“Our minds can be hijacked” Part 2: psychology meets technology

This article follows Part 1 of a four part commentary on The Guardian’s article “Our minds can be hijacked”.

A common joke on the Internet goes something like this:

1980: “I bet there will be flying cars in the future!”

2017: Twitter increases 140 character limit on messages to 280 [or other mundane social media “innovation”]

There’s truth behind that joke: much of Silicon Valley’s focus is not on innovation, but on manipulation.

One morning in April this year, designers, programmers and tech entrepreneurs from across the world gathered at a conference centre on the shore of the San Francisco Bay. They had each paid up to $1,700 to learn how to manipulate people into habitual use of their products, on a course curated by conference organiser Nir Eyal.

Eyal, 39, the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, has spent several years consulting for the tech industry, teaching techniques he developed by closely studying how the Silicon Valley giants operate.

Social media companies are not the only ones focusing on building addictions. Apple has risen rapidly and Steve Jobs became an icon despite not inventing anything original, by focusing on people and not products.

Steve Jobs was a master marketer. However, the majority of the public that have jumped on the technology bandwagon believe that he is the Edison of our times.

I attribute the start of the smartphone zombie generation to Apple. They have led the cultural transition from innovation to manipulation. Apple made their products like jewelry. iPhones became status symbols and focused more on addictive aesthetics rather than practicality. Their users would sell their vital organs for the latest model just so they aren’t seen as out of fashion.

Social media companies followed suit, recognizing that Apple’s rise wasn’t due to innovation, but by feeding into people’s narcissism and addictive personalities.

He explains the subtle psychological tricks that can be used to make people develop habits, such as varying the rewards people receive to create “a craving”, or exploiting negative emotions that can act as “triggers”. “Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation,” Eyal writes.

I won’t give these tech companies too much credit for developing these psychological disorders amongst its users. Society has been working in tandem, with education, news media and Hollywood eradicating the morals that once kept these vices in check.

Society was once aware that suffering is a necessary part of life, and sacrifice and selflessness are necessary virtues in the pursuit of happiness. Postmodernism has all but deconstructed that, leading to levels of nihilism and hedonism never experienced before in modern western society.

The seeds were sown and tech companies are recognizing the demand for sating hedonistic lifestyles.  The use of social media compounds the psychological problems and society is falling more rapidly towards sociopathy.  We are truly living in the “ME” generation.

“Just as we shouldn’t blame the baker for making such delicious treats, we can’t blame tech makers for making their products so good we want to use them,” he said.

This is true. The exception is that with most other addictions, they are known addictions.  Drug habits, gambling habits and overeating habits all have known disastrous consequences. There is still free will to choose those paths. Social media and smartphones, however, are normalized in society.  Everyone is doing it, and in large doses.  If everyone is doing it, then it must be okay, right?

Until people are aware of the psychological harm social media causes, people will still use them under the assumption that it is harmless, exacerbating the addiction. You can’t have an intervention if there isn’t a plurality leading by example.

Not according to Tristan Harris, a 33-year-old former Google employee turned vocal critic of the tech industry. “All of us are jacked into this system,” he says. “All of our minds can be hijacked. Our choices are not as free as we think they are.”

Harris, who has been branded “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience”, insists that billions of people have little choice over whether they use these now ubiquitous technologies, and are largely unaware of the invisible ways in which a small number of people in Silicon Valley are shaping their lives.

We need more technologists bringing this issue to the forefront until people will associate social media and smartphones with other vices like drugs, overeating, and gambling. I will praise Paul Lewis and The Guardian for publishing their article, despite injecting their political bias within (a meta-analytical observation how Silicon Valley and postmodernist institutions have shaped their lives).

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 particular 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.

Unethical?  Sure. Facebook is free to do what it wants, particularly with users voluntarily submitting themselves to their experiments.

Is it any wonder then why Facebook is in the business of censorship too? They will do everything in their will to keep its users uninformed of reality. Facebook is like a casino that wants to avoid spilling the secret that the house always wins.

If the users ever realize and treat Facebook and social media as serious as they would any other addictive vice, then at least the market would regulate itself and separate those with willpower and those without. At the moment, Facebook is succeeding in manipulating those with willpower to stay on their platform.

The most seductive design, Harris explains, exploits the same psychological susceptibility that makes gambling so compulsive: variable rewards. When we tap those apps with red icons, we don’t know whether we’ll discover an interesting email, an avalanche of “likes”, or nothing at all. It is the possibility of disappointment that makes it so compulsive.

It’s this that explains how the pull-to-refresh mechanism, whereby users swipe down, pause and wait to see what content appears, rapidly became one of the most addictive and ubiquitous design features in modern technology. “Each time you’re swiping down, it’s like a slot machine,” Harris says. “You don’t know what’s coming next. Sometimes it’s a beautiful photo. Sometimes it’s just an ad.”

I am not advocating for the outright ban of social media, just as I would not advocate extreme government intervention for drugs, gambling or other vices. People can make informed decisions on their own.

We just need to work harder on the “informed” part. It should be common knowledge that social media is psychologically destructive. If alcohol is considered poison for your liver, then Facebook should be considered poison for your mind.

*     *     *

The next part expands on the conversation about regulation and free markets, and how social media’s advertising and marketing models fit in a free market.

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