By HALEY SWEETLAND EDWARDS, Time, 12 April 2018, Updated 13 April 2018
|New apps can push better habits, more transparency|
Illustration by Martin Gee for TIME
On the morning I visited, in March, it was populated by a dozen screens–phones, tablets, monitors–and half as many 20-something engineers, all of whom were male and bearded, and one of whom wore a cowboy hat. Someone had written in blue marker across the top of a whiteboard in all caps: You’re building amazing sh-t.
But that, more or less, is where the Silicon Valley stereotypes end. Ramsay Brown, 29, and T. Dalton Combs, 32, the co-founders of Boundless Mind, are hardly the college dropouts of tech lore; they’re trained neuroscientists. And unlike most tech entrepreneurs, they are not trying to build the next big thing that will go viral. In fact, Boundless Mind’s mission is almost the opposite. The company wants to disrupt America’s addiction to technology. “It used to be that pathogens and cars were killing us,” Brown says. “Now it’s cheeseburgers and social media. It’s our habits and addictions.”
Every day, we check our phones an average of 47 times–every 19 minutes of our waking lives–and spend roughly five hours total peering at their silvery glow. There’s no good consensus about what all this screen time means for children’s brains, adolescents’ moods or the future of our democratic institutions. But many of us are seized these days with a feeling that it’s not good. Last year, the American Psychological Association found that 65% of us believe that periodically unplugging would improve our mental health, and a 2017 University of Texas study found that the mere presence of our smartphones, face down on the desk in front of us, undercuts our ability to perform basic cognitive tasks. New York University psychologist Adam Alter describes the current state of tech obsession as a “full-blown epidemic.”
The problem, critics agree, begins with Silicon Valley’s unique business model, which relies on keeping us in the thrall of our screens. The longer we are glued to an app–a value nicknamed eyeball time–the more money its creators make by selling our attention and access to our personal data to advertisers and others. You and I are not customers of Facebook or Google; we are the product being sold.
This business model has driven an explosion of interest in what’s known as persuasive technology, a relatively new field of research that studies how computers can be used to control human thoughts and actions. The field, which draws on advances in neuroscience and behavioral psychology, has fueled the creation of thousands of apps, interfaces and devices that deliberately encourage certain human behaviors (keep scrolling) while discouraging others (convey thoughtful, nuanced ideas). “If, 20 years ago, I had announced that we would soon be creating machines that control humans, there would have been an uproar,” wrote B.J. Fogg, a Stanford University behavior scientist who was one of the first academics to seriously study how computers influence human behavior. But now, he notes, “we are surrounded by persuasive technologies.”
Every major consumer tech company operating today–from behemoths like Amazon to the lone programmer building the next Candy Crush–uses some form of persuasive technology. Most of the time, the goal is unambiguous: the companies want to get us to spend as much time as possible on their platforms. Facebook’s platform, for example, is not neutral. Its designers determine which videos, news stories and friends’ comments appear at the top of your feed, as well as how often you’re informed of new notifications. Snapchat’s interface distributes badges to users who maintain daily streaks–a nifty system built in part on humans’ well-studied psychological need to bank progress. “Your kid is not weak-willed because he can’t get off his phone,” Brown says. “Your kid’s brain is being engineered to get him to stay on his phone.”