It has become accepted fact in our modern digital world that the algorithms powering the online revolution, especially those of the major social media platforms, have so much control over us that they can actually nudge us against our conscious will towards actions we would not otherwise take. The addictive nature of social media is driven in part by an army of behavioral engineers tasked with building algorithms, interfaces and experiences that tap deeply into the flaws and nuances of human psychology, turning us into mindless remote-control zombies that can be guided towards any desired monetizable activity by any company. Or at least that is how industry, governments, the press and even academia portray the industry’s breathtaking infrastructures of data and algorithms. If Silicon Valley’s algorithms really wield that much power over our subconscious minds and conscious decisions, why can’t social media platforms literally write hate speech out of existence with a few lines of code? Is the truth that the silent guiding hand of the online world’s algorithms aren’t nearly as powerful as we claim or is it the case that hate speech is so inextricably linked with the fact-free emotion-driven world of social media that combatting it would risk the entire business model upon which social media is based?
We speak today of the digital world as an almost Orwellian existence. Shadowy companies surveil us against our wills, hoovering up every action we take online and offline and building unimaginably detailed profiles about what makes us tick. These profiles in turn are wielded by an army of silent unseeable algorithms to manipulate and coerce us into destructive behaviors that can undermine democracy itself but make their creators tens of billions of dollars.
It is certainly true that more and more of our worldly existence, online and offline, is recorded, bartered, bought and sold by myriad companies all over the world. It is also true that much of the digital world is prefaced on algorithms and interfaces designed by behavioral engineers and psychologists with the intent to nudge or even shove us towards the most profitable behaviors for their creators, regardless of the impact of those behaviors on us.
The question is just how much influence those algorithms actually wield over us.
Small behavioral tweaks, such as creating the illusion of scarcity to push us to accept a higher price for a product or gamifying the gig economy to extract a few extra tasks per shift out of workers, is a fairly straightforward application of longstanding understanding of human psychology. While we tout these tools as frightening new digital innovations, they are in fact merely digital reincarnations of the manipulative behaviors known to salespersons and managers the world over since the dawn of time.
Far from creations of the online world, much of the behavioral engineering we tout as Silicon Valley innovations are in reality merely the online world catching up to the age-old teachings of the offline world. When it comes to nudging people towards actions that make companies money, Silicon Valley is merely playing catchup to the offline world, not innovating or pioneering new insights into the human psyche.