Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Smartphones: The real Zombie Apocolypse

The Zombie Apocolypse is real.  It is upon us now.  The vast majority of those younger than the Theodore Cleaver generation have been infected.

The Internet wants and (in the case of most Americans), has control of your feeble brain.

It seems obvious that internet companies would calibrate their apps to keep you using them as often and as long as possible. But did you realize that these companies have become so good that your relationship with the internet has crossed from an affection to an addiction?

Scientists across the globe have demonstrated that shifting the internet from our computers to our phones has created an epidemic worse than the one created by smoking, albeit attacking our minds instead of our lungs.

60 Minutes recently ran a piece showing how Silicon Valley engineers are using what they know about the brain to manipulate us into staying perpetually addicted to our smartphones. Their investigation caught numerous firms red-handed as they used knowledge of brain science to increase the addictive natures of their apps. Snapchat, the social network for kids, overtly designed its “streak” feature to make users feel compelled to check in with other Snappers every single day. One 18-year old told Business Insider that “if you lose the streak, you lose the friendship.” Facebook’s endless scrolling format has been proven to keep you on the app longer. Instagram experiments with how clusters of “like” notifications, of varying amounts and at various times, will make you spend the most time on the app. That’s right, they actually withhold your “likes” to keep you checking more often.

It’s a simple fact that the purpose of a company is to generate revenue, and that companies do what they can—often through clever marketing—to make you purchase more of their products. Many of these techniques manipulate our minds; for example, advertisements featuring beautiful, smiling people create links in our mind between a product and being attractive and happy, even if the product is something as seemingly innocuous and unemotional as a bar of soap. Marketers have long known that linking a product to the brain’s pleasure center is a highly effective way to sell it.

The overall effects on society are usually positive or neutral – so what if every time you reach for that bar of Irish Spring in the shower you get a tiny shot of dopamine due to its positive associations in your brain. The worst individual effect is that you pay a few cents more for Irish Spring than for an equally effective generic bar of soap. It has a negligible effect on society as a whole.

Of course, sometimes advertising has a negative effect: in the case of cigarettes, for example. We learned the hard way that watching those beautiful, smiling people on television enjoying cigarettes made people want cigarettes. This led to emphysema, heart attacks, cancer, and very ugly smiles, ultimately leading to a public health crisis. It is with good reason that the advertising of dangerous goods is now highly regulated.

The concept of corporations manipulating the brains of their customers through marketing is not new. Neither is the concept of regulatory agencies making sure that those corporations do not advertise in a way that society has deemed too manipulative or otherwise detrimental.

Applying these concepts to Silicon Valley however, is unprecedented and murky. When television commercials first appeared, there were no rules, no regulating bodies, and no truth-in-advertising laws. Similarly, we’re now in the Wild, Wild West of the internet, smartphones, and apps that are competing for your money, your eyeballs, your time, and your brain.

It’s hard to fault the internet itself. After all, every app on the homepage of your smartphone serves a purpose. Many were “free,” included in your smartphone purchase, or obtained for only a few dollars. And many improve our lives – personally, I’d be literally cold and lost without my maps app and my weather app. Internet companies deserve to generate revenue and profits for putting out a useful product.

Making profit off a good product is one thing; purposefully manipulating us to make us addicted to a product is another. Comedian Bill Maher recently ranted about this very phenomenon on his show: “New rule: The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they are friendly nerd-Gods creating a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in t-shirts, selling an addictive product to children. Because let’s face it: checking your likes is the new smoking.”

Maher may be a comedian, but addiction is no laughing matter: these are big issues with enormous consequences. A relatively small number of Silicon Valley engineers are experimenting with, and changing in a significant way, human behavior and brain function without serious regard for the long-term consequences. As damaging to humanity as the smoking epidemic has been, the consequences of tinkering with the brain could be much, much worse. As Bill Maher succinctly stated, “Phillip Morris just wanted your lungs. The app store wants your soul.” I would argue that the internet wants your brain, which may make the implications even worse.


Jeff Stibel
Vice Chairman, Dun & Bradstreet

 
 

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