Unless you’re a heroin addict, your smartphone is probably the most addictive thing in your life.
Turn it on and you find a screen full of apps, many of which are addictive games.
Actual games like Candy Crush and Pokémon Go, but also games we don’t think of as games: the email game, the Snapchat game, the Instagram game and so on.
People have compared smartphones to slot machines, because they exploit our psychology in a similar way. But your smartphone isn’t just one slot machine.
It’s a hydra-headed slot machine, made up of apps which themselves are mini-slot machines. And you take it with you wherever you go.
Time spent on smartphones is now taking up large chunks of our waking lives. Americans use their phones for almost three hours a day, seven times more than in 2010.
Creating an app to help people use apps less
We have a lot of environments in our lives that push us towards certain actions, even though they aren’t forcing us to do anything.
When we buy a phone and install a bunch of apps, we don’t give much thought to the addictive environment we’ve created. That environment — and its hydra-headed slot machine — pushes us towards spending more time on our phones than we really need or want to.
And it’s a hard environment to shape with an app, since smartphone operating systems don’t like being messed with.
I wanted to create something that could change your smartphone’s environment in the simplest possible way, to make it less addictive.
So I had the idea of making an app called Go Away. It sits among the apps of your home screen and reminds you of the option to not use any of them at all. The icon says ‘Go Away’, and the name of the app is Go Away. If you go into the app, it also politely tells you to go away.
I designed Go Away as a nudge. ‘Nudge’ is a term coined by behavioural economists to describe a way to help people make better decisions by changing the environments the decisions are made in.
For example: painting a fly on a urinal to get men to aim better when they pee. Or switching to opt-out retirement saving, instead of opt-in. Or using bitter nail polish to stop a bad nail-biting habit.
Go Away works like that. It stands next to the hydra-headed slot machine and says “Hey, FYI, you can also go back to real life”.
Through highly unscientific tests, I found that I could save around four hours a week of phone time (out of twenty) just by having Go Away on my home screen. And that, even if it’s nowhere near as effective for you, it could still easily save you an hour a week of phone time.
You could spend some of that hour talking to your friends, instead of staring at your phone while right next to them. Or playing with your daughter. Or writing a terrible novel.
An inappropriate app
I wanted to share my slightly silly, but also useful, app with other people. But Apple decided Go Away would not be allowed onto the App Store.
They said, over a phone call, that the concept had to be changed completely, since it was ‘inappropriate’ to make an app ‘that encourages people not to use their devices’. (I wondered whether to point out their ‘inAPPropiate’ pun. In the end I decided not to.)
This was Apple saying that they do not want customers to have more control over their time.
It’s disturbing, but not surprising. Apple’s incentive is to have people spend more time on their phones, buy more apps, make more in-app purchases, and give Apple more data.
Unfortunately, Apple aren’t the worst offenders.
Getting engaged against your will
Apps like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Netflix, and YouTube want you to use them more than you really need or want to.
Their environments don’t care about you, the user, as a human being — someone who might want to do other things in life.
They care about you as someone who can make them money in some way. And because of that, their environments are designed to be addictive, and get you to engage infinitely.
Facebook is a great example. Facebook now controls more time of more people per day than any organisation in history. And it aims to increase its revenue, not your happiness. That’s scary.
Facebook makes enough money, and has enough smart engineers, to aim for happiness instead of engagement. But it doesn’t.
Instead, Facebook runs hundreds of tests every day to take advantage of our psychology and keep us hooked.
That’s why things like autoloading videos and infinite scroll exist. You don’t need either of those. You don’t need the quantity of notifications that Facebook sends you every day. But tricks like these are great at exploiting your psychology to keep you engaged.
Try deactivating your account, for instance. You are shown photos of some of your best friends, with captions saying ‘Barack will miss you’, ‘Donald will miss you’.
Of course, ‘Barack will miss you’ is a lie. Barack will still exist. You will still exist. You don’t need Facebook to stay friends. But that psychological sleight of hand, when tested against the original deactivation page, brought down deactivations by 7%. That adds up to millions of people staying on Facebook who didn’t really want to.
Where are the people making software that sits as a layer between us and addictive technology, helping us have better environments? Environments that help us make better decisions?
We need nudge software
Nudge software (or nudgeware) changes our environment so we are empowered to make better decisions, without limiting our choice in any way.
Go Away is one example. Go Away changes the environment of your smartphone to show you that there is an alternative to getting sucked in.
Go Away was a bit silly and Apple swatted it away like a tiny digital fly. But there is a whole universe of very non-silly nudge software waiting to be explored.
- Why don’t our phones make it easier for us to focus on our friends and family when we’re around them?
- Why doesn’t anything tell us when we’ve been going down infinite scroll on a website or app for too long?
- Why can’t we easily make sure our notification environment doesn’t pester us the whole time?
- Why isn’t there something helping us shift time towards apps, websites, and online activities that make us happy, away from ones that do nothing for us (or even make us unhappy)?
- Why aren’t there operating systems that look after us in all these ways and more, and make technology a better, more human place to be?
There are some startups trying to address some of these questions. We need many more.
What else can we do?
We can try to persuade big tech companies to aim for human metrics like happiness, and we can try to persuade government to legislate against addictive technology. Both are hard.
We can create more human alternatives to the worst offenders in addictive technology. Snapchats which ask their users how much they want to use Snapchat, and step aside when other parts of life come calling. That’s also hard.
We can hijack the content platforms of some addictive technologies to remind people that there’s an alternative to the time they’re spending mindlessly browsing. (For instance, my reincarnation of Go Away as a Facebook page). That’s not so hard — until the platforms start realising you’re doing it.
But if we want to solve the problem of addictive technology ourselves, without depending on other variables, we need to make nudge software.
People and pixels
People born today will spend most of their life looking at pixels. We’re going through a fundamental change in how humans experience reality.
So it’s critical for us to figure out who is controlling these pixels that we will spend so much time looking at.
Are we really controlling them? Or, through addictive designs, is the inverse true — are they controlling us?
Are we looking at the best set of pixels to make us happy? Or did someone choose that set of pixels for us?
And is anything helping us remember the alternative to looking at pixels?
Over the course of humanity, answering these questions successfully could mean a difference of trillions of hours of happiness, trillions of hours doing the things that matter most to humans.
The headline of this article says that we need more software like Go Away. That’s not quite true.
We need nudge software that is far smarter (and not quite as smart-ass): clever enough to modify operating systems that aren’t allowed to be modified, redesign social networks that don’t want to be redesigned, tweak games that can’t be tweaked.
Failure to do this means other people choosing vast parts of our lives for us.
Here’s a group I created for people interested in nudgeware. I’m currently working on some — if you want to join my team or send me a hilarious GIF: louis (at) glide (dot) tech.