Experimental feature

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Experimental feature

I’ve recently found myself wondering if I could do without Google Maps. It is, I think, the only app on my phone I’d really miss were I to swap my smartphone for a “dumb” one that handles only calls and text messages.

Why am I thinking about this? It’s because every time I try to read a book, I end up picking up my phone instead. I convince myself that I need to google something, something important, and, 30 minutes later, I’m scrolling through Facebook or Twitter with all sense of time and purpose lost. I’ve taken to turning off my phone, but then I turn it back on. I’ve tried hiding all my colourful apps in little folders, but that doesn’t really work. I keep interrupting my own train of thought in order to do something that I don’t consciously want to do.

This is not accidental. Developers have become ever more brazen in their attempts to keep us hooked on our smartphones. Some of them speak in the language of addiction and behavioural psychology, though most prefer the term “persuasive tech”. In itself, persuasive tech is not a new idea — an academic named BJ Fogg has been running classes from a “persuasive tech lab” at Stanford since the late 1990s. But as smartphone ownership has rocketed and social-media sites have been born, persuasive tech has vastly expanded its reach.

One company, Dopamine Labs — named for the chemical released in the reward centre of the brain — offers a service to tech businesses wanting to “keep users engaged”. Founded by two neuroscientists-turned-programmers, it explicitly talks about using artificial intelligence to modify apps and release dopamine hits to “surprise and hook each user”. Loosely translated, in case it’s not terrifying enough: robots are trying to alter your brain chemistry to make you spend more time doing something you don’t want to do.

Dopamine Labs is interesting, though, because it also offers an antidote service — an app that tries to help users regain control.

Founder Ramsay Brown tells me he wants people to understand that “their thoughts and feelings are on the table as things that can be controlled and designed”. He thinks there should be more conversation around the persuasive power of the technologies being used. “We believe everyone has a right to cognitive liberty, and to build the kind of mind they want to live in,” he says.

Dopamine Labs’ app — Space — springs from the idea that technology can help us change the way we use it, by encouraging us to resist the lure of the smartphone and spend our time online more productively.

There are two main ways the tech world seeks to help us regain our self-control. Space opts for the “mindfulness” approach, asking us to breathe slowly for a few seconds before it loads an app. The alternative is the cold turkey option — which seems appealing, though it comes with obvious practical problems.

The poster child of the resistance movement against addictive apps is former Google “design ethicist” Tristan Harris. He thinks the power to change the system lies not with app developers but with the hardware providers. In 2014, Harris founded “Time Well Spent”, a group that campaigns for more ethical design practices among developers. When I ask him about this, he drops in phrases such as “brain hacking” — which seem extreme until you remember that there’s a company called Dopamine Labs.

Any tech business that relies on advertising revenues is incentivised to hold its users online for as long as possible, Harris says. This means apps are specifically designed to keep us in them. Apple, on the other hand, wants to sell phones but doesn’t have a revenue stream so rigidly correlated to the amount of time its customers spend online. Harris hopes that companies like Apple could use their influence to boost more ethically designed apps.

While I wait for Apple to sort this out, I find myself longing for something called a “Light Phone”, a credit-card-sized handset that does absolutely nothing but make and receive calls. Price tag? $150. Seems expensive. But the company’s website is very persuasive.

Aime Williams is an FT Money reporter

Illustration by: Christopher de Lorenzo

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