend time on, which outcompete being with the discomfort of ourselves or our surroundings, shouldn’t that be fantastic?

Maybe it’s that “filling people up,” even with incredible choices on screens somehow doesn’t add up to a life well lived. Or that those choices weren’t what we wished we’d been persuaded to do in the bigger sense of our lives.

As each player in the Attention Economy invents more and more persuasive tactics to keep people hooked, persuasiveness goes up and agency goes down. Maybe we are “choosing,” but we are choosing from persuasive menus driven by companies who have different goals than ours.

And that begs us to ask, “what are our goals?” or how do we want to spend our time? There are as many “good lives” as there are people, but our technology (and the attention economy) don’t really seem on our team to give us the agency to live according to them. 

And it’s about to get a lot worse.

by Tristan Harris, Medium | Read more:
Image: uncredited