Recommended Reading: ‘Our minds can be hijacked’

Paul Lewis had a pretty jarring and ominous  article  in this weekend’s  Guardian  about the qualms some of Silicon Valleys most prominent inventors are feeling over their creations. Facebook, Twitter and Google alumna worry that the products they designed and marketed to users are having dire side effects; a society composed of compulsive, easily manipulated screen addicts.

Lewis describes how small design elements and tweaks have resulted in big changes in people’s behavior. Facebook’s introduction of the Like button, for example, and the “social affirmation” it provides has proven addictive to both the sender and the receiver alike. Another example from Facebook, the decision to switch its notification icon from blue to red turned a reminder into an “alarm signal.” Both the Like button and red notification icon have become design standards in social media.

The story of the downward-swipe gesture used to refresh a feed was very interesting. The function was invented by Loren Brichter for his Tweetie service in 2009 and was adopted by Twitter when it acquire Tweetie in 2010. The “pull-to-refresh” feature is now used in just about every app out there. Why?  Lewis explains:

Brichter says he is puzzled by the longevity of the feature. In an era of push notification technology, apps can automatically update content without being nudged by the user. “It could easily retire,” he says. Instead it appears to serve a psychological function: after all, slot machines would be far less addictive if gamblers didn’t get to pull the lever themselves. Brichter prefers another comparison: that it is like the redundant “close door” button in some elevators with automatically closing doors. “People just like to push it.” €¦

“Smartphones are useful tools,” he says. “But they’re addictive. Pull-to-refresh is addictive. Twitter is addictive. These are not good things. When I was working on them, it was not something I was mature enough to think about. I’m not saying I’m mature now, but I’m a little bit more mature, and I regret the downsides.”

“Psychologically manipulative” features abound these days because they are how businesses make their money. Encouraging compulsive behavior is the key to success. The more time you spend in an app poking around and pulling down for new content, the more data companies collect and the more ads they display.

Roger McNamee, a prominent venture capitalist and an early investor in Google and Facebook, is feeling a lot of regret:

[McNamee] identifies the advent of the smartphone as a turning point, raising the stakes in an arms race for people’s attention. “Facebook and Google assert with merit that they are giving users what they want,” McNamee says. “The same can be said about tobacco companies and drug dealers.” €¦

McNamee chooses his words carefully. “The people who run Facebook and Google are good people, whose well-intentioned strategies have led to horrific unintended consequences,” he says. “The problem is that there is nothing the companies can do to address the harm unless they abandon their current advertising models.” €¦  But McNamee worries the behemoths he helped build may already be too big to curtail.

If you think you’ve got your social media habit under control and therefor have nothing to worry about, dream on:

But those concerns are trivial compared with the devastating impact upon the political system that some of Rosenstein’s peers believe can be attributed to the rise of social media and the attention-based market that drives it.

Drawing a straight line between addiction to social media and political earthquakes like Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, they contend that digital forces have completely upended the political system and, left unchecked, could even render democracy as we know it obsolete.

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