Should the makers of habit-forming products be praised as innovative entrepreneurs? Or shunned as the immoral equivalents of drug pushers? Ian Bogost, a designer of video games, describes them as nothing less than the “cigarette of this century”. Paul Graham, a Silicon Valley investor, worries that humans have not had time to develop societal “antibodies to addictive new things”.
If any other business were found to be employing people with the title of “behaviour designers”, they would be seen as exploitative and downright creepy. The internet is becoming ever more powerful and pervasive. And every new technological leap makes it easier for behaviour designers to weave digital technology into consumers’ daily habits. As smartphones become loaded with ever more sensors, and with software that can interpret their users’ emotional states (see article), the scope for manipulating minds is growing. The world is also on the cusp of a wearable revolution which will fix Google Glasses to people’s skulls and put smart T-shirts onto their torsos: the irresistible, all-knowing machines will be ever more ubiquitous. And the trouble with insatiable desires is that the struggle to sate them leaves everyone as exhausted as they are unfulfilled.