We are perhaps most familiar with a conceptualisation of power as influence, one of two types of power investigated in a 2016 study reported in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The power of influence expresses a desire to control others. It can also involve taking responsibility for others. A second type of power, power as autonomy, has little to do with others in the sense that this type of power is not a product of wanting to control others. Rather, it allows a person to ignore and resist the influence of others and thus to play a role in shaping individual destiny – it expresses the desire to be free. The researchers in the study found that people crave power not be the master of others, but to be the master of their own domains and to control their fates. An increase in power as autonomy seems to quench the thirst for more power. (An increase in power as influence does not have the same result.)
Generally, when people say they want power, what they really want is autonomy. And when they get that autonomy, they tend to stop wanting power.” – Julie Beck, in The Atlantic
These findings are fascinating within a digital context, where the battle to spend time ‘wisely’ is so real. Time spent online is the metric that most designers chase – this is because more time spent online means more time to collect information about you, your behaviours, your preferences, and to experiment with different advertisements to increase their impact. The stickiness of platforms is thus purposefully designed in, with features such as push notifications drawing us back to platforms left only minutes ago. A mobile phone on a desk has been shown to decrease scores on cognitive tests. The mere presence of a smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity and impairs cognitive functioning, even though people feel they’re giving their full attention and focus to the task at hand. This applies when the phone is on silent and face down. One could argue this is power as influence at its best.
Our battle of ‘time well spent’ has a dark side, in that most of what gets captured about us is below our conscious awareness. You may have started to pick up on ads and YouTube content pushed to you that seem eerily congruent with aspects of your life that you do not recall explicitly sharing. There are two kinds of very profitable online ads. Contextual ads are based on content on a website. Search for a car, for example, and relevant ads pop up. These ads do not need to know or to have stored your personal data. Behavioural ads are the second type, and they are based on a personal profile that is compiled through your online activity, and even offline activity in some cases. They follow you around from website to mobile app based on your private information – and they enable online discrimination, manipulation and the creation of filter bubbles. Our digital modi operandi provides fertile ground not only for the gathering of your life’s daily details, but also for experimentation and ‘nudging’ your behaviour towards a desired outcome. The sophistication and pervasiveness of these influences makes them hard to ignore. If both kinds of ads are profitable, why does a ‘dark’ footprint of all your activity need to be stored? Is this an affront to your power as autonomy, your power to shape your own destiny and to feel free in your choices?
Tristan Harris, former ethicist at Google, thinks so. He is in the business of helping the tech industry to more consciously and ethically shape the human spirit and human potential.
‘By shaping the menus we pick from, technology hijacks the way we perceive our choices and replaces them with new ones. But the closer we pay attention to the options we’re given, the more we’ll notice when they don’t actually align with our true needs… Once you know how to push people’s buttons, you can play them like a piano.’ – Tristain Harris
A self-described expert on how technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities, Harris poses valid questions, such as, how often is tech interrupting you from what you really mean to be doing? Is tech, with all its pings and pop-ups, stealing time from you? And a personal favourite of mine, for the shift in thinking it provokes: “What does the future of technology look like when you’re designing for the deepest human values?”
New tools are available to us. Exploring their usefulness may help combat feelings of subjugation from the power of influence we are exposed to, and build our power of autonomy. One such tool is DuckDuckGo, a search engine that does not track activity and also allows the user to control how much of their activity gets shared. DuckDuckGo uses contextual advertising. CEO Gabriel Weinberg is devoted to protecting privacy amidst the rampant data framing prevalent online today. Companies are making money off of your private information online without your consent, the Internet should not feel so creepy.
DuckDuckGo Mission: Too many people believe that you simply can’t expect privacy on the Internet. We disagree and have made it our mission to set a new standard of trust online.
We focus optimistically on everything that tech can do for us, and so we should. But as Harris notes, living moment to moment with the fear of missing something isn’t how we’re built to live. Technology could be helping to create more meaningful interaction, and as consumers we can drive that.
The metric of ‘time well spent’ is a radical departure from the metric of ‘time spent online’. We can ‘nudge’ this in the right direction.
For more on this topic, watch the Ted Talk “How better tech could protect us from distraction”, by Tristan Harris. Also read Gabriel Weinberg’s article “What if we all just sold non-creepy advertising?
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