The Ethics of Persuasion

It’s ironic that we still see technology as neutral.


Soon after the internet gave us always-on access to an unprecedented volume of information, it became clear that it was not going to be possible for us to consume all the data that we now had access to. As a result, we became grazers of content, skipping from one site to another — stopping for only as long as it takes for our attention to be diverted by the next shiny thing online. For businesses that depend on advertising revenue and measure their performance with metrics like “time-on-site” and “7-day-actives”, this was a serious problem as every user distracted away from the site is a user lost. It soon became evident that the most valuable commodity of the digital economy is attention.

The sole objective of the attention economy is to entice users to use a given service and, once they’ve entered the front door, to try and maximize the time they spend there. To do this, companies use a range of persuasive techniques to hack our minds — tapping into our vulnerabilities and weaknesses to coax us into staying longer. They stoke our desire to be liked and fire up our social curiosity about what’s going on till we develop an almost Pavlovian response to the little red notification circle that pops up on our favourite apps.

This is why Apple and Google have designed their smartphones to sit at the centre of our lives, building them so that we can get virtually anything done without leaving the hand-held environment. This is why YouTube cues up a playlist of similar content that starts playing immediately after you’ve finished the video you came to watch, so that you stay on its site for a little longer.

Shortly after YouTube launched its playlist feature, Facebook redesigned its site to auto play videos in your newsfeed the moment you scroll over them, hoping to win back users it may have lost to this latest YouTube innovation. We might not realize it, but we are in the middle of an arms race for attention. Every time one company launches a new feature, every other company that is vying for a slice of our attention must respond with a similar or more powerful persuasion — or else risk losing our attention completely. This sort of escalation has resulted in developers being forced to come up with more and more persuasive technologies aimed at winning our attention. In this silent war, we are the collateral damage, buffeted around as we are from one app update to the next, thrilled by the convenience that each new feature brings but vaguely aware that every step we take is drawing us deeper into technological addiction.

It is ironic that we still see technology as neutral. That we still believe our apps are sitting silently on our mobile phones until we choose to invoke them. Technology, today, is far from passive. Every app on our home screen has been engineered to entice us, from the colour of the notification button to the variable rewards schemes that they deploy — every tiny detail has been carefully crafted to keep us coming back. When we think we are acting of our own volition we are, in fact, being carefully manipulated by teams of highly skilled developers who have designed their tech to push our psychological buttons.

Comparisons are being drawn between the current state of the tech industry and Big Tobacco before the link between smoking and cancer was established. Just like in the early days of Big Tobacco, it is a wild west out there in the battle for our minds. The phenomenon of technological addiction is so new that we have no regulations to guide us — no guardrails to demarcate what we should or shouldn’t do.

Tech philosophers like Tristan Harris are calling for companies to think about the ethics of persuasion — to establish ethical boundaries around the design of apps so that, in their attempt to acquire more attention, they do not cross over the line that leads to addiction. He is calling for a re-evaluation of the existing business models to find ways in which revenue can be decoupled from attention.

This could mean creating a space where users pay for the privilege of not being persuaded — an extension of the ad-free experience many news sites offer.

In developing models to appropriately fetter persuasion, we’d do well to appreciate the limits of regulation. By its very nature, persuasion is resistant to being controlled through legislation. Instead, Apple, Google and Facebook — the three pillars of the modern internet — need to rewrite the rules of engagement within their respective ecosystems to discourage addictive persuasion.

Once app developers are presented with new boundary conditions they will learn to develop more ethically sustainable strategies to garnering attention. And tech can hopefully head towards a less obsessive future.


This article was first published in The Mint under a column called Ex Machina on technology, law and everything in between.