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California leads the fight against addictive technologies

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California is definitely a champion of the defence of individual interests. After granting employee status to Lyft and Uber’s drivers, after legislating on electronic cigarettes, a Republican senator (Josh Hawley) now wants to ban the features of websites that lead to “addiction and the exploitation of our brains”.

Infinite scroll soon to be banned in California?

Senator Hawley’s target, is first and foremost the infinite scroll, a feature used on all social networks (and on many other sites) that allows continuous content to be displayed simply by scrolling vertically through the page content.

The reason for this rebellion against the infinite scroll is the addiction mechanism that results from the absence of stopping points. The volume of content displayed per unit of time is higher than on a “normal” site, leading to cognitive overload.

Auto-play, gamification are also being targeted

The senator’s bill does not stop at the infinite scroll. It also covers auto-play (automatic video triggering) and gamification mechanisms. The latter is an essential component of the reward cycle that is at the root of so many social network addiction behaviours. Instagram’s decision to make likes invisible is, therefore quite surprising from this point of view. This goes against the interests of the social network and should logically lead to a decrease in engagement, but it is positive to reduce user addiction because likes are digital rewards.

Who invented the infinite scroll?

Hugh E. Williams says he invented the infinite scroll when he was working at Microsoft on the Bing search engine. In a blog post of 2012, he explains the genesis of this idea.

Aza Raskin insists that he invented this same feature in 2006 (see his blog post of the time here). Aza Raskin recently made a name for himself by saying he regretted this invention and others that create addictions in the human being.

Technologies that enslave us

The exploitation of human weaknesses, and in particular the use of the reward mechanism in the design of web functionalities, has been at the heart of criticism for several years. The average time spent on social networks is currently 2 hours and 16 minutes after exceeding the 2-hour limit in 2017. This time spent consuming content (most of the time, passively) is challenging. In the case of YouTube, for example, the average daily viewing time is 40 minutes! This time was not spent doing anything else, and in particular, being active. What Senator Hawley denounces is the passivity that results from the use of certain features on the web, and on social media in general. In the same bill, it asks social media to limit the use of social media to 30 minutes per day by default.

What about recommendation algorithms?

At the RecSys 2019 conference held last week in Copenhagen, we discussed once again the societal aspects of recommendation algorithms. Filter bubbles are one of the likely risks. I have dealt many times on this blog with this issue of filter bubbles. Recommendation algorithms are, therefore, a potential cause of human enslavement. I do not doubt that they contribute to it. The 40 minutes of daily consumption on YouTube is probably due in large part to YouTube’s recommendation algorithms. No figures are available on the subject, but when you know that one algorithm or another recommends 80% of the videos consumed on Netflix, you can easily imagine what it looks like on YouTube.

As a witness to my digital enslavement, this is what led me to declare in 2018 that I wanted to “regain my freedom”.

Is the solution to our passive attitude legislative?

We can finally ask ourselves questions. Is legislating a solution? If taken alone, this attempt will not provide a solution. Laziness is an inherent characteristic of the human being (or the “modern” human being), and it will take more than a law to get rid of bad habits. During the panel discussion on the 3rd day of the RecSys conference, one of the participants (Nava Tintarev, Delft University of Technology) asked me about what a successful recommendation system would look like from a societal point of view. My answer was as follows, and it applies to any human-machine interface. A successful recommendation system is one in which the user (re)takes control by adjusting preferences. These adjustments reflect the user’s interest in actively discovering the digital world around him and moving away from his passivity. These adjustments are all witnesses to a newfound curiosity and a quest for novelty.

This reminds me of what my colleague Olivier Bomsel wrote to me after the conference ” Mediatising innovation ” (Ecole des Mines, 2016). An excellent writer, Olivier had concluded an exchange with these beautiful words, which today take on their full meaning:

“Let us work together to re-establish randomness”.

If you also want to rediscover the power of chance, I invite you to read the account of this experience that I had conducted a few years ago to become anonymous on the Internet.

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Author: Pierre-Nicolas Schwab

Pierre-Nicolas est Docteur en Marketing et dirige l'agence d'études de marché IntoTheMinds. Ses domaines de prédilection sont le BigData l'e-commerce, le commerce de proximité, l'HoReCa et la logistique. Il est également chercheur en marketing à l'Université Libre de Bruxelles et sert de coach et formateur à plusieurs organisations et institutions publiques. Il peut être contacté par email, Linkedin ou par téléphone (+32 486 42 79 42)

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