Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) - Mad Men _ Season 7, Gallery - Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC
Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) - Mad Men _ Season 7, Gallery - Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC Photograph by Frank Ockenfels — AMC

Why Many Tech Firms Won’t Think Twice About Manipulating Users

Apr 20, 2017

The world is waking up to the fact that Silicon Valley is manipulating us. The world isn’t happy.

The New York Times spilled a considerable amount of what used to be called ink on a fascinating expose of the tricks Uber plays on its drivers, for example. The venerable television news magazine 60 Minutes devoted its lead segment recently to a cogent explanation of how tech companies like Facebook (fb) and Snap Inc. (snap) prey on the emotions of their users to make them linger longer on their respective products.

As entrepreneur Sunil Rajaraman noted the other day on The Bold Italic, this is nothing new. Tech companies and other researchers have been working at this manipulation game for years. Of course, it’s even less new than he thinks. Anyone who watched the badly missed TV series Mad Men knows that tricky ad men (and a few women) didn’t need any fancy software to manipulate consumers into buying what their clients were selling.

Still, as Rajaraman declared in a piece titled “We are all part of one gigantic A/B test,” things are getting worse. “You should assume that almost every tech company you love is experimenting on you right this second,” he writes. What’s more, the companies are under a great deal of pressure to do this in order to rise above the crowd. “When you are building a new product, you need to make it as addictive as possible to gain traction,” says Rajaraman. “Engagement, especially in the early stages, is one of the top metrics venture capitalists consider when putting money into a new product. If you can’t retain customers, you effectively don’t have a company.”

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What’s problematic about all this is that “engagement” isn’t always ethical, and few tech companies will pause long enough to consider the ethics of their product. That’s due in part to their lack of training in the traditional disciplines of the humanities, an oft-disparaged field in the hard data world of techdom. Design firm chief Gadi Amit thinks the void is so severe that “no one is pricing the societal impact into the valuation of any startup,” as he writes in a commentary for Fortune.

Have an ethical day, and while you’re at it, hug a history major.

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