Picture this: You’re in the passenger seat of your friend’s car. There is pop music playing and the windows are rolled down a little, letting in the crisp breeze. You scroll through your Instagram feed while listening to your friend talk about their horrific day at work. Your eyes glance up from your phone occasionally, taking in the surroundings passing by. Badly designed electronic billboard ads and gaudy signs for fast food joints stick out. Those, of course, are boring, so you lose interest in them quickly. Your Instagram feed quickly sucks you back in again. Ads for new clothes and niche products intersperse the feed. Maybe you’ll buy one in the hopes that it’ll change your life. You double tap your thumb at almost every passing post, hoping that in turn, your friends will like back. You hear your name being called, and then again with more angst. Your friend glares at you, and as you look up to speak your phone vibrates, it’s an email. You have unlocked your favorite store’s “diamond membership” and they sent you an exclusive coupon code. Your friend sighs in exasperation as you click through the email and goes silent, turning up the music in response. You try to get them to talk again but they won’t look your way. Oh well, at least now you can go tend to those tempting notifications…let’s see what’s on sale…

After reading that passage, how do you feel? Guilty? Overwhelmed? If you’re anything like me, probably a little bit of both. Presently, as the passage demonstrates, everyone and everything is vying for your interest. With so many products, competitors, and forms of stimuli, attention economy has skyrocketed. This new environment forces businesses to elbow each other left and right in order to capture you – even if only for a moment. In this aggressive atmosphere large tech companies are realizing that in order to be successful, their products must addict users faster than those of their competitors. Although addiction is a strong word to use, design ethicist and former Googler, Tristan Harris, claims that this is exactly what they are trying to do.

“The technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not
full-fledged addictions. It’s the impulse to check a message notification.
It’s the pull to visit YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter for just a few minutes,
only to find yourself still tapping and scrolling an hour later.
None of this is an accident, it is all just as their designers intended.”
– Nir Eyal

In Silicon Valley, this method of mentally ensnaring users is known as “brain hacking.” By designing programs that elicit a neurological response from the user, companies are learning how to hack into humans and keep them coming back. While persuasive technological design features are not new, they have definitely evolved with the times. With the rise in mobile technology in the past decade, many of these new design features have taken on the fun characteristics of video games. In this transcribed interview, Gabe Zichermann explains that this practice is called gamification. Gamification takes aspects of video games like competition, scoring points, and unlocking levels, and inserts them into apps/digital content to make them more engaging. These virtual rewards, although they often hold no actual value, trigger a neurological response that releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps to control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. More dopamine = heightened smartphone usage.

Other persuasive design features like pull-to-refresh mechanisms and continuous scroll options rely on variable rewards to suck in users. These two features are often compared to slot machines; not knowing what will pop up on the screen is enough to allure people back and to keep them there for longer. By engineering apps to target human psychology and emotions, Silicon Valley companies are able to fabricate strong feelings of attachment between people and their technology. In this experiment, Dr. Larry Rosen is able to substantiate the effects smartphones have on the human brain. Rosen explains that when we put our phones down, cortisol – a fight-or-flight hormone originating from the adrenal gland – is released. The release of this hormone causes us to want to pick up our phones because we fear we are missing something important, like someone liking our posts or news updates on Twitter. This anxiety (FOMO) keeps us peeping at our phones all day long, regardless of if there is a notification. Our bodies even go so far as creating a “phantom buzz” to try and justify our actions. As Tristan Harris attests, we definitely have formed some sort of unhealthy bond with our technology.

An Aside about Likes

As I mentioned earlier, persuasive design features have developed exponentially due to the integration of smartphones into our daily lives. Here, I’d like to dedicate a moment to talk about arguably the most influential digital design feature of the past 20 years – the iconic Facebook like. Designed by Justin Rosenstein and his team in 2007 before the mobile craze, Facebook was looking for a way to get people more involved with the platform. After going through ideas, the team decided that the simple click of a “thumbs up” icon would allow people the option to send bits of positive energy to each other. Unlike commenting, liking a post does not require the user to expend effort because it follows the path of least resistance. Over time, this small feature caused engagement to skyrocket and has since become ingrained into our society.

Following its success on Facebook, the like button has transcended into other apps and websites serving as a form of positive feedback. However, for individuals users, especially teenagers, the positive intention of likes has turned into something quite toxic. Users who have more likes are perceived to be more valuable or more attractive. To garner more likes, it became common for teens to lie on social media or photoshop their pictures, leading to a spike in negative feelings like anxiety and depression. According to Rosenstein, these design features have gone from well-intentioned to disingenuous; and it is extremely ironic to see how these virtual “likes” have actually caused users to like less about themselves.

Manipulating the Masses

In his article, “How Silicon Valley is erasing your individuality,” Franklin Foer discusses how brain hacking is allowing companies to mold humanity into their desired image of it. By using their complex algorithms, large tech companies are able to serve up content they think will resonate with the masses. As time passes, it is completely possible for these coded suggestions to become more like instructions as people look towards them for answers like what they should buy and what news they should read. Foer also argues that large tech companies are collapsing privacy, and disrespect authorship and intellectual property. This paves the way for a monopoly of the digital space and allows for conformism to take over users. In this world, Foer fears that there will be a homogenization of opinion that will transcend into major aspects of life, including government – talk about a dystopia!

“Until you realize how easy it is for your mind to be manipulated,
you remain the puppet of someone else’s game.”
– Evita Ochel

Although I personally do not agree with some of Foer’s article, I cannot deny the fact that I feel manipulated by my screens. The artistically-coded string pulling has been made even more apparent to me, as I now work in the social media sphere. Nearly every ad is backed by some dollar amount and targeted just right so that it reaches you. Researching this topic makes me question, just like Tristan Harris, if I am doing good or if my efforts are just contributing to the problem. Until I figure out that answer, you can find me on Monday sitting in my cubicle, enjoying the work I do.


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