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Mobile Community Design
Research and design information for mobile community developers.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Why we might want to build technologies to influence societal behavior

Note: I wrote the following piece in 2002 and it was posted on my old site. I recently had a request to access it, so I have re-posted it here with minor modifications. It is more of a brainstorm than an article, but I think it poses some unusual and poignant questions worthy of further exploration.

Any society or culture has defining traits which differentiate it from others. They have social mores, traditions and patterns. Individuals in these societies rarely understand or notice the impact they have on the perception and actions of the whole (e.g. going to France and seeing a few people on the street and judging France but what you saw). Societies retain certain qualities because they are perpetuated through ritual, education, law, religion and other means.

So let's postulate a few ideas.

Hypothesis 1: If there are examples of a social phenomenon, then there are factors in that environment which caused them to occur and factors which perpetuate it.

Hypothesis 2: If there are examples on both ends of a spectrum for a social phenomenon, any point between them should also be feasible.

So at this point in the conversation we should define what the factors are that influence these societal differences. Presumably many things such as other people, weather, population density, traditions, information, personal experience, physical surroundings, work, stress and the tools we use affect how we act. I would like to focus on three of them: the people, the physical surroundings and the tools. If we combine hypotheses 1 and 2 we get a conclusion that not only are a wide variety of social behaviors possible, but that if we control the factors that cause them, we control how the society acts and the degree to which it does so.

Past examples of technology (human made tools) influencing behavior

  • Architecture: A building designed by a mathematician to have a high probability of interception on the walkways between buildings in a complex results in a higher productivity and large amounts of interdisciplinary work.
  • Napster: Creation of an easy to use software program enabling easy exchange of music files via the Internet results in large amounts of stealing.
  • Mobile phones: Creation of a mobile communication device results in greater levels of communication, and decreased loneliness and personal anxiety.
  • News: Propaganda campaigns hiding or trivializing the deaths of innocents result in continued deaths and lack of acknowledged responsibility (e.g. Hitler in Germany, US in Afghanistan)
  • Drugs: Opium introduction in China in the 1600s causes social dysfunction in communities (similar with crack in US in 1980s)
  • Transportation: Traffic lights on freeway onramps results in decreased gridlock by distributing traffic evenly along the road instead of in bunches or waves.
  • TV: Introduction of an ever-changing entertainment device in the home results in less time spent out-of-doors, decreased exercise, decreased interpersonal communication and room rearrangement.
  • Mobile phones: Introduction of cheap phone service among teenagers results in decreased planned coordination among groups and increased splitting into subgroups as a result of the impossibility of losing contact.
  • Internet: Introduction of a worldwide communication network constructed using code written in English, with a navigation method largely in English (and with English-only characters) results in increased use and learning of English.
  • the examples could go on, but it becomes obvious that nearly any piece of technology we create has some impact on what we do...

The problem with many of these technologies and their effects is the lack of planning. These are not technologies introduced with a realistic expectation of how they will affect society. It might be argued that we simply can't predict what impact they will have. An argument in favor of this is that the marketing team for any product will tell you that it will be an amazing success and change the world. This is obviously an unrealistic prediction. And yet in retrospect it seems like there should be ways to predict that the telephone would revolutionize the entire world and that the introduction of automobiles would have environmental effects. Some level of accurate prediction must be possible.

Scenarios of manipulation

Here are a few examples of specific types of technology which could be designed using current technology and some potential sociological effects of their use:

  • Introduce small, untraceable, peer-to-peer mobile communication devices into the citizenry of a country under dictatorial rule, resulting in decreased government control and increased likelihood of overthrow.
  • Introduce inexpensive/easy/personal/portable voting systems for all citizens and have impromptu votes on current events such as opinions about going to war. Allow the public as well as leaders to view the results as they come in. Resulting in less time to manipulate public opinion and decreased likelihood of leaders acting on their own wishes.
  • Technology providing immediate notification of whether a crime has been reported in the immediate vicinity. Resulting in the possibility of citizens responding immediately and possibly reduced crime.
  • Public communication medium targeted towards people in a particular neighborhood. Resulting in increased friendships, responsibility, understanding and coordination.

Some additional areas that might be influenced

  • Distribution of wealth
  • Type of content read
  • Awareness of global events
  • Type and levels of social interaction
  • Type and levels of transportation usage
  • Teen pregnancy
  • Marital abuse
  • Illegal drug use
  • Water usage
  • Donations
  • Awareness of accurate group behavior and characteristics
  • Perception of public opinion
  • Murder rates
  • Perceptions of materialism and consumerism

Future steps

Moral and ethical issues rapidly come to mind as one considers the idea of technology being used to influence people's behavior. Whether it happens consciously or unconsciously really isn't the issue, although the latter might be more dangerous. In either case the society is affected. A cynical response might be that marketing agencies have been manipulating public opinion and habits for a century or more (to some degree even unconsciously) and there hasn't been a public outcry. There's not much reason to think new types of technology would be any different.

Creating technology with the specific aim of altering the social behavior of a target group of users in a particular way could be considered Societal Engineering. Presumably this has been done many times in the past, such as experiments with different types of governments or different laws passed to control behavior. However I think this type of Influential Technology allows for more detailed manipulation and increased complexity of effects.

I believe industrial buildings such as factories (maybe houses now too?) have to get an Environmental impact statement. This document predicts what effect the development will have on surrounding plants, animals and the like. Perhaps we need the same thing for other types of technology we create.

Related concepts

  • Persuasive computing
  • Affective technology
  • Social campaigns such as the grape boycott in the USA or AIDS awareness.

Thanks to Astrid and Jay for comments and ideas.