Prey, Persuasive Technology, and Our Teenagers Wanting a Phone and Facebook

Prey, Persuasive Technology, and Our Teenagers Wanting a Phone and Facebook The Garrett Ashley Mullet Show

How important is freedom? And what threatens ours? Jesus gave us the foundation of a reliable answer to both these questions in John 8:31-38. 

“Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed."

We do well, then, to consider that freedom and righteousness are inseparably linked to the truth in God’s economy. Just before Jesus indicated who would be “free indeed,” he had said something else to the Jews who had believed him which is relevant here.

“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

For my part, I am beginning to realize more and more how a great deal of thought and effort is put in our day into the design and implementation of various nudges designed not so much to help us get closer to the truth and freedom according to God as to modify our behavior along the lines favored by the world’s most wealthy, powerful, and clever men and institutions.

Most of us have never even heard of these influencers behind the scenes, and we know nothing about them. But from my researches, I feel confident in saying they see themselves as our gods, and therefore under no special obligation to help keep us from sin. Instead, in many of the most successful cases, they are all too happy to see us enslaved to what God says is wicked in the name of supposedly liberating us for the brave new tomorrow which decades ago hatched fully-formed in their collective imagination.

Thus we turn to the very practical and personal question my wife Lauren and I have been considering lately. Our eldest two sons, Josiah and Eli, are asking about cell phones and Facebook accounts. Both are teenagers. Josiah at 15 is taking driver’s ed online right now, and Eli at 14 will soon be taking business classes one day a week at a local community college here in Greeley. They should probably have a cell phone, then, in case they need help or have a question or update to give us while they’re out and about.

As for Facebook, however, I am much more reluctant. For his part, Eli in particular wants to use the Marketplace feature to buy and sell used things, and that’s good. He keeps asking if he can create an account of his own for that. But I haven’t given him a firm answer yet except ‘not now,’ and the concerns about social media which listeners to this podcast have heard expressed for years are at the fore of this father’s mind.

With such considerations in my thoughts and discussions with Lauren, a man I work with named Chad Myers sent me a link to an article at Medium this week. Published March 12, 2018 by a psychologist and author named Richard Freed, Chad thought I might find it interesting after he listened to my recent podcast episodes about anxiety, depression, distractedness, and psychology. And I did indeed find this article very interesting.

Titled ‘The Tech Industry’s War on Kids,’ the piece by Freed is over five-thousand words introducing both ‘persuasive technology’ and its use in the development of everything from smart phones to video games to social media, and more. Freed for his part is particularly concerned about how these things have been and are negatively affecting a generation of young people in America.

So what is persuasive technology, you might ask? In brief, it is the wedding of psychology and engineering largely devoid of the kind of ethical considerations and hesitations you or I would recognize as sufficient or well-calibrated.

More to the point, if we have been on social media, search engines, apps, or the worldwide web in general at all, our vulnerabilities and most basic desires have been noted and catalogued, both by psychologists offline, and thereafter by algorithms and databases online. In general as well as specific to our individual profiles, a great deal of money is trading hands to the end of changing our behavior accordingly. 

This, I do believe, is what you are really making a decision about when a website prompts you about ‘Cookies,’ and when your smartphone now prompts whether you want to ask a particular app on it not to track you more broadly than just when you are using it.

In other words, we are all being manipulated, and I would even say enslaved, by the technologies which emanate from the researches and teachings at Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab in Palo Alto, California, founded in 1998 by Dr. B.J. Fogg.

An endless variety of ‘nudges’ are targeting us via easy-to-use devices and applications that reward us for submitting ourselves and our information readily to them. At least part of the tell is that so many of our most addictive and popular examples of persuasive design – Facebook, Instagram, Google – are offered to us entirely free-of-charge. Have we stopped to ask ourselves why this is?

Whether or not we have, the answer is a simple one. These things are free because we are not, and we are the product. Our altered behavior is what is really being bought and sold here.

Therefore, “keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”

And “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh.  For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.  We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.”

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