Becoming a “better” human in the digital age

You might have read the widely shared New York Times feature about how Uber uses psychological tricks in its app to influence its drivers’ behavior in order to get them to work exactly as needed.

If you have been following the developments in the tech sectory, this report won’t surprise you. Large parts of the consumer tech industry have been built based on learnings from evolutionary psychology and experiments in the booming field of behavioral economics. The success of the sector is also a success in exploiting loopholes in the human brain (scroll to the bottom for a reading list). Whether the goal is to make people constantly and almost unconsciously open an app, whether it is “nudging” you into choosing one price plan over another, whether it is to produce outrage in order to gain attention, or whether it is the targeted manipulation of an individual’s or a group’s political identity and world view through propaganda and fake news  – in the digital age, the approach with which one can get there is always the same: Leveraging ancient evolutionary behavioral patterns and thinking processes that evolved in humans over hundreds of thousands of years – and that increasingly are becoming a burden for the individual. Simply put, the world we live in today is not the world our brain was built for.

After pondering on this problem for a long time, I have concluded that a crucial “skill” for thriving in such an environment is the enhanced ability to go against one’s nature and primal instincts. Continue Reading

Really too big to fail

This article can be read in German here.

Let’s have a look at the following list of common points of criticism, alleged weaknesses, (pr) scandals and public missteps that many of today’s leading internet and IT giants are well familiar with from the various parts of their life cycle.

  • “One trick pony” – a business and revenue model based on only one pillar, which eventually will collapse.
  • Costly “moonshots” – experimental projects completely unrelated to the current business model which won’t be contributing to the company result for a long time.
  • Overpriced, highly speculative acquisitions of companies that maybe one day might become a threat or revenue source.
  • Lack of profitability
  • Massive overvaluation.
  • Burning of investor money.
  • Unethical predatory competition.
  • Unfair exploitation of a leading market position / tendencies to become monopolies.
  • Violations of data protection and privacy needs of users/customers.
  • Lack of innovation regarding upcoming products.
  • Introduction of features and changes which, at least initially, are not welcomed by the users/customers and are not in their interests.
  • Blatant copying of functions or ideas from rivals.
  • Negative impact of certain functions or products on the general well-being and happiness of users.
  • Prevention of interoperability with other services and data portability through limitations of developer APIs.
  • Creation of “walled gardens”.
  • Changing user needs that will lead to people leaving a service in huge numbers.
  • Participation in governmental surveillance programs which undermine the trust of users/customers.
  • Editorial censorship based on questionable moral principles.
  • Data leaks and security issues.
  • Systematic violations of existing laws.
  • Interference with Presidential elections.

Continue Reading

When tech giants rival nation states

You can read a German version of this article here.

In the most recent report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) about likelihood and impact of global risks, most of the major challenges that humanity is and will be facing can be found. However, one is missing: Increasing tensions and open conflict between leading, supranational technology companies and nation states.

Awareness of that issue might not be very widespread yet, but the crack in the previously rather predictable and clearly framed relations between nation states and the business world is hard to miss. It’s becoming apparent that nation states and large corporations increasingly have trouble aligning their interests. At the same time, the possibilities to circumvent national laws, democratic processes and bureaucratic rules are becoming more numerous, thanks to globalization, the dynamics and nature of the Internet and the digitization of products and services. This applies particularly to internationally active technology firms.

Examples for these possibilities are, among others, massively successful tax avoidance schemes, the manipulation of public opinion through search engines and social networks, the mobilization of networks of users/customers as advocates for/against certain policies, or the moderation of user content on large platforms predominantly based on the organization’s cultural values and norms (such as Facebook’s or Apple’s policies against nudity). Continue Reading

Our times are special, but not because of the Internet

As humans, we suffer from a certain amount of egocentrism. When we walk into a big room full of people and accidentally stumble, we might be worried that everyone notices and everyone cares. In reality, most people won’t notice nor care. They are busy focusing on their own self appearance. A related characteristic is that we easily think we are more special, better or smarter than the majority of other people. It’s called “Illusory Superiority” and can be found in many areas.

The egocentrism and perception of being somehow special can also contribute to the impression that humans, as a whole, are special, or that we live in special times. Just think how before Galileo Galilei, common wisdom was that the Earth represented the center of the Universe, and that the Sun orbits around the Earth. Major religions also rely on the idea of humans as very special creatures.

In line with these patterns, most of the people who are following the rise of Information Technology and particularly of the Internet most likely have witnessed themselves expressing or thinking that the world currently experiences extraordinary times, characterized by unprecedented changes which seem to rewrite history at a scale which never happened before. Continue Reading

The supposed disadvantages of digital technology

Here are three recent events that, at first glance, are not connected to each other.

A couple of days ago, two Israeli soldiers accidentally drove into a Palestinian refugee camp, provoking clashes that left a Palestinian man dead. The soldiers had been using the Google-owned navigation app Waze which apparently sent them the wrong way.

Around the same time, news surfaced that for the first time, an autonomous Google car had caused an accident. In all previous incidents, other parties were those responsible for accidents.

Still ongoing is the dispute between Apple (and its supporting allies) and the US government about whether the FBI should be able to access a dead terrorist’s smartphone by forcing Apple to create a backdoor.

These three different events don’t have anything specifically to do with each other. However, they are representing a common theme: The supposed disadvantages of digital technology. Highlighting those is considered a popular discipline among mass media outlets, techno skeptics, intelligence agencies and certain political groups. Continue Reading

Skills for a world that constantly changes

You can read a German version of this article here.

For 50 years Moore’s Law has been changing the world at a stunning pace. The constant doubling of computing power that goes hand in hand with increased efficiency and reduced component size is causing a nonstop rapid evolution of what technology can do. Today’s next big thing will be outdated the day after tomorrow. The impact on the economy, on politics and our social life is huge. Forecasts about what comes next are getting harder and harder, even in the short term.

Because of this development, individuals are confronted with permanent uncertainty about what will happen in 10, 5 or even only in 2 years. The questions that are looking for an answer are numerous. Will my profession or customer group still exist? Are fixed employments to be replaced by freelancing and contract gigs? Will robots take away all our jobs? Will cars drive themselves soon? In which city or country am I going to live? How will we deal with climate change? Do we have to expect violent conflicts and wars in our close proximity? Is China about to take over the U.S. in regards to global power and thus changing the world order? Which new gadget will be as revolutionary as the smartphone? Can democracy be defended against the pressure of autocrats, fundamentalism, terrorism and mass surveillance? Is it even worth it to start a family and settle down? Will humans be able to conquer and live on Mars? And so on. Continue Reading

Controlling our technology, not being controlled: An upgrade to the human operating system

The other day, Darrell Etherington published an article on TechCrunch asking half jokingly, half seriously for less convenience in regards to products and services that one can order instantly “on demand”. His concern: “The problem with the shift to an on-demand economy is that it’s not a fair fight; our meager human brains don’t stand a chance when faced with the promise of such instant plenty”.

The fear of becoming slave to technology

His argumentation is part of a bigger narrative which can be witnessed, read and heard everywhere: It says that humans are becoming slaves to technology and are not capable of resisting the temptations and urges that arise with the digital economy.

One a basic level, the idea that humans struggle with adjusting to the new realities seems to ring true. Humans are capable of long term thinking and strategic actions, but there is a part in us which is often commonly (and name-wise maybe not to scientifically correct) referred to as “Reptilian Brain”. The Reptilian Brain wants instant gratification, it constantly looks for immediate rewards and short-term gains (sometimes at the expense of long-term goals), and it uses emotions instead of rational thinking. The consequence is that we are not always as much in control of our actions as we think we are. This is easy to witness every time we indulge in ice cream or cake instead of going to the gym as we initially intended to do. Continue Reading