Monday, March 13, 2017

Your Phone is a Slot Machine Purposely Designed to Be Addictive

This video on the Time Well Spent site nicely explains
how apps are designed to be addictive.

In his TED Talk, How Better Tech Could Protect Us From Distraction and an essay, Tristan Harris explains that apps on your phone are a like a slot machine, designed to be addictive. He certainly has the background and inside experience to be able to state such a thing, as a former Google Design Ethicist and student at the Stanford Persuasive Technology lab (yes, there is such a place "looking for back doors in people's minds to influence their behavior"). The fact that phones are addictive is not news, but the fact that a former designer is not only openly explaining how tech companies are working to make things even more addictive than they are already and some are working to encourage an alternative solution is. I really admire this and appreciate his work.

This isn't the first time I have heard and blogged about Tristan. I first wrote about him two years ago (see Techcognition in an Attention Economy) after hearing him on WNYC's Note to Self podcast, one of my favorites. Host Manoush Zomorodi interviewed Tristan again last week about addictive apps and his new company, Time Well Spent. The episode, Will You Do a Snapchat Streak with Me? is worth hearing. I listened with great interest after seeing so many kids addicted to Snapchat. (With my own kids, we don't allow Snapchat until age 16, and often wish we hadn't ever allowed it!) A few main points which Tristan spoke about include:
  • 40 people at three companies are shaping how billions of people behave.
  • Recently the Netflix CEO said its biggest competitors are YouTube, Google, and sleep.
  • On Snapchat's Streaks: Snapchat's goal to is to hook kids and make it a habit (vs. an alternative like Duolingo, where users set usage goals to learning Spanish). 
  • No one is malicious, but technology isn't neutral. It has an intelligent engine in it fine tuned to make you use it more.
I especially found his description of phones as slot machines enlightening. In an essay on his website, Tristan asks: 
If you’re an app, how do you keep people hooked? Turn yourself into a slot machine. One major reason why is the #1 psychological ingredient in slot machines: intermittent variable rewards (he links to Wikipedia for more on this). The average person checks their phone 150 times a day. Why do we do this? Are we making 150 conscious choices? ... here’s the unfortunate truth — several billion people have a slot machine their pocket:
When we pull our phone out of our pocket, we’re playing a slot machine to see what notifications we got. 
When we pull to refresh our email, we’re playing a slot machine to see what new email we got. 
When we swipe down our finger to scroll the Instagram feed, we’re playing a slot machine to see what photo comes next. 
When we swipe faces left/right on dating apps like Tinder, we’re playing a slot machine to see if we got a match. 
When we tap the # of red notifications, we’re playing a slot machine to what’s underneath.
I'm struck by this analogy and concerned how we are giving our kids slot machines, getting them hooked into this cycle so early. So what can we do about it?
"Imagine a future where technology is 
built on our values, not our screen time."

Tristan explains that thousands of engineers are working to keep your attention. If they were to stop fighting the war for your time, they will lose money. So the only solutions to this are either regulation or a demand by consumers for something different. In his TED Talk, Tristan points out that McDonald's didn't offer salads to consumers until they demanded it. So, too, must we demand that technology be designed to use our time differently. I love the phrase at the end of the Panda Dancing video on their site linked above, "Imagine a future where technology is built on our values, not our screen time." That sounds great, and one we should start demanding!

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