Persuasive Technology & The Attention Economy

A while back, I ran across several videos and articles by a “technology design ethicist” named Tristian Harris–who also appeared on 60 Minutes–about how technology is manipulating us into spending more time online and the consequences thereof. He says, “I call it the race to the bottom of the brain stem.”

From a November 2016 article in The Atlantic:

“‘Our generation relies on our phones for our moment-to-moment choices about who we’re hanging out with, what we should be thinking about, who we owe a response to, and what’s important in our lives,’ he said. ‘And if that’s the thing that you’ll outsource your thoughts to, forget the brain implant. That is the brain implant. You refer to it all the time.'”

I can’t find one good single video to cover all the things he gets into overall, though SOME of it overlaps aspects of what I’ve been arguing for years that have to do with what is evidently called the “Attention Economy” and how it encourages short attention spans, desires for instant gratification, black and white thinking, and isolates us into our own content bubbles of conformation biases (which drives us further apart).

As he says in another article, “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.”

But most of what you’ll find in these videos and articles has to do with some examples of what is evidently called “Persuasive Technology” designed to continually capture our attention until it becomes like a drug.

“There’s this whole discipline and field of persuasive technology…. What is the ethics of persuasion, especially when the consequences in this case now affect billions of people?”

A few other interesting phrases I ran across diving into this were: “Choice Architectures,” “Design Ethics,” and “Continuous Partial Attention.”

In his appearance on 60 Minutes, professor of psychology at California State University Larry Rosen–a researcher of the psychology of tech–said typically, people check their phones every 15 minutes or less. They’re not just craving dopamine; he said they’re seeking relief from the stress hormone cortisol.

“Half of the time, they check their phone, there’s no alert, no notification,” said Rosen. “It’s coming from inside their head, telling them, ‘Gee I haven’t checked on Facebook for a while, I haven’t checked on this Twitter feed for a while. I wonder if someone commented on my Instagram post. That then generates cortisol and it starts to make you anxious. Eventually your goal is to get rid of that anxiety, so you check in.”

In an article by professor of psychology at San Diego State University Jean M. Twenge titled: “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” she worries post-Millennials are “on the brink of a mental-health crisis.”

She says, “There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.”

Some aspects of this remind me of the Star Trek Next Generation episode “The Game.”

The plot of the episode from Wikipedia:

“Riker returns from a vacation on Risa with a game that he is eager to share with the crew. Unfortunately, the game is psychologically addictive (making the crew suffer from Virtual Reality Addiction), and it quickly turns nearly every member of the Enterprise’s crew into a mind-controlled pawn of the Ktarians, who are using the devices to gain control of Starfleet.”

All this resulted in me creating the image meme at the top of this post.

This is one decent short introductory video about it….

Here are a couple others that are a bit longer….

Here’s a link to Tristian Harris’ site: