Which of the following lines is longer?
You’ve probably seen this illusion before, but it doesn’t change the fact that the second line segment appears longer. Your knowledge that it’s an illusion doesn’t change your perception.
That’s because the illusion exploits cognitive biases; and being aware of these biases doesn’t necessarily mean you can overcome them.
The tech industry, in its current state, depends upon biases to survive. Is this cognitively sustainable?
- Most tech companies currently run on the metrics of number of eyeballs engaged with their product, and amount of time those eyeballs are engaged with their product.
- This is because the above metrics help increase ad revenue, or are attractive to investors.
- Tech companies are incentivized to run on these metrics in part because users don’t want to pay for information. Which is one bias forcing the hand of tech companies: Users would probably be better off if they did pay for services and information.
- Tech companies are then incentivized to exploit the biases inherent in the human mind to increase number of eyeballs, and time those eyeballs spend.
Almost anyone who is reading this can recall a time when they were using a tech product, wanted to stop, yet still found themselves using it. That time may even be right now.
I, who have had no problem quitting alcohol, sugar, caffeine, and carbs still resorted to a wristband that shocked me to quit useless Facebook scrolling.
Tech companies are in a war for our attention, and there’s only so much attention out there. The side-effect of our collective attention being mined away like a mountain of iron ore, is a lack of focus. This is a plausible culprit for the decline in creativity.
As the world gets more complex and interconnected, we become vulnerable to catastrophic systemic breakdowns. (Global pandemics fueled by air travel, disruption of food supply fueled by lack of biodiversity, and AIs gone rogue.)
We need the deep focus of great minds to think about the consequences of the very technology that is eroding that focus.
What we have here is a tragedy of the commons. Our collective cognition is a common resource. If that resource is misallocated, it’s bad for us all, but companies can exploit that resource to their own benefit.
This is exactly what has happened with the environment. If there’s no economic incentive not to pollute a river — if indeed there is gain to be had by polluting it — it will get polluted.
This is a difficult flaw in capitalism, and tremendous energy is being expended thinking about environmental sustainability. I think it’s time we start thinking about cognitive sustainability.
- Tristan Harris, former Google product philosopher, explains how tech companies design your life, and why you should care. He has founded a movement called “Time Well Spent” which is working on a “Hippocratic Oath for Designers.” (Being an advocate of thinking about managing your cognitive resources rather than your time, I think about it slightly differently, though I may be splitting hairs.)
- Jesse Weaver, in response to Instagram’s switch to an algorithmic timeline, explains how the free Internet is eating itself.
- Ev Williams, commenting on the above article, explains why he thinks Instagram’s decision is “almost certainly” not “driven to maximize monetization,” even suggesting that the move may reduce time spent in the app. I point out that perhaps the economic incentives are biasing Ev himself. (Interestingly, Ev cofounded Twitter, which many find more valuable than Facebook, yet which is worth about 1/26th of Facebook. Is Twitter the canary in the cole mine of the broken economics of the social web?)
- Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products will be on my podcast this Thursday to ponder “Is Silicon Valley Leading Us into the Robot Apocalypse?” (Subscribe on iTunes)