Persuasive Technology

Listened to a City Arts lecture with Tristan Harris, “Your Undivided Attention: Persuasion Technology”.

A bunch of Issues came to mind (some are verbatim, some I’ve massaged into something new):
What if we can use persuasive technology for good?
What if we can persuade anybody of anything? What if we had the perfect persuadable profile on anyone in the world?

There is an issue I have enjoyed using in the past, “What if technology makes us stupid?” And I feel that this interview sheds new light on it when Harris talks about the arms race to get more and more of people’s attention that ends up being a race to the bottom of the brain stem. Ultimately, we downgrade humanity by shortening attention spans, increasing addiction, and creating more social isolation.

Here are my notes from the video cast:

Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford - clicker training for dogs, psychology of Los Vegas slot machines, social psychology with Caldini… the field of marketing. The gradual unveiling of the matrix code that runs human experience.

Harris was a magician and fascinated by how the human mind is hijacked or influenced by things it cannot see that are not immediately apparent. We have fairly simple vulnerabilities of how our minds work. Magic works on people no matter how educated they are.

Can we use persuasive technology for good?

Increasingly tech is less and less about helping people and making the world a better place (enacting positive social change through tech) - whatever you do you must start by getting people’s attention. Everyone was caught in an arms race to get more and more of people’s attention. What can I do to dangle bananas infront of your monkey brain? The race to the bottom of the brain stem. This has led to addiction, polarization, children’s mental health issues, teenage suicide, social comparison, mass narcissism, distraction, learned helplessness.

Human downgrading. Shortening attention spans, more addiction, more social isolation. Coronavirus only exacerbates this trend because we spend even more time glued to our computer / phone screens.

How will we understand the culture that produced Facebook? How is it that people who are so smart and well intentioned end up producing these things that endanger us and our democracy? [dgw: make sure there’s no time for self-reflection]

These systems attract people that are interested in power. They might start out wanting to use power for good [but power is seductive]. You could use persuasion in a way that’s positive. What happens when there’s so much power that you can persuade anybody of anything?

What if we had the perfect persuadable profile for anyone in the world?

Each of us are persuaded by different invisible things (e.g. authority vs friends). Cambridge Analytica used this approach for political purposes.

People didn’t really appraise of the nefarious purposes it could be used for. Designers didn’t intend for it to be used like a Las Vegas slot machine but once we realized what it did, we didn’t take it away.

There’s a human code of programming that we were gifted by evolution - great for getting us food and avoiding death - but today we are mis-matched to the current environment.

The core problem of humanity (E.O. Wilson ) - the fundamental problem of
humanity is these we have this Paleolithic brains with Paleolithic emotions, ancient emotions, we have medieval institutions and we have godlike technology.

In general what do we do with emotions that are not well equipped for the problems that we’ve created. Climate change is chronic long-term diffuse harm and we’re designed for more immediate, acute harm. We don’t have the capacity to see exponential curves or to recognize problems until they are too late. We cannot depend upon our paleolithic emotions.

Gmail is a psychological environment. People spend hours a day in their Gmail. Email is addictive. When a new signal comes in that you have new mail is hard to ignore. But none of this is law or coming down from God; you can design it any way you want to.

How to make a psychological environment that will contribute to people’s wellbeing?

How do you ethically hold the attention economy? How do you do this without becoming psychologically manipulative of people?

More attention = more money. Despite people recognizing the problem, they can’t do anything that goes against the business model.

If a whale is worth more dead than alive and a tree is worth more as lumber than a living tree… a human being is worth more when they are distracted, outraged, addicted, polarized and disinformed than they are just living their life. This is the problem with the industrial capitalist system. If everybody’s out on camping trips with their friends, that doesn’t make the system as much money. We can’t depend upon for-profit businesses to do the right thing.

Is there a cultural aspect that gets in the way of people wanting to help? Some people don’t think they can be manipulated - that happens to other people. We are the smart ones, not the gullible ones. Magic works on everyone. Our evolutionary impulses control us.

While we are waiting for computing tech to take our jobs with AI, we missed how we’ve been undermined along the way. Magic isn’t about outsmarting other people, it’s about undermining the subtle weaknesses of how their minds work.

You have to recognized you’re being victimized without being a victim. There is an asymmetry and a victimization of vulnerable people on one side. Try to delete your Facebook account and it shows you a dialog of photos of your top friends, “These six friends will miss you.” Persuasive Designers. It’s like a cult that doesn’t want you to leave. They threaten to disconnect you from your family.

Persuasion design has a learned from cults. They know how to mirror the techniques that keep you hooked inside the machine.

You can’t build political momentum if you don’t have a common understanding of the problem. We don’t know where to focus our attention if we just host a grab bag of grievences.

The problem is the business model that forces companies to be misaligned with humanity.

We need to change policy, our common understanding of technology, how people on the inside of technology companies act, and to fund a transition to a kind of renewable and humane technology. It’s a bit like the transition from fossil based fuels economy to a renewable energy economy because the first generation of all this tech got us here today but won’t get us where we need to be tomorrow.

We are going to have an attention economy even if we didn’t have these tech companies. What we need is a new set of rules, governance - rules for engagement. What are the ethical ways to get attention?

These private companies have built the 21st century public infrastructure but they won’t voluntarily do the right thing on their own so there needs to be public pressure, children and parents complaining about what’s happening to their kids, governments trying to protect their democracies…

Legislation takes years. It’s more immediate if your employees revolt. Companies need employees.

Put everyone on the same side of the table - no one wants these outcomes - can you ‘afford’ to see the truth. You have to acknowledge that there is manipulation going on without blaming someone of being the manipulator.

You cannot get someone to see what their salary depends upon them not seeing (Upton Sinclari).

NFL - our business model is to sell concussions on TV.

“The problem is essentially runaway extractive capitalism that’s treating human beings
as a resource and dumping out externalities in the form of a breakdown of truth a breakdown of democracies and an inability to work on existential threats like climate change that’s the natural consequences of that business model but because we’re all in that boat together we’re all humans in that boat we have to pass legislation that we need to change the business model and we have to have the support of the people inside the company to do that.”

It would be way more fun to come to work everyday if all my design decisions are linked to, “How can I make the world a better place today?”

LinkedIn could unilaterally coordinate mass drawdowns for emissions because they are the reputation system for how all businesses are viewed.

Persuasive Design Technique - progress bars.

The top 100 companies make up 71% of total climate emissions.

“The world that we’re trying to create is humane and regenerative technology that
doesn’t treat attention as the goal, it treats the outcome, the social outcome, as the goal and that includes not just for climate again this includes for social connection for meaning for finding work and dealing with inequality like dealing with our real problems”

We have to celebrate and thank fossil fuels for the world that they built us and now get the hell off of them.

The concentration of tech into a handful of companies makes it easier to make a big impact on the world without having to coordinate the governments and citizens of multiple countries. You could get everyone into a single conference room.

We need to move things to a public interest orientation. We’ve moved from the physical world of buildings and TV bandwidth that were governed by the laws of the physical world. When we moved up to the digital world, you lose all those protections. The digital ate the physical infrastructure, the private interest ate up the public interest and didn’t keep the public interest protections.

We need to distribute power in the long run but in the short run we need that power governed in the public interest. We can call up Zuckerberg and Bezos and acomplish much of this by getting their buy-in and cooperation, along with legislation.

Netflix, Zoom, et all have built a public infrastructure and are now trying to add things back in that deal with psychological ill effects.

This affects everybody even if they’re not on this infrastructure. We need to be proactive, not reactive.

How do you build a business without mining people’s attention these days?

If you’re a SME, Facebook is probably the infrastructure you’re using to reach customers. This can interfere. In cities we often separate residential from business zones. This isn’t yet the case in the digital economy.

In a no-rules based race to the bottom attention economy the least ethical actor wins. You’re in a wrestling match but the other guy pulls out a knife and kills you because he’s not playing by the same rules.

We could build a better algorithm to enforce better outcomes - Humane Market Design vs. Spraying and Praying, playing the numbers game:

“I think it’s equivalent to if you think about applying for college before there was ranked choice voting for you know rank choice marking for which medical school you wanted to apply to it was kind of a free-for-all you gotta just apply to all of them and it’s this kind of messy thing versus this cleaner situation where people can express their preferences and colleges can express their preferences and then there’s this algorithm that makes sure more people get more of their needs met more easily because we’ve collected a bunch of you know preferences and we’re doing a better job of matching among them I
think we need systems more like that.”

The typical approaches for fixing markets that lack certain values, we slap on a sticker afterwards (GMO stickers, treat environment well sticker). What we really need to do is reform capitalism. Coronavirus is showing all the systemic fragility that we have. We have structural inequality. In Singapore, coronavirus is in the cramped quarters of immigrant workers. Coronavirus is the UV light that shows us where the problems are in society. This is where you’re all interdependent and where society isn’t working in your favor.

Federal Misinformation Authority - an independent agency that looks at the new age of truth? Facebook hires people to have a content supreme court. Their building up their own judicial branch for the whole world. Are they doing that for all languages and peoples equally? That’s not an approach that will scale. So what if we have the government build something like the Federal Reserve for truth? Who do you trust? How do you create a new institution that people will trust? Does it make sense to have a top-down approach when all the chaos comes from the bottom up? We need better bottom-up ways to make sense of things that doesn’t really upon likes, clicks and shares. We will probably look back on engagement based metrics as putting lead in the water. The finger on the scale is the human amygdalla. They hide behind the fiction of neutrality.

The digital minister of Taiwan has put together a range of tools for adjudicating bottom up sense-making - the work of Audrey Tang.

Each of these platforms act as if you have a unique connection to them but they are following you from platform to platform. Could you enshrine an identity that you take with you everywhere? How many problems go away when you have to give your real identity to your conversation? We have an online lawlessness without skin in the game or responsibility.

Some environments need a notion of accountability. We need better ways of doing that. The technical details of a universal ID system is nuanced and difficult. It has to happen at a lower level in the stack. The real question is how can you prevent someone from being someone that they’re not?

Could there be a central authority that tracks how much you’ve been data-mined? You are the product Act. If you are not paying for the product, you are the product. Companies have to show how much they are making off of you. Our value to tech platforms has been going up over time. The quality and benefits of the service have not gone up to the same amount. Facebook is largely the same as it was 7 years ago but our monetization value to them has gone way up.

If you tell people something is bad for them, they get reactance; they don’t accept that message. But if you show them the exact ways in which they’ve been puppeted by the puppet master, they listen. No one wants to feel that they’ve been manipulated. They want to believe that they have free will.

The answer to addiction is not sobriety but a deep connection to yourself and others. If you have an abundance of connection to those things you feel more filled up on the inside and don’t need other things.