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Framing What Ails Us

-- By AlexPadilla - 08 Oct 2020

Today’s debate around the ethical and practical implications of big data largely occurs along the fringes of the masses. However, effective legislation in a representative democracy is often the result of informed masses demanding action. Normally the question would then be how to move the debate concerning privacy in the modern era into the general public. In reality, the development of attention-based methods of revenue generation created a general public unable or unwilling to acknowledge their dependency on these new technologies. This lack of appreciation for the seriousness of the issue is a direct result of technologies that have effectively addicted a large segment of society to their “services.”

Social Addiction

The development of attention-based methods of revenue generation has revolutionized how the general public interacts with modern technologies such as social media. Rather than charging per use, social media platforms generate revenue from user interactions with advertisements. However, one can imagine that increasing the sheer number of ads that appear on one’s “feed” could result in undesirable outcomes. Too many adds and users may deem a specific platform annoying resulting in fewer overall interactions or, even worse, a decrease in the total number of users. As a result, in order to increase advertisement interactions, social media platforms aim to increase overall interactions on the assumption that a given percentage of those total interactions will be with advertisements.

The need for a greater number of interactions has forced social media companies to shift their focus to developing methods of driving up an individual user’s overall interactions rather than the quality of their offerings. Their solution is to implement addictive design elements with the intention of creating new habits in users. The addictive element is important because it provides a subconscious motivator every time an individual user provides an interaction. Without the subconscious motivator the design element is no different from an advertisement that plays for five seconds before being skipped. For example, functions such as seamless scrolling allows a platform to insert ads between user information. As a result, a user is subconsciously motivated to continue scrolling in order to digest more user generated content. However, seamless scrolling allows for quicker digestion of user generated information. This allows for the placement of advertisements which users, not fully engaged but still consuming the information, are not consciously aware. In this way, addictive design elements are leveraged to prime users for advertisements which have the potential to affect behavior without direct interaction with the advertisements.

Social media’s addition of these addictive design elements has empowered these technology platforms to reshape society to pad their bottom line. Practically anywhere, at any time, an individual can be observed interacting with an electronic device. Headlines abound of individuals walking into open manholes while captivated by their device. Municipalities consider installing crossing signals on the sidewalk in order to grab the attention of individuals who are too enamored with their devices to bother to look both ways. Toy companies produce smart phone lookalikes with buttons large enough for infants to interact with. Meanwhile, smartphones are a must have for responsible parenting lest teenage independence is to come at too high a price. All of this together lays the foundation for the continued addiction of society to these technologies.

Reshaping the Remedy

The majority of those opposed to the collection and utilization of user data are currently attempting to capture the attention of the very users currently being exploited and manipulated. The folly–and likely outcome–of this method was first identified by the ancient Greeks in Plato’s allegory of the cave. The messengers attempting to bring light to this issue are likely to be ignored, avoided as conspiracist technophobes, or worse condemned, hopefully short of murder. The likely result is not that the drug user, for that is what a majority of social media users are, quits as a result of discovering the true horror of such use. The likely outcome is that the drug user is either already aware of, and living with, the horrible consequences of their addiction or is too overwhelmed by their addiction to fully appreciate those consequences. Once understood from this point of view, the flaw in the current approach to advocacy is obvious, one cannot expect those in the throes of their addiction to immediately change their ways on the insistence of a stranger.

Often with addiction, an individual’s actions which result in harm to oneself are less effective motivators for change than actions which cause harm to others. By viewing a single State, say the United States or the United Kingdom, as an individual, it is easy to understand that a gap exists between the country’s understanding of the ill effects of new technologies and the desire to actually resolve those effects. Considering that the sheer magnitude of the revelations made over the past four years–from Cambridge Analytica to Russian and Chinese attempts to interfere in a United States election–has elicited little to no response from the public at large, one would hardly be faulted for thinking these populations are in the throes of a terrible addiction.

The solution to the devastating effects of some newer technologies , whatever it may be, clearly requires support from the majority of the general public. Without the political support of a majority of the country much needed legislation will fail to emerge. So far attempts to inform and engage the public tend to fall on deaf ears. It may be time to re-analyze the present approach to the problem. The addition of addictive design has created a portion of the population all too eager to continue interacting with these technologies all the while unaware of, or unconcerned with, their addictive qualities. A better approach might acknowledge the addictive nature of social media, the addictive behaviors of the users and that mere knowledge of the issues is insufficient to combat society’s ongoing technology addiction.

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