Haptic Ethics: Part 5

Part 5: Behavior modification

In this installment, we’ll consider the role of technology in behavior modification, the unique ability for haptics to affect behavior, and ways we can use this power responsibly.

Jaron Lanier, a pioneer of VR, calls big tech companies that run on ads “behavior modification empires.” The problem is, if we expect technology and services not to cost money, people will need to pay with other means, such as with their data.

Interestingly, Lanier helped create the famous scene in Minority Report depicting overwhelming, personalized AR advertising, embedded below.

Lanier’s vision of personalized ads, created in 2002. We aren’t quite there yet, but a lot of people think we’re headed in this direction, and with increasing speed.

It’s a cliché that with great power comes great responsibility. As part of my former job as a haptic UXer, I was involved in research showing that haptics can influence behavior even below the level of conscious awareness. The ability to influence and modify behavior is something that many technologies can do, but haptics nevertheless seems particularly ideal for doing so. Touch is a primal sense that controls and drives basic human behaviors related to survival, socialization, and pleasure seeking. Advanced haptic technology truly has great power.

But let’s slow down. Is this a bad thing? We all desire to modify our own behavior and that of those around us. In fact, leadership can be defined as getting people to act in their own interest even when they don’t want to at first. Behavior modification is the mechanism of personal growth.

The ability of haptics to influence us without our conscious awareness is what seems to set it apart from other behavior modification programs and technologies. But that’s not necessarily problematic either. Anyone who uses a fitness device with a step counter has experienced subtle anxiety about getting all their steps in for the day. When I used to wear a fitness tracker, I found that it cultivated a general restlessness. Without being aware of the reason, I found myself moving and walking more. My step counter helped me cultivate a subconscious habit that I wanted for myself. 

Fitness trackers are old news. Recently, there have been exciting advancements that go beyond measuring human activity, and actually influence us more directly. There are many new haptic products helping people eat better, sleep better, have better posture, feel calm and focused, and manage anxiety. Depending on how it’s used, behavioral conditioning managed by technology could be seen as a form of human enhancement. These technologies effectively extend our cognitive abilities by allowing us to send messages to and from our subconscious.

I’ve come to believe that the key ethical consideration here is not whether people know they’re being influenced in the moment, but whether they have opted in to the broader behavior modification program that they’re undergoing. The next question is, how should this opt-in flow be designed to keep the ethics of the interaction above board? Are users asked once? At certain intervals, milestones, or changes to the program? There are many possibilities to explore. 

Fundamentally, the question we must answer is, what is the process by which end users can grant and manage permissions — as in, UNIX file permissions and access modes — to interface with their bodies and brains?

This is something the haptic community can and should define, in order to bring about a future that maximizes human benefit while minimizing risk to personal privacy and security.

The articles in this series are adapted from a keynote delivered at Smart Haptics 2019. They are also posted to LinkedIn.

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