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Technological design and technoference

Siobhan Dunlop uses this article to explore the way technology can interfere with our lives, through design and interruptions.
A pile of junked computer equipment
© University of York (author: Siobhan Dunlop)

It’s no surprise that technology impacts our daily lives. Technology including physical devices, apps, and websites are designed in ways which have altered our lives in subtle (and not so subtle ways), from the fear of missing out to opening up vast amounts of information at our fingertips.

The term “technoference” was coined by Brandon McDaniel, whose research looks at how the use of technology intrudes upon familial relationships. The term is often used to refer to the everyday intrusions and interruptions upon people’s lives due to the use of technology, whether in relation to sleep, parenting, or other areas of life.

Next week we’ll be looking at screen time, getting you to consider wellbeing aspects of spending a lot of time using devices. However, technoference isn’t just based on personal behaviours. The digital technology we use – physical devices, websites, apps – are all designed in particular ways to influence our behaviour and to push us towards particular goals.

Sometimes this can be obvious. As we’ll look at next week, wearable ‘smart’ devices are often marketed as making us be more active or reflect more on our health and habits. The devices and the software on them are designed to encourage physical activity, and make us feel rewarded when we achieve our goals, using graphics, sounds, or other gamified aspects.

The technology we use has been designed for specific purposes. “[T]he race for our attention”, as Tristan Harris terms it, is a major goal behind a lot of technology we use. Harris’ TED Talk, How a handful of tech companies control billions of minds every day (2017), looks at the influence of big tech companies on people’s attention. To get our attention, and to keep our attention away from their competitors, these companies try to influence our thoughts and actions. Harris looks at Snapchat and the way that a feature known as ‘Snapstreaks’ encourages users to communicate with each other every day. Going on the platform every day is vital to maintain these.

Marketing budgets also factor into the ways technology is designed to impact our thoughts and time. Facebook, for example, makes money from advertising and uses data from its platform to target this advertising. This is similar to how much of online advertising works. The difference with platforms like Facebook is that they have huge user bases (Facebook reported 2.5 billion monthly active users as of December 2019) and therefore potentially massive influence with the advertising that people are shown. Roger McNamee, a businessman who invested in Facebook and advised founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, wrote about the effect of the platform’s design choices, saying:

“Autoplay and endless feeds eliminate cues to stop. Unpredictable, variable rewards stimulate behavioral addiction. Tagging, Like buttons, and notifications trigger social validation loops. As users, we do not stand a chance.” (Roger McNamee (2019). Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe. London: HarperCollins. p. 86)

These examples suggest why ‘technoference’ has become a concern. Keeping users on a platform and engaging with content is the goal of these tech companies so they need to take a disruptive place in our lives, for better or worse.

As we’ve seen with Facebook, these interruptions can go beyond a personal level. Election interference using data from Facebook and targeted advertising reached headlines with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. McNamee points blame at the design choices made by Facebook, but doesn’t believe the platforms are causing this kind of harm on purpose. Instead, he sees the “culture that sees the world through the narrow lenses of business metrics and code” (p. 235) as the problem: whether it is individual attention or national democracy, tech companies are focusing on advertising statistics and what can be done with technology, rather than what should be done.

What can we do then? It might sound obvious, but maybe the answer isn’t a technological one. Both Harris and McNamee point towards the power of people in creating a better technological future, and in week 3 we’ll explore positive technological design further. This is not just about writing better code or solving technology’s problems with more tech, but about people – in companies, governments, and around the world – thinking about how technology impacts our daily lives and designing systems that have a positive impact, on society, on our wellbeing, and on our lives in general.

In a world where Netflix’s CEO claims that Netflix’s biggest competitor is sleep, maybe we need to be more aware of the battle for our attention that goes on in tech design and look towards not only personal interventions against ‘technoference’, but also pushing for change in technological design.

© University of York (author: Siobhan Dunlop)
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