Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist and product philosopher, says smartphones are becoming like addictive slot machines — only they're sitting in billions of pockets instead of in casinos.At Google, Harris worked to ensure that the company designs were ethical: optimal for the user with minimal deceit or manipulation.
With smartphone apps, product designers will employ variable intermittent rewards — unpredictable oscillations between important and meaningless notifications — to hook users on mobile devices.
How Harris described it: When we pull our phone out of our pocket, we re playing a slot machine to see what notifications we got.When we pull to refresh our email, we re playing a slot machine to see what new email we got.When we swipe down our finger to scroll the Instagram feed, we re playing a slot machine to see what photo comes next.When we swipe faces left/right on dating apps like Tinder, we re playing a slot machine to see if we got a match.
What's worse, people get "problematically involved" with slot machines three to four times faster compared to other types of gambling, Harris wrote, citing NYU professor Natasha Dow Schull and author of Addiction by Design.In fact, slot machines make more money in the United States than baseball, movies, and theme parks combined.
But companies like Apple and Google have a responsibility to reduce these effects by converting intermittent variable rewards into less addictive, more predictable ones with better design.
It looks like Google might take on that responsibility.