I recently had an unusual encounter on the New York City subway. I was riding the A train, reading a bestselling book about how to create addictive apps. (It’s the one with the yellow cover. I’m not giving the title, but you may know it anyway.)
Somewhere around 34th Street, a young woman boarded the train and sat down next to me. Her eyes lit up. “I love that book,” she said, catching my eye and gesturing to the book.
“Do you build apps?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she said, “I’m in a startup and everyone on the team has read that book. We all love it.”
She was nice enough to strike up a conversation, so I didn’t want to come right out and say that I find the book objectionable. It presents addiction as an aspirational goal for app design, even pointing to slot machines in Las Vegas as a positive case study. (The very next example cited is Twitter.)
“That’s cool,” I said, “but – well – what do you think about the ethical considerations of trying to addict your users?”
She blinked. Then all of a sudden she looked sheepish. Finally, she shrugged. “Well,” she said, “I have to eat.”
It’s disappointing to see the tech industry lose its capacity to empathize with users as human beings. Tech has been leaning in this direction for some time - I wrote a column back in January about the changes I’ve seen across 20 years - but the incident on the subway, to me, signalled a new moment. My new acquaintance was from a startup, not one of the Big Four; located in New York, not the bowels of Silicon Valley; and the whole team, not just a growth-hacking CEO, was enthusiastic about addictive design. And throughout all of it, she could give no justification for an ethical compromise.
Just this: “I have to eat.” In other words, “I’ll use any means necessary – dark patterns, slot machine-style payouts, false promises – anything to hook users on my product.”
I know this doesn’t represent everyone in the tech industry. I’ve met plenty of individuals, usually on a product team in a larger organization, who are trying to change how the company relates to users. Sometimes they invite me in to talk to the team about my book Customers Included, which shows how treating customers with respect actually makes more money in the long run. But my book isn’t the bestseller. The addictive design book is.
Still, there are those of us left who believe in the promise of technology to respect, serve, even elevate its users. And that’s why I’m convening Skeptech, one week from today, to organize a conversation about tech. (Back in May I ran the first Skeptech event as a mini-Gel spring event; this is the 2nd Skeptech in the series: a fall mini-Gel!)
Here’s the deal...
• JON RONSON (author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Men Who Stare at Goats, and host of the new Butterfly Effect podcast)
• NANCY LUBLIN, Crisis Text Line founder and CEO
• comedians APARNA NANCHERLA and JO FIRESTONE
• ...and yours truly hosting, as usual.
It’s up to us to start a conversation that will lead to more positive outcomes.
If you’re in the New York area, I want to see you at Skeptech. By attending, you’ll join the community of people who want to make tech better. (We’ll also have a livestream, for those of you out town: I’ll post a link to it, evening-of, on my Twitter feed.)
Sign up here for Skeptech: coming up one week from today – Thursday, October 26.
- - -
P.S. You can also help by sharing this post on social media. just copy and paste this, below, into your favorite social media account:
Tech has a disturbing new direction. @markhurst is running Skeptech to turn it around: