Breaking Free of Captology: Stepping out of the Box for a Little While

Having quit a ten day silent retreat due to having lost the will to live in over 35 degree Celsius temperatures, I drove away feeling a bit defeated. I’d come to break habits of minds and addictions that had accrued over the year, and had spend weeks psychologically preparing myself for this removal from the world and de-fragging of my brain from all the clutter that had filled it and wore it down. I had lost control and wanted it back. I had become addicted to habits of mind that were no longer serving me, and removing myself from society seemed the best way to go about shattering the chains that bound me.

Pulling the van over to the verge in the crackling heat, I took a deep breath and opened up my phone, doing two things – messaging my loved ones that I was out and on the way home, and deleting every app that was going to suck me into it’s time consuming rabbit hole of addiction. I removed Instagram. I removed Facebook. I removed my emails. More boldly, given the eight months I’d spend daily posting on a platform that promised cryptocurrency as a reward, I removed Steemit, and all associated apps, of which there was quite a folder, from front ends like Steempeak and Partiko, to Dapps like Dtube and Actifit, to data tools like links to Steemworld and a plethora of crypto wallets. All gone.

Now what was I going to do?

Having spent at least 30 hours without my phone and a good few weeks thinking about it, the decision was less hard than it appeared. The dopamine hits had settled down, replaced by a kind of calm. I’d enjoy being alone, I told myself. And at least I’d be beholden to my own life, and my own choices, and my own attention. Perhaps I’d find happiness and fulfilment in being a hermit for ten days, give or take interactions I chose myself and that I knew weren’t devised by a social media monster – hanging with family, for example, without every bleeding thought going to Steemit.

The pleasure chemical hit would be injected by me, when I chose to given my attention to it, rather than being lured in to the point I had little control over it anymore.

Such pleasure chemicals occur in response to social interactions – and motivate us to keep seeking them out. We are further motivated or triggered by friends and followers who encourage us to continue interacting. The more followers we have, the more comments we gain, the more emotional hits are delivered. We begin to spend our lives chasing the upvotes, the follows, the resteems, the likes, the claps – depending on which platform we’re on. Our entire lives become about taking pictures and putting words together to post, which leads to decreased enjoyment about what we’re actually doing in that moment, which leads to stress and unhappiness.

This is no accident. Habit forming technology is a business art form, refined by researchers, psychologists, social thinkers and technologists such as Nils Far, whose book ‘Hooked: How to Form Habit Buying Products’ is aimed at anyone wanting to drive customer engagement. He argues that habit forming companies are successful when they think “I’m bored” and the next thought is “Facebook” or “Twitter” – the first to mind platform wins. By manufacturing desire, rewards and intrigue, the consumer opens doors like ‘a lab animal in a Skinner box’.1

A Skinner box was an experimental box designed by BF Skinner where a rat was given a reward when it pulled a lever. After a while, the rat knew it was going to get the reward, so only pulled it when it was hungry. The reward was then made variable – the rat didn’t know if it would get one, three, or none, and thus began to pull the lever over and over.

The critter was hooked.

This variable schedules of reward, Far argues, multiples the effect of the dopamine surge that comes when the brain expects a reward. This is used in habit forming technologies – think slot machines and lotteries. The hook also asks the user to do some work, increasing the odds that the user will pass through this ‘hook’ phase again. It asks us for an investment of time, data, money, social capital – invite friends, review, state preferences, build assets, use new features. 1

Consider any given day on your given social media addiction. On mine, Steemit, I never know if someone has commented, upvoted or resteemed me. I check rewards, comment on user’s posts hoping to get more followers and thus upvotes of our own writing in the form of Steem, post articles, check our wallets. The reward is variable to – perhaps a whale comes past and our reward is substantial, perhaps only cents, but both outcomes inevitably cue dopamine release.

And then I awake and the cycle begins again. We have no free will here despite believing we are in an ‘anarchic’ space – Steemit is ruled by the same habit forming super powers that are used by Pinterest, Instagram and any other dominating mainstream app. The interesting thing is that we’re the ones driving it, with little input from those who started the system. We’re virtually begging each other to keep posting to prop up a system that we hope enters a bull market one day again to achieve the fabled 8 dollars again, a time in history that seems like a dream to us. No-one is telling us to do these things – we are triggering ourselves when we’re bored, lonely or any other emotion that calls us to go straight to our platform of choice.

It’s not that this super power isn’t always used for good. Many of us have formed wonderful friendships in the Steemisphere, created powerful affirmations and learnt new skills. Whilst I might refuse Actifit’s insistent message that I haven’t posted about my activity for the day, writing poetry or a good article is just as motivating for me as an upvote. Many of us argue that the financial incentive is not our primary motivator. We do need to understand, however, the mechanics of behaviour engineering to protect ourselves from how we’re being manipulated. We can’t be advocates of free will without realising how little of it we have.

We might believe we’re going on these apps of our own free will and, whilst we’re there, staying on courses of our own design, but we’re magicked into spending more time and investment there without little awareness of how we’re being manipulated. One example I particularly resent is Facebook Messenger, where the person sending the message is able to see that you’ve read it, and thus obligating us to reply to fulfil social contracts. We’re also tied in to viewing sites in particular ways and thus become more likely to be distracted and buy into an experience we didn’t ask for in the first place. How wonderful would it be, for example, to scroll through Facebook marketplace or events separately without landing on the news feed first or being subject to alerts. They give us the illusion it’s a free choice to cancel – ‘if you don’t like it, you can unsubscribe’ – whilst making it difficult to do so.

Tristan Harris, ex product philosopher at Google until he became ethically concerned with where it was going (how can anyone have the power to manipulate someone’s psychology, he pondered, and what happened to the Hippocratic oath?), argues that we’re being hijacked by technology whilst being fed the illusion of choice, which we believe empowers us 2. Concerned about how these companies were manipulating people’s psychology without adherence to any Hippocratic oath, Harris argues we need to see the ‘friction required to enact choices’ rather than the availability of choice itself, as well as the consequences of these choices. Would we engage if the button truthfully said ‘Review me and waste half an hour of your time doing so?’ or ‘Log in and check your messages, which at last count was 67 and thus may take you up to 45 minutes’?

Think about a time of late when you have realised you’ve been online for four hours when you only intended to check the weather. Perhaps you’ve gone online to check your bank balance and have spend twenty five minutes moving money around and using mortgage calculators to reading articles on ‘reducing your debt in ten easy steps’ because the periphery of the internet has seen us looking, and knows how to lure us into rabbit holes. Perhaps you’ve checked Instagram because you don’t want to miss out on the magical moment of your son in the snow in Estonia because you’ve willingly fallen into the trap of believing it’s better to see it right then and there in that moment than when he returns. It’s these temptations that are designed to entrap us whilst giving us the illusion of choice.

“I did not direct my life. I didn’t design it. I never made decisions. Things always came up and made them for me. That’s what life is” – B.F.Skinner

We are the rats in the Skinner box, looping in flows of triggers and hooks and rewards.It is very, very difficult to get out of the box – we’ve willingly become imprisoned.

Is it worth getting out of the box for a while? Is it necessary? What might be gained by leaving the box? Do we even care? Is this something we contemplate in the rare moments we find ourselves at the threshold of the box and real life?

Behavioural design founding father BJ Fogg anticipated the addictions of this internet age and the tools used by its applications, calling for a new field he dubbed ‘captology’ – Computers as Persuasive Technologies. Whilst the term didn’t quite catch, to me it’s more indicative of how we’re manipulated, rather than wholly empowered, by new technologies.

And being captive, we need to figure out how to be freed.

Resources and Credits


2 thoughts on “Breaking Free of Captology: Stepping out of the Box for a Little While

  1. Whaaat? No option to subscribe to this blog? How do I know when you’ve posted a new story….?!?!?

    Oh wait, I guess I’ll see it on Steem… 😉

    Great to see you’ve done this. Awesome blog!

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