Online choice “nudge” and the convenient encroachment of AI

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The beginnings of the internet seem so long ago to those of us who lived through them. Hours spent trawling through pre-Google search results, which often ranged from the useless to the bizarre. Blindly researching gifts and listening to music, sans intelligently selected recommendations.  Checking social media accounts of our own volition, rather than through prompting from “notifications”.

Then the world began to change.

Under the banner of convenience, clever algorithms started to adapt both to our interests and – critically – the interests of commercial entities. We saw (or rather didn’t see) the covert introduction of the digital “nudges” that now regularly play upon our cognitive blind spots, and work to “guide” our decision-making. 

These nudges work by manipulating our online “choice architecture” to gently shepherd us toward certain purchases or endorsements (usually those preferred by the tech giants). They do this in a variety of ways – by framing these options appealingly, by incentivizing clicks and likes, by making a choice seem popular or easier, or simply by giving us their preferred option as the default.

All of a sudden, Google searches were structured to promote those with the most advertising muscle, social media feeds became more exciting, glamorous, and ad-filled, e-commerce sites filled their landing pages with items they presumed we (specifically) might like to buy, and hotel websites induced panic by telling us how many people had already booked our dream holiday.

Still now, when we browse the internet we receive these subtle pushes and prompts inviting us to behave in certain ways.

For a short while, these clandestine little nudges only worked if we actually logged on. We had to browse the internet or check our emails to become subject to their charms. The rest of the time we could just live our lives: walk dogs, attend school and work, deal with kids, mortgages, dinner, and shop in bricks and mortar stores. We were largely invulnerable to the internet and its self-serving attempts at seduction.

Enter smartphones and apps.

Now, for all of the convenience of email on-the-go and Google maps, we must carry around a pocket pest hellbent on “helpfully reminding” us to book a flight, go on a run, take advantage of an offer, read a story, or check out a status update. With a smartphone, it doesn’t matter where we are (and be sure, it knows where we are), because we can be prompted and nudged regardless. In North America alone, marketers send out over 671 million push notifications each day, all of which are designed to “pull users back in” to the app and sell to them.

FOMO marketing

A sales explanation of “fear of missing out” or FOMO marketing for e-commerce sites.

To use theatrical language: smartphones came to “break the fourth wall.” Now that it is broken, anything tech companies can do to either elbow their way into your life – or draw you into theirs – is game on.

Feeling down? Come and unload to a chatbot therapist. Want to turn the lights off and watch a movie? Get a virtual assistant for your coffee table and they can do it for you. AI is becoming ubiquitous. And with every interaction we teach it a little more about who we are (both as people, and as a species), which in turn helps it to fine-tune those nudges and make more money from us, and from upcoming generations who are likely to be addicted to the hyper-convenience of letting intelligent systems guide human choices.

From the first stages of the internet, to the interactive Web 2.0, to smartphone apps, and now virtual assistants like Alexa and Google Home: the trajectory is a clear one. At each step, we have become more reliant, we have divulged more of ourselves, and we have made more space in our lives for artificial intelligence.

Moreover, at every one of these stages we have also allowed our gateway to the internet – and our online choice – to be narrowed. First by nudges, then (added to this) through apps which encourage our affiliation to a smaller number of companies and brands, and now to particular brand “characters” – be it Alexa, Cortana, Siri, Bixby, or Google Home – all of which present the world to us through their own specific, self-interested prisms.

As Will Oremus says, writing for Slate:

“Whoever controls them [virtual assistants] may exert even more influence over users’ choices than Apple or Google did via iOS and Android. That’s because voice interfaces don’t lend themselves to choosing among various apps or scrolling through lists of options when you want to buy or watch something. So the company that makes the software gets to decide who sells you something, who plays your streaming music, or whose videos you watch by default.”

This sounds a little less nudge, and a little more shove.

Nevertheless, virtual assistants are unquestionably here to say. Those in the know are already predicting that we will interact less and less with web browsers and smartphone apps, and more and more with voice activated technologies and wearables.

They are not, however, the only technology likely to dominate our futures. Facebook for one, is betting that we will also spent much of our time interacting with – and via – virtual reality.

From job training, to interior design, medical interventions, travel, and socializing. Virtual reality (and its plucky cousin augmented reality) is likely to become part of the lives of near-future generations. If this is the case – and Zuckerberg is certain of it – not only have the tech companies broken down the fourth wall, they will somehow have found a way of constructing whole parts of our lived experience: they will be all of the walls.

No more interrupting or imposing. VR allows marketers to literally design our environments to their own advantage and have it evolve organically in response to our eye movements and other mappable body expressions.

Techniques like nudge could hardly become more potent than within a virtual reality setting.

This is not mere speculation. Work has already been done by psychologists that establishes the astonishing impact that VR marketing can have upon consumers old and young. A study from researchers at Stanford University recounts how children have trouble even distinguishing virtual reality experiences from their real-life experiences. Could this mean that virtual items could increasingly become desirable things of (real) value?

What’s more, a series of experiments with adults showed that VR enables a very powerful type of “self-endorsing” – where potential consumers are presented with a portrayal of themselves using marketed products – which leads to a more favorable view of brands and a much higher rate of purchase intention.

In short, where virtual assistants can narrow our choices by controlling the default option, VR will be able to frame products and services in such a way as to make them considerably more appealing to us on a subconscious level, as well as inescapably prominent.

Of course, nudging by default or by framing is already possible on the internet, but AI developments will make them more pervasive. We will still be able to refuse nudges, make our own choices, and “walk away”, but new technology is making it less likely that we will. Especially when it comes to generations being born right now who will know no different.

There are obviously questions about autonomy and control that need to be fully understood here. To what extent is our rationality is being compromised? To what extent is it okay for companies to cultivate non-rational choices? After all, sometimes they can be to convenient, and therefore to our benefit (e.g. encouragement to exercise or go to the doctors, or a useful product recommendation at the right time).

Many would argue that to ethically appraise these practices we have to establish whose interests each “nudge” is in. The consumer or the company? This is never a question we’ve had to ask before of marketers because it was always so obvious: a company puts a pretty looking picture of a soda on a billboard or a TV advert, and I may be persuaded to drink it or I might choose to buy another brand. Importantly, I know what they’re trying to do, and I mainly understand the way in which they’re doing it. This new emphasis on nudges and other digital trickery changes these bygone rules of engagement, and that is why they must be reassessed.

It’s so easy to play the upper-hand when you already have it. Real efforts need to be made to re-level the playing field before it’s too late, and all of our personal decisions become the playthings of four or five Silicon Valley overlords.

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