The Complete Moral Bankruptcy of Manipulating Human Psychology To Turn Users Into Addicts
Anyone who plans to use her own products AND believes that these products provide meaningful value OR entertainment to their users should have no qualms about manipulating their users’ pscyhology without disclosing to those users exactly what’s being done to their brains.
While I don’t know you personally, Nir, I believe from the reports of professional acquaintances and various things I’ve read that you are a genuinely kind, well-intentioned man who sees yourself offering services in the “facilitator” quadrant.
But with all due respect to your reputed kindness and good intentions, the core arguments in your essay and the moral logic of your Manipulation Matrix are complete and utter nonsense.
The true nature of the engagement >> revenue >> addictive products loop (and its utterly immoral consequences)
Here’s the hard truth: any business whose revenue model is built on a direct correlation between “engagement” and revenue has every incentive to find new, faster, and more efficient ways to make their products addicting.
This is true for cigarette makers and alcohol companies. It’s true for junk food brands. It’s true for slot machine manufacturers and the casinos who buy from them.
Likewise, people hooked on addicting games like Clash Of Clans or addicting social apps like Facebook and Instragram don’t tend to suddenly explode in weight or lose half their teeth in one go.
Sure, you’ll hear occasional stories of new parents literally letting their babies starve to death while they raised a virtual child in a game, but those are the wild and crazy exceptions.
The damage experienced by mobile gaming and social networking addicts tends to be much more subtle:
Feelings of anxiety while away from one’s phone
Bigger propensities to procrastinate
Harder times following through on challenging but essential tasks
Recurring failures to be mentally present while spending time with family and friends.
Yes, those harms are FAR LESS SEVERE to an individual than, say, lung cancer, cirrhosis, meth mouth, or chronic obesity, but they are still harms.
And unlike the harms from cigarettes, liquor, junk food, and meth, the harms from addictive technology are have not yet been researched enough to prove.
But as the weaponization of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter by enemies of the United States’s democratic system makes clear, optimizing for engagement at internet-scale can have profoundly harmful near-term consequences for civic society.
As for the long term consequences of creating dopamine-fueled filter bubbles, backed by business models that generate billions of dollars a year in profit on the back of emotionally-gratifying clickbait?
It’s too soon to tell, but it ain’t look so pretty from here.
Trusting the creators of any product to make accurate moral judgments when those judgements impact their profits is completely unrealistic (at best).
Likewise, expecting the managers, employees, and investors of any business to make clear-headed objective evaluations about the “value” or “entertainment” provided by their creations is so naive that it’s hard for me to accept that you really thought hard about what you are proposing.
We all wish to believe that we are good people, doing the best we can with the circumstances we’ve got.