Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Control through triviality - V

“There are only two industries that refer to their customers as 'users': illegal drugs and software. " — Edward Tufte

Many persuasive and motivational techniques are used to keep users returning to gaming and social media sites. These include “scarcity” (a snap or status is only temporarily available, encouraging you to get online quickly); “social proof” many people retweeted an article so you should go online and read it); “personalization” (your news feed is designed to filter and display news based on your interest); and “reciprocity” (invite more friends to get extra points, and once your friends are part of the network it becomes much more difficult for you or them to leave).

A fear of missing out, commonly known as FoMO, is at the heart of many features of social media design. Groups and forums in social media promote active participation. Notifications and “presence features” keep people notified of each others’ availability and activities in real-time so that some start to become compulsive checkers. This keeps us “friended” to people with whom we haven’t spoken in ages (“what if I miss something important from them?”). This feeling of “1% chance you could be missing something important” keeps us subscribed to newsletters even after they haven’t delivered recent benefits (“what if I miss a future announcement?”) . This keeps us using social media (“what if I miss that important news story or fall behind what my friends are talking about?”)

One of the ways tech companies capture attention  is to use social awareness cues which exploit  our need for social approval. The need to belong, to be approved or appreciated by our peers is among the highest human motivations. But now our social approval is in the hands of tech companies. When I get tagged by a friend, I imagine him making a conscious choice to tag me. But I don’t see how a company like Facebook has orchestrated his action. Facebook, Instagram or SnapChat can manipulate how often people get tagged in photos by automatically suggesting all the faces people should tag (e.g. by showing a box with a 1-click confirmation). Through design choices like this, Facebook controls how often millions of people experience their social approval online.

Another way to keep people engaged is to exploit the idea of social reciprocity. If you do me a favor, I start feeling that I owe you one next time. You say, “thank you” — I have to say “you’re welcome.” You send me an email — it’s rude not to get back to you. You follow me — it’s rude not to follow you back. (especially for teenagers). As Kurt Vonnegut said, 'If somebody says 'I love you' to me, I feel as though I had a pistol pointed at my head. What can anybody reply under such conditions but that which the pistol holder requires? 'I love you, too'. 

We are vulnerable to needing to reciprocate others’ gestures and tech companies now manipulate how often we experience it. It’s in their interest to heighten the feeling of urgency and social reciprocity. For example, Facebook automatically tells the sender when you “saw” their message, instead of letting you avoid disclosing whether you read it (“now that you know I’ve seen the message, I feel even more obligated to respond.”) This includes “two ticks” on instant messaging tools, such as Whatsapp. 

Like Facebook, LinkedIn exploits an asymmetry in perception. When you receive an invitation from someone to connect, you imagine that person making a conscious choice to invite you, when in reality, they likely unconsciously responded to LinkedIn’s list of suggested contacts. In other words, LinkedIn turns your unconscious impulses (to “add” a person) into new social obligations that millions of people feel obligated to repay. All while they profit from the time people spend doing it.

Another way to hijack people is to keep them consuming things, even when they aren’t hungry anymore. Games, music, podcasts and hundreds of other diversions of life are carefully designed to make us come back for more. This is done by converting an experience that has a definite end and turn it into a bottomless flow that keeps going. So for eg., News feeds are purposely designed to auto-refill with reasons to keep you scrolling, and purposely eliminate any reason for you to pause, reconsider or leave. Mr Raskin, the person who designed infinite scroll, says, "If you don't give your brain time to catch up with your impulses, you just keep scrolling." He said the innovation kept users looking at their phones far longer than necessary.

It’s also why video and social media sites like Netflix, YouTube or Facebook autoplay the next video after a countdown instead of waiting for you to make a conscious choice (in case you won’t). A huge portion of traffic on these websites is driven by autoplaying the next thing. The continuous nature of the feeds leave no natural stopping points where it would make sense to just quit using the application. When you get one recommendation after another that you like, you may keep watching without being aware of how much time has gone by. 

Tik Tok, which is akin to the hugely popular site, displays short video performances. (Tik Tok is banned now but clones will appear; the idea will not go away.) Users promote a variety of talents online, including application of makeup, magic acts, cooking or standup comedy. The app has a function to make footage look fancier, which attracts users from other apps. It  can gauge users’ tastes according to their browsing history and recommend other clips they will probably like which keeps them hooked. 

Tech companies often claim that “we’re just making it easier for users to see the video they want to watch” when they are actually serving their business interests. Increasing “time spent” is the currency they compete for. Hundreds of engineers' job every day in tech companies around the world is to invent new ways to keep you hooked. In Automate This, a Harvard-educated mathematician Jeffrey Hammerbacher, tells Steiner,  "The best minds of my generations [sic] are thinking about how to make people click on ads. That sucks."  Remember Plato’s allegory of the cave? Instead of staring at the shadows on the wall, we’re all staring at Facebook, Instagram or watching endlessly our favorite series due to machinations of smart people who lull us into thinking that we made the choice ourselves. Never have so many been manipulated so much by so few.

Leah Pearlman, co-inventor of Facebook's Like button, said she had become hooked on Facebook because she had begun basing her sense of self-worth on the number of "likes" she had. "When I need validation - I go to check Facebook," she said. Tristan Harris, who was design ethicist at Google, says that he is addicted to e-mails. Even though he knows the tricks that Google uses to make people come back to check e-mails, he says that he is not able to control his urge. 

What could be the harm if people are checking their phones all the time, posting pictures of themselves on Instagram, and getting addicted to online games? Many people could get killed or injured as a result of distracted driving caused by texting messages. It’s easy to say that people should not text and drive, But the design problem, the “error-provocative” aspect of the technology is ignored. There is also an increase in lifestyle diseases caused by a sedentary lifestyle and lack of interaction with people. Problems like obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure, along with higher rates of depression and anxiety, suggest that digital entertainment is not the best way to spend leisure time. 

India is the world capital for selfie deaths accounting for 50% of worldwide selfie deaths. Even mundane and everyday spots such as railways and shopping centres are the scenes of tragic accidents. Some of these incidents are macabre. In a case that garnered worldwide headlines, a group of bystanders took selfies in front of three men were who were dying on a road after being involved in a crash. No one called an ambulance or helped the victims, who were covered in blood and writhing in pain.

Technology is becoming more and more integrated into every aspect of our lives. Meanwhile, the life span of devices is getting shorter — many products will be thrown away once their batteries die, to be replaced with new devices. Companies intentionally plan the obsolescence of their goods by updating the design or software and discontinuing support for older models. The discarded computers, cell phones, printers, televisions etc. create huge amounts of e-waste. 

Electronic devices contain toxic heavy metals, polluting PVC plastic, and hazardous chemicals which can harm human health and the environment. Developed countries ship a lot of their e-wastes to developing countries where workers usually do not wear protective equipment and lack any awareness that they are handling dangerous materials. Research has found that inhaling toxic chemicals and direct contact with hazardous e-waste materials result in increases in spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, premature births, reduced birth weights, mutations, congenital malformations, etc. Moreover, e-waste toxins contaminate the air, soil and groundwater.

As games get even more immersive, with augmented reality and virtual reality features, combined with monetized incentives and built-in conditioning, the addictive aspects seem likely to increase in the years ahead. Given the choice between a walk  or meeting friends face to face and twenty minutes on Facebook, the better choice for both mental and physical health would be the the former alternatives. But the current pandemic has ensured that Tech. companies will keep benefiting even more than they imagined.

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