Who Will Manipulate in Favor of Free Will?


Perhaps the changed schedule of summer is the most proximate explanation, but it seems like my fellow parents have been commiserating more often, recently, about the challenge that smartphones and social media present.  More worrisome than just watching our children constantly stooped over, disengaged from their surroundings, is knowing that it’s always there.

This comes up frequently with respect to bullying, but more subtly in other ways.  It means, for example, that life doesn’t give us natural breaks from each other.  A particular friend, girlfriend, or boyfriend is potentially always right there in your pocket, omnipresent as you interact with other people in his or her absence.  More: many of the technologies are designed to make us ever aware that we’re on constant display.

I agree with Rod Dreher that every parent should read the aptly named psychologist Richard Freed on Medium, writing about the use of persuasive technology (or persuasive design) to ensnare and addict our children:

If you haven’t heard of persuasive technology, that’s no accident — tech corporations would prefer it to remain in the shadows, as most of us don’t want to be controlled and have a special aversion to kids being manipulated for profit. Persuasive technology (also called persuasive design) works by deliberately creating digital environments that users feel fulfill their basic human drives — to be social or obtain goals — better than real-world alternatives. Kids spend countless hours in social media and video game environments in pursuit of likes, “friends,” game points, and levels — because it’s stimulating, they believe that this makes them happy and successful, and they find it easier than doing the difficult but developmentally important activities of childhood.

I’ve written before about my revelation, while being drawn into the game World of Warcraft, that time spent honing a skill in a video game would be better spent honing skills in real life.  Anybody over a certain age has probably heard or seen somebody joke about kids’ being more impressed with the ability to play Guitar Hero than to play guitar.

Similarly, as a writer and advocate, I’ve been keenly aware of the ways in which social media can kick off a sense of communication and accomplishment with a fraction of the work (and a fraction of the benefit).  Many of the writers who used to get their fix of self expression by articulating thoughts on blogs now shoot their quick comments onto Twitter; the itch may be scratched, but the interactions are more superficial and less well archived.

So, capital-T They draw us in with a sense of community and accomplishment, and then They manipulate us.  This anecdote is especially chilling:

While social media and video game companies have been surprisingly successful at hiding their use of persuasive design from the public, one breakthrough occurred in 2017 when Facebook documents were leaked to The Australian. The internal report crafted by Facebook executives showed the social network boasting to advertisers that by monitoring posts, interactions, and photos in real time, the network is able to track when teens feel “insecure,” “worthless,” “stressed,” “useless” and a “failure.” Why would the social network do this? The report also bragged about Facebook’s ability to micro-target ads down to “moments when young people need a confidence boost.”

Think of it.  Through myriad interactions, the system gets to know you, and when it senses you’d be susceptible to some message that the system’s operators find beneficial, it puts that message before you.  Freed’s concern is mainly corporate profit, but China is working on manipulating people for political reasons.

My question is what we are doing on a social scale to counter this.  Mankind now has this flame, and I have my doubts that government can extinguish it.  Parents can battle society to protect their own children, and we all can work on our self discipline — sharing articles like Freed’s will help in that effort — but that doesn’t seem like enough.

Is anyone out there trying to figure out how to turn these weapons against themselves — to use persuasive technology to convince people to experience life for its own sake and to make their own decisions based on the messages that come before us from Life itself?

God designed free will into existence.  Using their own techniques or something different, how do we thwart people who strive to use technology to take it away?