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Brain hacking

By Yan Barcelo

Smartphones and apps are designed to get you hooked, says a former Google product manager.

People might joke about being addicted to their smartphones, but it’s not really a joking matter. According to CBS News, tech giants in Silicon Valley deliberately design phones, apps and social media to get people hooked — a process many programmers call “brain hacking.”Pointing to a smartphone, Tristan Harris, a former Google product manager who now denounces the industry’s practices, told CBS News that it was in fact a slot machine and conditioned its user accordingly. “Every time I check my phone, he said, I’m playing the slot machine to see, ‘What did I get?’ ”What you get are “likes” on Facebook and Instagram, cute emojis in messages and new followers on Twitter. In short: anxiety reduction and emotional approval. Harris says “there’s a whole playbook of techniques that get … you using the product for as long as possible.”

“Streaks” on Snapchat are a perfect illustration of this kind of reflex conditioning. Apparently benign, streaks show the number of days a user has been messaging back and forth with someone. But kids who go on vacation, for example, are stressed at the idea of losing their streaks, so they give their password to a few other kids who keep their streaks going for them. Is this really designed to “help” people, or to keep them hooked? asks Harris.

The process of addiction has been neurologically studied — and coded. Ramsay Brown, founder of Dopamine Labs, which specializes in apps for fitness companies and finance firms, puts it this way: “Since we’ve figured out, to some extent, how these pieces of the brain that handle addiction are working, people have figured out how to juice them further and how to bake that information into apps.”

Technology is supposedly neutral, but that’s not true. Programming devices is about programming people, claims Harris. The unending distraction of emails and apps is “weakening our relationships to each other and destroying our kids’ ability to focus.”

This article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of CPA Magazine.