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Posts Tagged ‘device addiction’

The average American checks their phone 47 times a day – that’s every 19 minutes of our working lives – according to Haley Edwards in a Technology Section article in Time Magazine published recently under the title “The Masters of Mind Control.”

If you find that troubling, some folks at an outfit called Boundless Mind would like to help you change that.  According to the American Psychological Association two-thirds of Americans think it’s a good idea to unplug for the sake of our mental health, while a University of Texas study showed that the “mere presence of our smartphones, face down on the desk in front of us, undercuts our ability to perform basic cognitive tasks.”

Meanwhile, Silicon Valley’s basic premise is to keep us engaged, enthralled even, with our devices.  Some have called it a “full-blown epidemic.”  We are not the customers for Facebook and Google, it has been said – we are the product.

The phenomenon is known as persuasive technology, the study of how computers can be used to control human thoughts and actions.  In the tech realm, it has fueled the proliferation of interfaces and devices that “deliberately encourage certain behaviors (keep scrolling) while discouraging others (convey thoughtful, nuanced ideas),”according to Edwards.  And every major consumer tech company today from Amazon to Candy Crush uses some form of it.

It’s not that we’re weak-willed, it turns out.  When your child collects Snapchat badges to maintain daily consecutive use streaks, his “brain is being engineered to get him to stay on his phone.”

The brain’s basic process it turns out is trigger, action, reward.  And that’s just the beginning of the feedback loop engineers can work on.

Boundless Mind’s business model is to develop new versions of these same persuasive tools, but then use them to sell to nonprofits and companies promoting education, health or social welfare.  For example, they apply VR (virtual reality) therapy to patients with chronic pain at 190 hospitals.  One application is a virtual game that helps manage post-operative pain by challenging patients to shoot little red balls at bears in a virtual world.  To work, the therapy needs to create an addictive interface to get patients to keep coming back, from which the interface can learn from the patient’s behavior and be personalized to make it uniquely rewarding for each user.

Boundless Mind debates the potential ethics of a client before taking on a new one, to ensure their tools are put to good use, and to hold themselves accountable.  The owners hope to be something of a “counterbalance” to the massive data scraping conducted by the big players, like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google and their ilk.  They plan to develop persuasive-technology tools and then “release them to everybody” as their way of leveling the playing field.  They see the future as “promising,” and co-founder Ramsay Brown notes “We have the power to control our minds.  That’s quite a gift.”

It’s good to see someone trying to apply our device addiction more broadly for nobler purposes.

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