It's on You to Stop Big Tech
Social media is learning from the fast food industry. All of the same psychological strategies tech designers are using to permanently hook their users on their platforms have all been used before, just with different goals.
Humans are psychologically vulnerable, even if they are aware of technological manipulation (a strategy called nudging). The same convenience that comes from being able to order a McDonald’s hamburger and fries at first impulse, is the same immediate gratification that comes from being able to post a picture on Instagram and receive immediate praise from followers. On the surface, everybody does have the ability to choose between the salad and the cheeseburger, but choice in this case is an illusion. The same illusion that fast food has provided to the world about having the choice to eat “healthy” at their restaurant by adding salads, is another tactic used to make people feel like they’re healthy (i.e., eating a McChicken while sitting next to a giant poster of a salad sub-consciously justifies the decision to eat a fried chicken sandwich). Similarly, the illusion that Instagram gives to its users that they have a choice on who and what to follow and post is a tactic to make users feel a certain way.
Software companies engineer websites and social media applications to get people to scroll as frequently and consistently as possible. These designers create technologies with the intention of controlling how much time we spend on the systems. If this isn’t addressed before more-immersive technologies become mainstream (like virtual reality), it could push society at large to a point of no return. All it requires is a quick look at what the fast food industry has done to America… obesity is now an epidemic (and they want it to stay this way).
To combat this, Tristan Harris (former product philosopher for Google) is making efforts to persuade the tech world to help people disengage more easily from their devices. Harris believes there is a deeply rooted problem in the industry, a problem involving moral integrity. He is the first to extensively identify the problem, the danger it is presenting to society, and ideas for tackling it. Rather than blame the user, Harris looks at the software for the cause of mobile device addiction. New ratings, design and certification standards all must be reevaluated to determine whether the design promotes addiction and exerting control over the user.
The efforts Harris makes to combat this issue are appreciated, but some of his actions don’t align with his purpose. While he seems to have an extreme phobia of letting his mind run on “automatic mode,” he fails to address friends and co-workers on the subject matter when it isn’t during the workday. As far as giving maximum effort, in order for him to really accomplish his mission of raising awareness to society about these issues, pushing people away and neglecting to talk about it seems counter-productive. Regardless of the environment somebody is in, if they are truly passionate about their purpose and believe that what they are doing is making the world a better place, they should not fear being overwhelmed by a simple question on the mission’s progress.
Ultimately, it’s up to each of us to maintain awareness of the attempts big tech makes to manipulate society. Whether it’s the media making drastic claims about the nature of a situation, Instagram notifying you about something that doesn’t matter, or Amazon advertising a product that you didn’t know you needed, we all have to be mindful of these practices and be disciplined enough to not let them take control of our most valuable assets: our mind and our time.