My Thoughts

Given the terrifying behavior of the tech giants Facebook and Twitter to lock out any mention of the latest scandal associated with Joe and Hunter Biden evidenced in a New York Post report, I feel compelled to admit, “I told you so” back in March of 2018[1]. Anyone with a pea brain could see it coming but no one cared then, and no one seems to care now. Actually, that may not be so today because no one knows what has happened because of the massive mind-warping that has occurred over the last few years. This is NOT Science Fiction, folks. This is scary real.

There is a scientific principle, first formulated by Ernest Rutherford in 1907, which is now universally used to determine the decay of discrete entities. Known as an entity’s half-life (t1/2), it is the time required for a quantity to reduce to half its initial value or in terms of probability it is defined: “Half-life is the time required for exactly half of the entities to decay on average,” which means the probability of an entity decaying within its first half-life is 50%, within its second 25%, its third half-life 12.5%, and so on. One would be hard-pressed, of course, to apply the half-life principle to human life, for humans are neither discrete entities nor does human life decay in such measured regularity. But there are parallels to be made when we look at the half-life of the human mind. With every generation,—over the past few centuries—technological “advances” have relieved the human mind of the necessity to use the mind to seek understanding, to discover meaning, or to ask the most basic of questions: Who am I? What am I? Why am I?

Our minds have been deliberately abused, manipulated, and altered by a largely unrecognized union of technology and psychology.[2] As a consequence, our minds have atrophied, decaying over a series of half-lives, so much so that if the mind was a radioactive atom, all that would remain would be so much toxic waste. Any reasoned discussion on the obvious and alarming decay in the cognitive abilities of the human mind must begin by acknowledging that much of the decay has been premeditated, a deliberate, concerted effort to create “digital environments that users feel fulfill their basic human drives—to be social or obtain goals — better than real world alternatives. Kids spend countless hours in social media and video game environments in pursuit of likes, “friends,” game points, and levels—because it is stimulating, they believe that this makes them happy and successful, and they find it easier than doing the difficult but developmentally important activities of childhood.” Child psychologist, Richard Freed, contends—supported by a wealth of well-documented evidence and first-hand admissions by industry executives—that the technology industry, in union with “Persuasive Technology” psychologists are openly and aggressively working to alter how we think and even how we act. He describes this technology this way:

Nestled in an unremarkable building on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, California, is the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, founded in 1998. The lab’s creator, Dr. B. J. Fogg, is a psychologist and the father of persuasive technology, a discipline in which digital machines and apps—including smartphones, social media, and video games—are configured to alter human thoughts and behaviors. As the lab’s website boldly proclaims: “Machines designed to change humans.”

Fogg speaks openly of the ability to use smartphones and other digital devices to change our ideas and actions: “We can now create machines that can change what people think and what people do, and the machines can do that autonomously.”

Before dismissing persuasive technology as so much hocus-pocus marketing boil and bother, listen to what Fogg proudly touts on his website: “My students often do groundbreaking projects, and they continue having impact in the real world after they leave Stanford… For example, Instagram has influenced the behavior of over 800 million people. The co-founder was a student of mine.” According to Fogg, the “Fogg Behavior Model” is a well-tested method to change behavior and, in its simplified form, involves three primary factors: motivation, ability, and triggers. Describing how his formula is effective at getting people to use a social network, the psychologist, in an academic paper noted that a key motivator is the user’s desire for “social acceptance,” although he claims, an even more powerful motivator is the desire “to avoid being socially rejected.” As for ability, he suggests that digital products should be made so that users don’t have to “think hard,” implying social networks are designed for ease of use. And finally, he says potential users need to be triggered to use a site, accomplished by a plethora of digital tricks, such as sending incessant notifications urging users to view friends’ pictures, telling them they are missing out while not on the social network, or suggesting that they check—yet again—to see if anyone liked their post or photo. Yet, Freed notes, absent is any discussion on the salubrious, ethical, or moral grounds of persuasive technologies.

Fogg’s formula is the blueprint for building multibillion-dollar social media and gaming companies. However, moral questions about the impact of turning persuasive techniques on children and teens are not being asked. For example, should the fear of social rejection be used to compel kids to compulsively use social media? Is it okay to lure kids away from school tasks that demand a strong mental effort so they can spend their lives on social networks or playing video games that don’t make them think much at all? And is it okay to incessantly trigger kids to use revenue-producing digital products at the expense of engaging with family and other important real-life activities?

Persuasive technologies work because of their apparent triggering of the release of dopamine, a powerful neurotransmitter involved in reward, attention, and addiction. In the Venice region of Los Angeles, now dubbed “Silicon Beach,” the startup Dopamine Labs boasts about its use of persuasive techniques to increase profits: “Connect your app to our Persuasive AI [Artificial Intelligence] and lift your engagement and revenue up to 30% by giving your users our perfect bursts of dopamine,” and “A burst of Dopamine doesn’t just feel good: it’s proven to re-wire user behavior and habits.”

Ramsay Brown, the founder of Dopamine Labs, says in a KQED Science article, “We have now developed a rigorous technology of the human mind, and that is both exciting and terrifying. We have the ability to twiddle some knobs in a machine learning dashboard we build, and around the world hundreds of thousands of people are going to quietly change their behavior in ways that, unbeknownst to them, feel second-nature but are really by design.” Programmers call this “brain hacking,” as it compels users to spend more time on sites even though they mistakenly believe it’s strictly due to their own conscious choices.

While social media and video game companies have been surprisingly successful at hiding their use of persuasive design from the public, one breakthrough occurred in 2017 when Facebook documents were leaked to The Australian. The internal report crafted by Facebook executives showed the social network boasting to advertisers that by monitoring posts, interactions, and photos in real time, the network is able to track when teens feel “insecure,” “worthless,” “stressed,” “useless” and a “failure.” Why would the social network do this? The report also bragged about Facebook’s ability to micro-target ads down to “moments when young people need a confidence boost.”

Persuasive technology’s use of digital media to target children, deploying the weapon of psychological manipulation at just the right moment, is what makes it so powerful. These design techniques provide tech corporations a window into kids’ hearts and minds to measure their particular vulnerabilities, which can then be used to control their behavior as consumers. This isn’t some strange future… this is now.

Adding to the frightening reality of persuasive design/technology’s ability to drive kids’ addictions to devices, is the intentional, deliberate use of addictive knowledge to make persuasive design more effective at hijacking the mind. Dopamine Labs’ Ramsay Brown publicly acknowledged as much in an episode of CBS’s 60 Minutes, when he stated, “Since we’ve figured to some extent how these pieces of the brain that handle addiction are working, people have figured out how to juice them further and how to bake that information into apps.”

The creation of digital products with drug-like effects that are able to “pull a person away” from engaging in real-life activities is the reason why persuasive technology is profoundly destructive. Today, persuasive design is likely distracting adults from driving safely, productive work, and engaging with their own children—all matters which need urgent attention. Still, because the child and adolescent brain is more easily controlled than the adult mind, the use of persuasive design is having a much more hurtful impact on kids.

Persuasive technologies are reshaping childhood, luring kids away from family and schoolwork to spend more and more of their lives sitting before screens and phones. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report, younger U.S. children now spend 5 1/2 hours each day with entertainment technologies, including video games, social media, and online videos. Even more, the average teen now spends an incredible 8 hours each day playing with screens and phones. Productive uses of technology—where persuasive design is much less a factor—are almost an afterthought, as U.S. kids only spend 16 minutes each day using the computer at home for school.

Quietly, using screens and phones for entertainment has become the dominant activity of childhood. Younger kids spend more time engaging with entertainment screens than they do in school, and teens spend even more time playing with screens and phones than they do sleeping. The result is apparent in restaurants, the car sitting next to you at the stoplight, and even many classrooms. Attesting to the success of persuasive technology, kids are so taken with their phones and other devices that they have turned their backs to the world around them. Hiding in bedrooms on devices, or consumed by their phones in the presence of family, many children are missing out on real-life engagement with family and school—the two cornerstones of childhood that lead them to grow up happy and successful. Even during the few moments kids have away from their devices, they are often preoccupied with one thought: getting back on them.”

Now, couple advances in persuasive technologies over the succeeding two years with advances in artificial intelligence technologies, then add the unfettered power of the social media giants to control and censor content, mix with the pandemic, government bureaucratic overreach, media bias, a contentious, vile election year, then salt with a heavy season of anarchy, chaos, and mayhem, is it any wonder why so many think they believe what they think they believe? Wake up America.

Just my thoughts for a Thursday, for what it is worth.

[1] Deacon Chuck Lanham, Toxic Waste: On the half-life of the human mind, Colloqui, March 23, 2018.

[2] Richard Freed, “The Tech Industry’s War on Kids: How psychology is being used as a weapon against children”, Medium, Mar 11, 2018, Richard Freed is a child and adolescent psychologist and the author of “Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age”.

About the author: Deacon Chuck

Deacon Chuck was ordained into the permanent diaconate on September 17, 2011, in the ministry of service to the Diocese of Reno and assigned to St. Albert the Great Catholic Community. He currently serves as the parish bulletin editor and website administrator. Deacon Chuck continues to serve the parish of Saint Albert the Great Catholic Community of the Diocese of Reno, Nevada. He is the Director of Adult Faith Formation and Homebound Ministries for the parish, conducts frequent adult faith formation workshops, and is a regular homilist. He currently serves as the bulletin editor for the parish bulletin. He writes a weekly column intended to encompass a broad landscape of thoughts and ideas on matters of theology, faith, morals, teachings of the magisterium and the Catholic Church; they are meant to illuminate, illustrate, and catechize the readers and now number more than 230 articles. His latest endeavor is "Colloqui: A journal for restless minds", a weekly journal of about 8 pages similar in content to bulletin reflections. All his reflections, homilies, commentaries, and Colloqui are posted and can be found on his website: Comments are always welcome and appreciated. He is the author of two books: "The Voices of God: hearing God in the silence" which offers the reader insights into how to hear God’s voice through all of the noise that surrounds us; and "Echoes of Love: Effervescent Memories" which through a combination of prose and verse provides the reader with a wonderful journey on the way to discovering forever love. He regularly speaks to groups of all ages and size and would welcome the opportunity to speak to your group.

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