No choice no more

The way in which most of our software and hardware products function is based on a steady corrosion of our ability to choose.

In an episode of the cult series “Black Mirror”, the main character finds himself trying a videogame that plucks ancestral fears directly from his unconscious thanks to a chip grafted into his brain. Shut up in the depths of his mind, these fears are made visible with three-dimensional images in a crescendo of pure terror.
The story thus describes a dystopian future that is very close at hand, staging the final frontier of the man-computer relationship. Our relationship with screens and technology in general is increasingly detached from any rational consideration, and instead it increasingly appeals directly to our emotions and instincts. This shift is geared towards effecting a precise determination of our behaviour: whether or not we’ll click on a certain link, look at a certain image or video, or read or ignore a particular post. To exert this kind of influence, it is necessary to identify our desires even before they surface on a conscious level, when they’re still in a melting pot of pure instincts, and as such still peremptory and beyond control. This has always been the aim of every well-made advertising campaign, but today there are even tools that can “scientifically” determine what we like and exploit this for advertising purposes.

 

It’s common knowledge that, when properly analysed, our social media activity provides highly valuable information for the publicity sector. The latest Facebook controversy, uncovered by Australian media, concerns a study that Zuckerberg’s company allegedly conducted on youths and adolescents to ascertain their moments of greatest emotional vulnerability and inclination towards certain behaviour, for example weight loss, and to use this data for advertising purposes.

But more generally, the way in which most of our software and hardware products function is based on a steady corrosion of our ability to choose. Tristan Harris – product manager and then “design ethicist” at Google until January 2016 – proposes an extreme example. “The smartphone,” explains Harris, “is a slot machine designed to hijack users’ minds.” Currently head of timewellspent.io, an organisation that sets out to supply tools which can liberate us from our high-tech dependency, Harris argues that these products could be designed differently to consider the real needs of their users. For example, they could respect the need to stay concentrated on what we’re doing, rather than constantly bombarding us with notifications that leverage a mechanism of anticipated satisfaction and reward, fuelling an almost irresistible attraction to continually check our phones.
The field of advertising images is where this force of attraction is analysed most scrupulously. The objective is to identify tools that can accurately assess how the brain perceives a certain combination of shapes and colours, and single out the most effective one for a particular product proposal. Systems that visualise brain activity are often used to delve into the unconscious minds of potential customers. Magnetic resonance imaging, for example, reveals the brain’s primary instinctive reaction when confronted by a certain product. This so-called neuromarketing is a continually expanding field of research and experimentation. One of the latest developments in the sector is Engagement Insights , conceived by the British production firm Saddington Baynes, which recently joined forces with NeuroStrata, a pioneer in neuromarketing.

Without resorting to complex medical equipment, the service proposes a very simple, light-hearted test to fairly large sample sets of web users, asking them to express their opinion regarding groups of images. However, rather than seeking a rational response, the aim is to probe that area of the unconscious mind where, according to the company’s founders, 95% of our purchases are decided. Once the data has been collected, the results are passed to the neuromarketing team, which statistically analyses the information to identify the levels of emotional response to a certain image, thus clearly establishing what works best even before the production phase has been concluded.

One of the latest Honda campaigns used the results of Engagement Insights tests to propose a virtual test drive, considering various suggestions concerning the position of the car, the most suitable angle to transmit a sense of reliability or the best characteristics for a virtual showroom, and so on. “If you can tap into the unconscious, you can learn a lot more about your customers,” explains Chris Christodoulou, CEO of Saddington Baynes. “You can better hone your way of communicating. It’s not just about creating pretty pictures, but about creating them so you’re absolutely sure that they’ll work.” To obtain this result, the path is abounding with opportunities for advertising. But if we just slightly widen our perspective, the question is not devoid of more disturbing implications.

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