The Sunday Magazine

You can't stop checking your phone because Silicon Valley designed it that way

Every ping, ding and vibration is designed with a purpose — to hook you, reel you in and keep you glued to your device for as long as possible. Is addiction inevitable? Is resistance futile? Ira Basen explores the past, present and future of persuasive technology in his documentary "Open to Persuasion."
Smartphones are designed to capture your attention and sell it to advertisers. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Originally published on September 16, 2018.

By Ira Basen

Have you ever wondered why notifications on your phone are usually red?

Research shows the colour will elicit a higher response rate than any other colour because it conveys a sense of urgency. Psychologists say it physically stimulates the body, can raise a person's blood pressure and heart rate, and is associated with movement, excitement, and passion.

And web designers know that.

That's why when they want you to do something on their site or app or platform, they'll likely colour it red. Think of those tiny dots on your phone's screen that notify you you've got email, or a text message. Many of them will be red. 

But it's not just the colour that's driving us to action.

All those notifications — all those pings, rings and dings that we get on our phones — trigger a shot of dopamine in our brains, the neurotransmitter that inspires us to take actions to meet our needs. 

And those are just two examples of what developers can do to get us hooked. The internet has spawned an "attention economy," where the biggest prize goes to those who can grab users' attention and keep it the longest. 

The business models of Facebook, Snapchat, and indeed most of the big players on the web, revolve around selling your attention to advertisers. And that doesn't happen by accident.

What we're talking about here, really, is whose life are you living? Is it really yours, or are you getting buffeted by forces ... that do not have your best interests at heart?- Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads

Welcome to the world of 'persuasive technology'

The term "persuasive technology" was coined in the mid-1990s by an experimental psychologist at Stanford University named B.J. Fogg. His goal was to develop technology that could change attitudes or behaviour through persuasion or social influence, but not through coercion.

If that sounds fairly benign, that's because it was — at least at first.

Long before the web, smartphones and social media, Fogg was convinced that computers could be incredibly powerful tools of persuasion. He was excited about the prospect of using interactive technology to change people's behaviour, especially around health and lifestyle choices. 

In 1998, Fogg established the Center for Persuasive Technology at Stanford, where he hoped to inspire a generation of designers and engineers to think about technology and persuasion in a new way.

He succeeded, but not necessarily in the way he intended.

Turns out that the same techniques that can persuade people to eat healthier food, get more exercise and live more sustainably can also be used to hook people in to buy products or turn over their data.

Think of how seamless Amazon makes online shopping, or how Facebook can manipulate its news feed to keep you on their platform as long as possible, or how apps use various reward systems to keep you coming back.

Fogg warned about this. In a 2003 book on persuasive technology, he argued that the power to persuade came with serious ethical responsibilities.

But once the persuasion genie got out of the bottle, it became hard to control, especially after the introduction of incredibly addictive smartphones a decade ago. 

Humane technology

Several of Fogg's students went on to form some of Silicon Valley's most successful companies and create some of the web's most mesmerizing products.

"They were actually teaching students how to keep you addicted to products," said Jim Steyer, the CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based media education and advocacy group. 

"I don't think that's how B.J. looked at it, but the kids learned it somewhere."

One of those "kids" was Tristan Harris, who, after graduating from Stanford, started his own company and then wound up at Google, where he was given the lofty title of design ethicist.

But he left in 2015, convinced the company was not really serious about dealing with the problems it and other giant tech companies were causing by exercising excessive control over people's lives. In a recent interview, Harris called that "an existential threat to the future capacities of human beings."

Last year, he and several other disillusioned former Silicon Valley technologists founded an organization called The Centre for Humane Technology. Its purpose, he explained, is "to realign technology from its misaligned current trajectory back to human interests." 

Steel cage

One of the challenges facing those seeking to "re-align" technology is that it may also require a re-alignment of the business model of the web, and that won't be easily done. 

The success of these platforms is measured by how much time we spend there, not by the quality of that time. They call it engagement and it's how they've become enormously profitable. The more time you're there, the more of your personal data they can harvest, and the more they can charge advertisers who want to sell you things. 

(Knopf Doubleday)

"They've locked themselves in a steel cage with their business model," argues Tim Wu, a Canadian who teaches law at Columbia University. He is also the author of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads.

"They're constantly forced to design products that are addictive that take as much time of people's lives as possible, that ultimately need to take over people's lives at some level," he said. 

Natasha Dow Schull agrees. She's a cultural anthropologist and an associate professor in the Department of Media Culture and Communication at New York University. 

"What I think is needed for any real change," she said, "is a more general move away from this growth mentality and this idea that the way to long term profits is to monetize time and attention."

Natasha Dow Schull is a professor at New York University. She spent 15 years studying casinos, gamblers and electronic gaming machines (EGMs) in Las Vegas. (CBC)

She'd like to see a shift in the "monetization logic," perhaps by paying Facebook a monthly subscription fee for a limited number of hours of access.

"I don't need to have free unlimited time and I don't want those ads," she said. 

Tim Wu would like to see people wake up to the price they're paying for getting a "free" ride on the internet. He calls it a "human reclamation movement" where people can re-take control of their lives. 

"What we're talking about here, really, is whose life are you living? Is it really yours, or are you getting buffeted by forces out of your control that do not have your best interests at heart?' 

Click "listen" above to hear Ira Basen's documentary "Open to Persuasion."