Sunday Reading: Thoughts on The Tech Industry’s War on Kids

Person sitting at a table reading a book with a bowl of cereal and cup of tea

Reflecting on The Tech Industry’s War on Kids: How psychology is being used as a weapon against children

Richard Freed is a child psychologist who focuses on helping families work through “extreme overuse of phones, video games, and social media.”

Preteen and teen girls refuse to get off their phones, even though it’s remarkably clear that the devices are making them miserable. I also see far too many boys whose gaming obsessions lead them to forgo interest in school, extracurricular activities, and anything else productive. Some of these boys, as they reach their later teens, use their large bodies to terrorize parents who attempt to set gaming limits. A common thread running through many of these cases is parent guilt, as so many are certain they did something to put their kids on a destructive path.

Kids might be struggling with technology, but adults may also act like children if older folks had to go a day without technology. Maybe we should all take a digital detox.

Captology

BJ Fogg directs the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. There is tons of research and design practices used by today’s most popular apps, websites, and games, but we can still use this newfound power for good. Although, whether good or bad, the techniques are still shaping human behavior without consent.

Fogg’s website also has lately undergone a substantial makeover, as he now seems to go out of his way to suggest his work has benevolent aims, commenting, “I teach good people how behavior works so they can create products & services that benefit everyday people around the world.” Likewise, the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab website optimistically claims, “Persuasive technologies can bring about positive changes in many domains, including health, business, safety, and education. We also believe that new advances in technology can help promote world peace in 30 years.”

Why don’t we make it easy for kids and adults to spend their time doing the things society deems productive. Part of the challenge is exposing kids to new opportunities and experiences to help them understand their real world potential, even at their age.

While persuasion techniques work well on adults, they are particularly effective at influencing the still-maturing child and teen brain. “Video games, better than anything else in our culture, deliver rewards to people, especially teenage boys,” says Fogg. “Teenage boys are wired to seek competency. To master our world and get better at stuff. Video games, in dishing out rewards, can convey to people that their competency is growing, you can get better at something second by second.” And it’s persuasive design that’s helped convince this generation of boys they are gaining “competency” by spending countless hours on game sites, when the sad reality is they are locked away in their rooms gaming, ignoring school, and not developing the real-world competencies that colleges and employers demand.

Motivation/inspiration, Ability/capability, Trigger/feedback

According to B.J. Fogg, the “Fogg Behavior Model” is a well-tested method to change behavior and, in its simplified form, involves three primary factors: motivation, ability, and triggers. Describing how his formula is effective at getting people to use a social network, the psychologist says in an academic paper that a key motivator is users’ desire for “social acceptance,” although he says an even more powerful motivator is the desire “to avoid being socially rejected.” Regarding ability, Fogg suggests that digital products should be made so that users don’t have to “think hard.” Hence, social networks are designed for ease of use. Finally, Fogg says that potential users need to be triggered to use a site. This is accomplished by a myriad of digital tricks, including the sending of incessant notifications urging users to view friends’ pictures, telling them they are missing out while not on the social network, or suggesting that they check — yet again — to see if anyone liked their post or photo.

It seems we should be able to reframe the three motivation, ability, and triggers behavioral factors into a more productive framing of inspiration, capability, and reinforcement. For example, a kid who enjoys watching YouTube creators may be inspired to make a channel of their own. YouTube, influencers, or another service, can help kids build their movie making capabilities. Feedback on work can help reinforce learning and growth. In the end, kids are still spending time where they want to, but the behavioral model focuses on a healthy balance of creation and consumption leading to development in modern day, “real world capabilities”.

Mostly terrifying

the startup Dopamine Labs boasts about its use of persuasive techniques to increase profits: “Connect your app to our Persuasive AI [Artificial Intelligence] and lift your engagement and revenue up to 30% by giving your users our perfect bursts of dopamine,” and “A burst of Dopamine doesn’t just feel good: it’s proven to re-wire user behavior and habits.”

Ramsay Brown, the founder of Dopamine Labs, says in a KQED Science article, “We have now developed a rigorous technology of the human mind, and that is both exciting and terrifying. We have the ability to twiddle some knobs in a machine learning dashboard we build, and around the world hundreds of thousands of people are going to quietly change their behavior in ways that, unbeknownst to them, feel second-nature but are really by design.”

Facebook Messenger Kids

How has the consumer tech industry responded to these calls for change? By going even lower. Facebook recently launched Messenger Kids, a social media app that will reach kids as young as five years old. Suggestive that harmful persuasive design is now honing in on very young children is the declaration of Messenger Kids Art Director, Shiu Pei Luu, “We want to help foster communication [on Facebook] and make that the most exciting thing you want to be doing.”

Facebook’s narrow-minded vision of childhood is reflective of how out of touch the social network and other consumer tech companies are with the needs of an increasingly troubled generation. The most “exciting thing” for young children should be spending time with family, playing outside, engaging in creative play, and other vital developmental experiences — not being drawn into the social media vortex on phones or tablets. Moreover, Facebook Messenger Kids is giving an early start to the wired life on social media that we know poses risks of depression and suicide-related behavior for older children.

In response to the release of Facebook’s Messenger Kids, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) sent Facebook a letter signed by numerous health advocates calling on the company to pull the plug on the app. Facebook has yet to respond to the letter and instead continues to aggressively market Messenger Kids for young children.

Conscious workflows vs impulsive habits

President John F. Kennedy’s prescient guidance: He said that technology “has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man.”

From Cal Newport:

Workflows are arguably more important than your high-level habits when it comes to impacting how effectively you produce valuable things (my preferred definition of “productivity”), but they’re a topic that’s often ignored.

Indeed, for most people, the workflows that drive their professional life are processes that haphazardly arose without much intention or consideration.

This fall, in other words, consider spending some serious time evaluating your workflows before turning your attention to the habits that help you deal with the obligations these flows generate.

Technology gives us the tools to do more. It’s up to us to decide how we leverage our new powers.

The best analogy I’ve ever heard is Scientific American, I think it was, did a study in the early 70s on the efficiency of locomotion, and what they did was for all different species of things in the planet, birds and cats and dogs and fish and goats and stuff, they measured how much energy does it take for a goat to get from here to there. Kilocalories per kilometer or something, I don’t know what they measured. And they ranked them, they published the list, and the Condor won. The Condor took the least amount of energy to get from here to there. Man was didn’t do so well, came in with a rather unimpressive showing about a third of the way down the list.

But fortunately someone at Scientific American was insightful enough to test a man with a bicycle, and man with a bicycle won. Twice as good as the Condor, all the way off the list. And what it showed was that man is a toolmaker, has the ability to make a tool to amplify an inherent ability that he has. And that’s exactly what we’re doing here.

Additional reading

BJ Fogg commented on the article and provided a list of his works to raise awareness about the ethics of persuasive tech.

A recent Atlantic article, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” by Dr. Jean Twenge

Stratechery article on Tech’s Two Philosophies: Some problems are best solved by human ingenuity; others by collective action

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Tuesday’s Links and Quotes

Today I explored the internet. There was no common thread other than reading stories and articles from various people of interest to me. Just some divergent thinking to spark new ideas and connections.

Cosmik Debris from Kneeling Bus

“Let little bits of your daily existence dissipate into the air rather than having them vacuumed up by a global machine that will alchemize them into advertising gold.”

How to Avoid Card Skimmers at the Pump from Krebs on Security (also All About Skimmers)

“look for fuel pumps with raised keypads and horizontal card slots. And keep in mind that it may not be the best idea to frequent a particular filling station simply because it offers the lowest prices: Doing so could leave you with hidden costs down the road.”

Map of Bay Area Memespace from Julia Galef

“Business in general is good real-world rationality training: you test your theories, you update your models, or you fail. And startup culture in particular promotes a “try things fast” attitude that can be a perfect antidote to the “sit around planning and theorizing forever” failure mode we’re sometimes prone to.”

“You take the thought as something your brain produced, which may or may not be true, and may or may not be useful — and this ability to take a step back from your thoughts and reflect on them is arguably one of the building blocks of rationality.”

 

Intentional Technology

Would it be easier if we carried around devices devoted solely to one function instead of our multifaceted gadgets? There’s no reason we couldn’t go back to pocket calendars, contact lists, photos, wallets, and pens, other than that it wouldn’t be quite as convenient. Video game consoles are great at just playing video games, and we still put up with them. You wouldn’t be distracted by mail delivered to your door when writing down the date of your next dentist appointment, so why should you settle for that experience in a phone?

Katie Reid wonders if we can relearn to live without using smartphones. What will it take for us to feel comfortable being bored? We gotta think of some weird slow activities to fill the time.

My smartphone obviously helped me with a great number of cognitive tasks. It communicated with my friends. It managed my finances. It delivered work emails. It alerted me to emergencies in the area. It reminded me of appointments. It captured and stored memories. But this sudden and overwhelming awareness of its physical absence indicated that it had become just as important to my body as it had to my mind. If I’m honest, much of what I did on my phone could be characterized as mindless. I can’t count the number of times I pulled out my phone just for the feeling of unlocking the screen and swiping through applications, whether out of comfort—like a baby sucking her thumb—or boredom—like a teenager at school, tapping his fingers on a desk. In those cases, I sought not mental stimulation, but physical release.

Dear iPhone—It Was Just Physical, and Now It’s Over by Katie Reid

It can be fun to mindlessly watch YouTube videos for hours or scroll endlessly through your friends’ Instagram feeds, but when the action becomes habitual and reactive, it can be problematic. Reading the New York Times is a similar experience online and in print, but did anyone ever self distract themselves by picking up a newspaper and scanning the headlines for 30 seconds? There’s a more intentional decision making process to read the physical paper. It’s a single task you mindfully opt into for the course of reading a few articles (or cover to cover).

What happened is that the internet stopped being something you went to in order to separate from the real world — from your job and your work and your obligations and responsibilities. It’s not the place you seek to waste time, but the place you go to so that you’ll someday have time to waste. The internet is a utility world for me now. It is efficient and all-encompassing. It is not very much fun.

I Don’t Know How to Waste Time on the Internet Anymore by Dan Nosowitz

Maybe it’s time to stop wasting time on the internet and start using the tool to accomplish what we want to do. In their own ways, people are beginning to realize the many of the most popular services online have been designed to keep us amused rather than help us develop.

Here’s the reality:

– there are more interesting independent blogs now than there were pre-Facebook/Twitter. Maybe less “per-capita” of total online usage, but there’s still a higher volume

– every single person is capable of making an online community using cheap tech, and using corporate social media to promote it; way easier than it was in the past

– developers are still “allowed” to make sites in plain HTML/CSS that look great and load fast

Comment from Hacker News

It ironic how engrained these services are in our lives that companies trying to help us be more mindful are leveraging the same platforms they warn us about.

The addictive qualities of these platforms make them the best place to reach potential new customers or fans. Kindred notes that she’s proud of Mindful Technology’s Instagram account. “It’s blowing up,” she says. “I think a lot of people like me are fed up and over it.”

Tech Addiction and the Business of Mindfulness by Erin Griffith

 

But they still provide some overly simplistic tips for dealing with tech overload.

Conveniently, they have five tips for mindful sharing on social media. For starters, don’t just suddenly drop into phone-mode around other people. Tell your companions, “I’m going to do a social post right now,” and step aside. Next, tap into your inspiration, asking yourself, “What about this feels special to me that I want to build up as part of my world?” Don’t forget to check yourself. So much of posting on Instagram can be an exercise in vanity and proving one’s self-worth; instead, pause and “find the place where you’re inspired.” The fourth tip – “have fun with it”—seemed obvious, but Instagram can be an anxiety-inducing place for many. And lastly, let it go. “There is a nice moment where you can say, ‘I kinda don’t care if anyone likes it … I’m just gonna I hit send and then move on,” Pettit says.

In your mind, will telling your companions you are going to do a social post right now really fix your social media concerns? What about following another account on Instagram. I don’t think so. We need steps to remember how to leverage technology as a tool. It’s meant to help us be more productive, connect with people and build new things. Perhaps the internet really is just a utility that isn’t so much fun anymore, but we need to be intentional about our use of technology instead of slipping into mindless habits. We can use the internet to create and not just consume.

Workplace Design

Coffee mug and open notebook on a wooden desk

My team is moving back from open to private offices, so it’s an opportune time to find inspiration for the new space. There are all sorts of studies about collaboration and productivity level in open space vs closed offices, but Joel Spolsky and Anil Dash from Stack Overflow and Fog Creek have perspectives from the lens of software engineers that still hold nearly fifteen years later.

Office space seems to be the one thing that nobody can get right and nobody can do anything about. There’s a ten year lease, and whenever the company moves the last person anybody asks about how to design the space is the manager of the software team, who finds out what his new veal-fattening pens, uh, cubicle farm is going to be like for the first time on the Monday after the move-in.

Well, it’s my own damn company and I can do something about it, so I did.

Bionic Office by Joel Spolsky

Mindset

Building great office space for software developers serves two purposes: increased productivity, and increased recruiting pull. Private offices with doors that close prevent programmers from interruptions allowing them to concentrate on code without being forced to stop and listen to every interesting conversation in the room. And the nice offices wow our job candidates, making it easier for us to attract, hire, and retain the great developers we need to make software profitably. It’s worth it, especially in a world where so many software jobs provide only the most rudimentary and depressing cubicle farms.

The New Fog Creek Office by Joel Spolsky

Just take a look at the long list of requirements for the office space:

  • Gobs of well-lit perimeter offices
  • Desks designed for programming
  • Glass whiteboards
  • Coffee bar and lunchroom
  • A huge salt water aquarium
  • Plenty of meeting space
  • A library
  • A shower
  • Wood floors, carpet, concrete

The link to photos of the space is broken, but not because the space didn’t work out; Joel’s ideas on workplace design outlasted Picasa. Luckily the NYTimes article on the Fog Creek office still has a few thumbnail sized images. Plus street view is still a thing.

They used bold, playful colors and bright common areas to foster in-the-trenches camaraderie and created private soundproof offices where the programmers can go to get their jobs done.

A Software Designer Knows His Office Space, Too via NYTimes

Spolsky wanted a space designed intentionally for deep work and collaboration, and he put a considerable amount of thought to ensure he built a productive environment for the people at Fog Creek. It paid off.

Results

Spolsky has a treasure trove of knowledge on his blog that spills out amongst others on his team. The rich history is pervasive across those he influences.

With a private office, you’re in control of your space and attention: you can choose when to close the door and avoid interruptions, and when to go play ping-pong, talk with coworkers or work out of the coffee bar. In an open office you’re at the mercy of the people around you: if they’re talking, the best you can do is crank up your headphones and hope to drown them out, and if they’re playing foosball then good luck.

Everybody has their own rhythm. People come in at different times, take breaks at different times, need to socialize at different times, and have their most productive hours at different times. Management’s job is to accommodate that and create a space where all those conflicting needs don’t congeal into a persistent hum of distraction — not to enforce some top-down ideal of openness and creativity. Private offices put the people who do the actual work in control.

Why We (Still) Believe in Private Offices by David Fullerton

Fullerton’s post shows how teams can create a “magnificent culture of non-distraction” by using technology to keep people in control of how they work. At first, the idea typing out a chat, going back and forth seems less efficient than tapping someone on the shoulder for help, but leveraging technology as a tool to help people stay in the flow actually makes sense.

Whenever we get a new hire in the office, I make it a point to sit down with them in their first week and explain that they should not go to someone’s office when they have a question. Instead, ping them in chat and then jump on a hangout. The result is exactly the sort of culture that open offices are supposed to promote but better:

  • If someone else sees the message, they can chime in with the answer
  • If someone else is interested in the discussion, they can jump onto the hangout
  • And, crucially, if someone is working heads-down and doesn’t want to be distracted, all they have to do is close the chat window.

But what about marketing and design? And how about expanding teams?

We don’t actually even give everyone private offices: some people are doubled up in offices, and the sales and marketing teams sit in larger open spaces because they feel that’s an important part of how they work.

Evolution

Putting employees first is always at the heart of how we create great places to work.

In 2017 Fog Creek moved to it’s fourth headquarters (1, 2, 3, 4). They could have recreated a bigger version of their office 3.0, but instead they reflected on their team dynamic and arrived at a design that allows people to work in a variety of ways. With a largely remote workforce and a larger percentage of people in non-technical roles, Anil Dash (Fog Creek CEO as of December 2016) understood the existing office design could be enhanced.

The new office also includes a variety of work spaces that accommodate different work modes. Anil mentioned personal offices for standalone work, but they also work well for collaborative work like pair programming. There are workstations for independent or individual co-working, and phone booths for external communication such as sales calls or podcast appearances. There’s also our conference room — known as the “quiet car” — which can be used across a number of different work modes. And true to the nature of our office being flexible and experimental, we are already re-configuring some of these spaces based on how we use them.

Beyond Open Offices: The New Fog Creek Headquarters by Maurice Cherry

Fog Creek treats their office like any other product they produce. With Spolsky at the helm, the company researched best designs, planned with it’s people in mind, built it’s ideal vision, and iterated on the product, improving with each new update.

As the company has grown and changed over the years, so has our office space. Joel’s grand visions for what a work environment should do for employees have been part of Fog Creek from the very beginning, and we have tried to honor that legacy. We also have plenty of plans for the future, and look forward to continuing our tradition of incubating new teams and ideas from within our company and beyond.

Inspiration

For those of you looking to revitalize your open space or bring the aesthetics of open plan spaces to a private office from Design Milk 2017 Where I Work Year in Review. Since these aren’t Fog Creek offices, the productivity may not be at the same level, but they look cool.

All the links

View story at Medium.com

View story at Medium.com

Edge Computing

Self-driving cars are, as far as I’m aware, the ultimate example of edge computing. Due to latency, privacy, and bandwidth, you can’t feed all the numerous sensors of a self-driving car up to the cloud and wait for a response. Your trip can’t survive that kind of latency, and even if it could, the cellular network is too inconsistent to rely on it for this kind of work.

But cars also represent a full shift away from user responsibility for the software they run on their devices. A self-driving car almost has to be managed centrally. It needs to get updates from the manufacturer automatically, it needs to send processed data back to the cloud to improve the algorithm

What is edge computing? via The Verge

The decision to avoid an obstacle or slam on the brakes needs to happen instantaneously. A self driving car does not have the luxury of time to wait for a decision to beam down from the cloud. A car must have the latest decision-making ability available on board, so it can react to inputs using it’s current understanding and update the model in the cloud to enhance the driving capabilities of the entire fleet cars.

Further reading/viewing:

The End of Cloud Computing by Peter Levine

Aggregation and Integration

breaking up a formerly integrated system — commoditizing and modularizing it — destroys incumbent value while simultaneously allowing a new entrant to integrate a different part of the value chain and thus capture new value.

Why aggregation matters is that it is the means by which new integrations are achieved:

  • Netflix leveraged its position as an aggregator of video content into the integration of the customer relationship and content creation, undoing the integration of linear channels and content creation
  • Airbnb/Uber and other similar services integrate the customer relationship with the driver/homeowner relationship, undoing the integration of cars/property with payment
  • Google and Facebook integrated content discovery with advertising, undoing the integration of editorial and advertising

Zillow is embracing a model that, should it be successful, tears down the status quo: this will not only enrage Zillow’s customers, but also endanger Zillow’s primary revenue stream.

Thompson outlines evolving his method of explaining trends in technology. While his initial thoughts on aggregation theory captured most of the story, Zillow’s recent news expanded his thinking such that aggregation must leverage integration to transform value chains. This pivot does not discount his previous mindset but gives an opportunity to reflect on older insights and use the new frame of reference going forward.

Zillow, Aggregation, and Integration via Stratechery

 

Twitter’s Important Updates

I opened Twitter today and was welcomed with a message about their updated Terms of Service and Privacy policy in time for GDPR.

Twitter is updating its Terms of Service and Privacy Policy to provide you with even more transparency into the data Twitter collects about you, how it’s used, and the controls you have over your personal data. These updates will take effect on May 25, 2018

Anyway, here’s the update and additional policy information for Twitter and Facebook.