From Facebook notifications to Snapstreaks, to the YouTube auto-plays, they’re all competing for one thing: our attention. These companies prey on our psychology for their own profit and call for the design renaissance in which our tech instead encourages us to live out the timeline we want.
Just imagine a room with bunch of people, a hundred people , hunched over the desk with their special controllers . People in that room with their special controller are shaping the feelings and thoughts of billions of people. This sounds like science fiction, but this actually exists right now, as of today.
We have to talk about that how the handful of people working at handful of technology companies through their choices will steer what billions of people think today. When we pull out your phone, they design it to schedule little blocks of time in our mind. When you see a notification, it schedules you to have thoughts that maybe you didn’t intend to have. If you swipe over that notification, it schedules you into spending a little bit of time getting sucked into something that maybe you didn’t intend to get sucked into. When we talk about the technology, we tend to talk about it as a bundle of opportunities in many directions. But the fact is it is going in a very specific direction. There’s a hidden goal driving the direction of all of the technology we make, and that goal is the race for our attention. Because every new site, video, elections, politicians, games, and even meditation apps — have to compete for one thing, which is our attention. And the best way to get people’s attention is to know how someone’s mind works. And there’s a whole bunch of persuasive techniques that I learned during the course of Data Mining.
A simple example is YouTube. YouTube wants to maximize how much time you spend on it. And so what do they do? They auto play the next video. And let’s say that works really well. They’re getting a little bit more of your time. And than there is NETFLIX, looks at YOU TUBE and says, well, it is shrinking my market share, so I’m going to auto play the next episode as well. And then Facebook, looks at both You Tube and NETFLIX and says, they are shrinking all of my market share, so now I have to auto play all the videos in the news feed before waiting for you to click and watch them. So the internet is not evolving at random. The reason it feels like it’s sucking us in the way it is is because of this race for our attention. Technology is not neutral, and it becomes this race to the bottom of the brain stem of who can go the lowest for it.
Another example is Snapchat, Snapchat is the number one way that teenagers in the world communicate. And they invented a feature called Snapstreaks, which shows the number of days in a row that two people have communicated with each other. In other words, what they did is that they gave two people something they don’t want to lose. Because if you’re a teenager, and you have 150 days in a row of snap streaks, you don’t want that to go away. And so think of the little blocks of time that schedules in teenagers mind. This isn’t theoretical: when kids go on vacation, it has been seen that they give their passwords to upto five other friends to keep their Snapstreaks going. We have a temptation to think about this as, oh they’re just using Snapchat the way we used to gossip on the telephone. It’s probably OK. Well, what this misses is that in the 1970s, when you were gossiping on the telephone, there wasn’t a hundred engineers on the other side of the screen who knew exactly how your psychology worked and orchestrated you into a double bind with each other.
Outrage is a real good way of getting your attention, because we don’t choose outrage, It happens to us. And if you’re the Facebook news feed, whether you’d want to or not, you are benefited from this outrage. Because outrage doesn’t just schedule a reaction in emotional time or space for you. We want to share that outrage with other people. So we want to hit share and say, “Can you believe the thing that they said or did?” And so outrage works really well at getting attention. Such that if Facebook had a choice between showing you the outrage feed and a calm news feed, they would want to show you the outrage feed, not because someone consciously chose that, but because that worked better at getting your attention. And because of the business model of advertising, for anybody who pays the most can actually walk into the control room and say, “That group over there, I want to schedule these thoughts into their minds.” So you can precisely target a lie to those people who are the most vulnerable and because this is profitable, it’s only going to get worse.
So how do we fix this? We need to make three important changes to the technology and to our society. The first thing is we need to acknowledge that we are persuadable. Once you start understanding that your mind can be scheduled into having these little thoughts or little blocks of time that you didn’t choose, wouldn’t we want to use that understanding and protect against the way that these things happen? I think we need to see ourselves fundamentally in a new way. It’s almost like a new period of human history, like the Enlightenment, but almost a self-aware Enlightenment, that we can be persuaded, and there might be something we want to protect. The second thing is we need new models and accountability systems so that as the world gets better and more and more persuasive over time — because it’s only going to get more persuasive — that the people in those control rooms are accountable and transparent to what we want, we need to change the business model of advertising. Lastly, we need a design renaissance, because once you have this view of human nature, that you can steer the timelines of a billion people — just imagine, there are people who have some desire about what they want to do and what they want to be thinking and what they want to be feeling and how they want to be informed, and we’re all just tugged into these other directions. And you have a billion people tugged into all these different directions. The new design would involve two things: one would be protecting against the timelines that we don’t want to be experiencing, the thoughts that we wouldn’t want to be experiencing, so that when those thoughts click in our mind, not having those thought steer us elsewhere; and the second thing would be empowering us to live out the timeline that we want.
Let’s say you want to post something super controversial on Facebook, which is a really important thing to be able to do, to talk about controversial topics. And right now, when there’s that big comment box, it’s almost asking you, what key do you want to type? In other words, it’s scheduling a little timeline of things you’re going to continue to do on the screen. And imagine instead of that comment box there was another button saying, what would be most well spent time for you? And you click “host a dinner.” And right there underneath the item it says, “Who you wants to be RSVP for the dinner?” And so you’d still have a conversation about something controversial, but you’d be having it in the most empowering place on your timeline, which would be your home that night with a bunch of a friends over to talk about it. So imagine we’re running, a find and replace on all of the timelines that are currently steering us towards more and more screen time persuasively and replacing all of those timelines with what do we want in our lives. Social media doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of handicapping our attention, imagine if we used all of this data and all of this power and this new view of human nature to give us a superhuman ability to focus and a superhuman ability to put our attention to what we care about and a superhuman ability to have the conversations that we need to have for democracy. The most complex challenges in the world requires us not to use our attention individually but instead requires us to use our attention and coordinate it together. Climate change is going to require that a lot of people are being able to coordinate their attention in the most empowering way together. And imagine creating a superhuman ability to do that.
Sometimes the world’s most pressing and important problems are not these hypothetical future problems that we could create in the coming decades. Sometimes the most pressing problems are the ones that are right underneath our noses, the things that are already directing a billion people’s thoughts. And maybe instead of getting excited about the new augmented reality and virtual reality and these cool things that could happen, which are going to be susceptible to the same race for attention, if we could fix the race for attention on the thing that’s already in a billion people’s pockets. Maybe instead of getting excited about the coolest and fancy education apps, we could fix the way kids minds are getting manipulated into sending empty messages back and forth. Maybe instead of worrying about hypothetical future runaway artificial intelligence that are maximizing for one goal, we could solve the runaway artificial intelligence that already exists right now, which are these news feeds maximizing for profit only. It’s almost like instead of running away to colonize new planets, we could fix the one that we’re already on. Solving this problem is the critical infrastructure for solving every other problem. There’s nothing in your life or in our collective problems that does not require our ability to put our attention where we care about. At the end of our lives, all we have is our attention and our time. So we have to decide the definition of what will be time well spent for us?