Persuasive technologies: hidden influence

In autumn 2017, I will start my Ph.D. journey at the Royal College of Arts in London, exploring the Future of Persuasive Technologies. The back story is am now looking to make a deep dive into an emerging phenomenon that both worries me and excites me.

Recent developments in the world, has revealed something deeply worrying and exciting. Technology has now reached a point where it is largely all-encompassing, technology profoundly impacts every aspect of our society and even humanity itself.

We are used to programming technology but very soon, technology will begin programming us.

This development is fuelled by a few major trends in tech, namely:

  1. Big Data – More social data is generated and merged across channels. The more we know about a person, the better we can persuade them.
  2. Artificial Intelligence – It is now feasible to analyze massive datasets and carry out self-adjusting mass campaigns to persuade people.
  3. Behavioral Science – It is now possible to measure, evaluate and influence people’s emotions directly, through technology.

More and more of our communication takes place through a technological medium. To date, this layer of tech has been largely neutral, but nowadays, we are designing and building technology that nudges or affects our behavior and decisions.

Better persuasive abilities mean more control, which means more power. Soft power. As more power is concentrated in the hands of the few, what happens to democracy as we know it? How about free will?

Companies like Cambridge Analytica puts pride in persuading large numbers of voters to vote for a certain candidate in our free and open elections. Apple, Google and several other companies are developing methods to push us in the direction they want (often towards a purchase).

The implications of designing technology to covertly nudge people in desired directions are mind-blowing. It is a thin line between persuasion and manipulation and numerous ethical discussions are needed when organizations and individuals decide on strategies and tactics for when and how to use persuasive tech.

In short, Persuasive Technologies are technologies designed to modify human behaviors or decisions.