Squeezed or Hacked?

I recently took part in some research being conducted by Ipsos MORI.  The lady who contacted me reminded me that I had done something similar a few years ago when I was asked to keep a record of my radio listening for a week.  This was my opportunity to be involved in new research which was more far-reaching and, of course, more exciting.  Then she asked me if I had a mobile phone.  So I said I did, but one that only does phone calls and texts. 

“Oh, you’ll need a smartphone for this,” she said, “but that’s no problem.  We’ll lend you one that is all set up for the research.”   And so they did.  My job was to fill in a diary for every half-hour of my waking life for a week.  Of course, they weren’t exactly interested in what I actually did, but only in which of a specific list of activities I had been engaged.  Broadly, my use of social media, my TV watching, my communicating (especially using the internet), and shopping (especially in the high street and shopping centres).  Now, I don’t use social media, I don’t have a TV, if I want to use the internet I go to my local library, my nearest high street is 20 miles away, and I can’t remember when I last visited a shopping centre.  But before you shed a tear for me, let me assure you that I spent a busy, fulfilling, and happy week!

As the week went on though, and half-hour after half-hour I ticked ‘none of these’, I became aware off two ‘voices off’.  One said, “Wouldn’t you really like to be doing some of these things?  After all, everyone else does...”  The other answered, in the words of J B Phillips, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould.”  I am not for one moment suggesting that that is simply a matter of the use of technology or the possession of a smartphone.  Far from it!  Yet I found myself wondering…

Recent research has found that

  • the average mobile phone user checks his or her phone 110 times a day
  • 46% of smartphone users ‘couldn’t live without their phone’
  • over half of mobile phone users in the UK suffer from ‘nomophobia’ - the fear of being without their phone

In 1985, Neil Postman wrote a thoughtful and thought-provoking book entitled ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ in which he traced the development of technology and the corresponding trivialisation of thought, particularly, if I remember correctly, in public affairs.  He was, I recall, concerned that Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ was upon us – a world in which truth is drowned in irrelevancies and we are controlled, and ultimately ruined, by pleasure.  C S Lewis, in ‘That Hideous Strength’, sees technology as a tool to manipulate truth and thus control people’s thoughts and behaviour.

Fantasy?  Scaremongering?  I suspect that none of those three gentlemen would have been surprised, though probably saddened, had they been able to read the following:

Dr B J Fogg, founder, in 1998, of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University, has said, “We can now create machines that change what people think and what people do, and the machines can do that autonomously.”  He is proud of the inventiveness of his students, one of whom is a co-founder of Facebook and “influences hundreds of thousands of people around the world.” 

Ramsay Brown, co-founder of Dopamine Labs, has said, “We have developed a rigorous technology of the human mind, and that is both exciting and terrifying.  We have the ability to twiddle some knobs in a machine learning dashboard we build, and around the world hundreds of thousands of people are going to quietly change their behaviour in ways that, unbeknownst to them, feel second nature but are really by design.”  His ‘dopamine api’, a tool that allows any app to become addictive, is commercially available to companies deemed suitable.  It is intended, he says, “to change the wiring of the brain.”  Programmers call this ‘brain hacking’.

Oliver Cromwell rightly said, “The mind is the man.”  I wonder what he would have thought of brain hacking?

I don’t suppose the Apostle Paul had heard the term, but his words are as relevant today as ever:

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.  And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

                                                                                                                        Romans 12:1-2

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh.  For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.

                                                                                                                        2 Corinthians 10:3-5

Likewise the Apostle Peter:

Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.”

                                                                                                                        1 Peter 1:13-16