I started my design journey inspired to make this world a more beautiful place. I believed that I could help visionaries build products that would allow us to realize the best version of themselves and utilize their full creative potential. Instead, I succumbed to becoming a cog in the tyrannical apathetic tech culture of engineering and bureaucracy.
Right now tech is being designed using illusive design patterns aimed at depleting our dopamine reservoir resulting in increased rates of anxiety, exploiting our emotions through social status play resulting in increased stress, and disregarding our values and boundaries resulting in the prevention of us becoming the best version of ourselves. Design has no power. Design is dead.
Despite the fact that design-led1 companies are proven to be more profitable2, design still finds itself barely existent at the top of the leadership chain. We have ended up in this mess as designers who fight for the people can not make their voices heard in the sea of attention economy capitalists and profit-driven-at-all-costs vanity OKRs. We have influential companies like YC influencing thousands of startups with the notion that design should be an afterthought by glorifying the fact that you only need a profit-driven ideas guy and a logically-minded engineer to create a startup.
It’s obvious how prevalent design is as one of YC’s core teachings revolves around reminding3 founders to “always speak to users” — a skill that typically resides in the basic toolkit of a designer. Company culture is designed by the values of the founding team and when design doesn’t have a seat at the top it becomes harder to fight for the people later on and design humane tech. A key ingredient in design is the ability to empathize with those on the other side of the screen and create experiences that do not violate ethical standards. When design has no power, we end up in the tragic situation that we’re in now.
Real Design Problems
Looking at the current state of technology, I feel ashamed to even call myself a designer. Design provides a unique perspective as it intersects computer science, cognitive science, and human factors, yet the discipline is still considered to be an afterthought — akin to pushing pixels and making things look “pretty”. Solving design problems requires creativity, which is often perceived as a mysterious and difficult trait to quantify, monetize and supervise. This poses a direct threat to the status quo, leading creatives to struggle to find fulfilling work and causing misconceptions among non-creatives who struggle to understand their role.
Real design problems are affecting real people, and some of them even have deadly consequences that are not discussed in mainstream discourse. It’s time to recognize the importance of ethical design and the impact it can have on the collective consciousness.
The most popular apps in the app store are nothing but addictive crack kits designed by gambling experts, we have fake feeds being designed by the persuasive attention economy to maximize engagement and compare ourselves to unrealistic ideals leading to unprecedented rates of anxiety5 and thousands of young girls tragically committing suicide. Mass-scale social experiments touted as dating apps are being designed to normalize psychopathy and fuel narcissism. Divisive tech designed by the elites is polarizing us and them with amygdala-triggering misinformation. Tech that was designed to bring us together is in fact increasing loneliness6 for our younger generations which is one of the biggest killers of our time.
Gambling disorder highlights the subtle distinction between reward anticipation (dopamine release prior to reward) and reward response (dopamine release after or during reward). My patients with gambling addiction have told me that while playing, a part of them wants to lose. The more they lose, the stronger the urge to continue gambling, and the stronger the rush when they win — a phenomenon described as “loss chasing.” I suspect something similar is going on with social media apps, where the response of others is so capricious and unpredictable that the uncertainty of getting a “like” or some equivalent is as reinforcing as the “like” itself.
Lembke, A. (2021). Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence. [online] Dutton Books, p61. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/55723020-dopamine-nation [Accessed 21 Feb. 2022].
We are moving further and further away from natural selection and more towards synthetic selection with superstimuli such as social media, fake news, gaming, and pornography depleting our dopamine with variably timed rewards and throwing us into escapism to avoid facing the pain required to cultivate meaning in our lives.
The exploitation of our biases and the manipulation of our social status for the sake of more attention and profit creates superficial interactions and a false sense of achievement. These elites swear that tech can solve our problems but all of the research on living a meaningful life points to the opposite which is removing most tech from your life and focusing on cultivating authentic relationships and engaging in non-distractive deep work. With the introduction of AI, these problems are not going to go away, they’re going to get much worse.
Of the infinite forms communication technology might have taken, why, like TV news, has internet news elevated brevity and novelty over in-depth analysis? Aren’t the events of the world worth more attention? The answer is desire dopamine. A short, slick story stands out from the landscape — it is salient. It delivers a quick hit of dopamine and grabs our attention. Thus we click through a dozen provocative headlines that lead to kitten videos and skip the long essay about healthcare. The healthcare story is more pertinent to our lives, but the work of processing that story is no match for the easy pleasure of those dopamine hits. Control dopamine could push back, but it is invariably overpowered by the flood of whatever is new and shiny, and such things are the currency of the Internet. Where will this lead? Probably not to a renaissance of long-form journalism. As quick-hit stories grow more prevalent in the news environment, they must get shorter and shallower to compete. Where does such a cycle end?
Lieberman, D. (2018). The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity — and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race. [online] BenBella Books, p163. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/38728977-the-molecule-of-more [Accessed 10 Jul. 22].
Tech wasn’t designed with the intention of caring about our values, well-being, and boundaries that are basic necessities to prosperity in the physical world. The amount of effort that these multi-billion dollar tech companies have instilled to counter all of these problems has been absolutely pathetic despite the number of resources available at their disposal. Half-baked attempts to add time limits, only showing notifications at specific times, and showing usage data is just not enough. The hypocrisy of these narcissistic tech leaders who won’t let their kids use tech but are happy to let other kids use it is revolting.
1. Teenage suicides rates
Apps like Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok have illusive feeds and filters that exploit our biases distorting our reality and they know exactly what they’re doing. Fake images of fake people promoting their fake lifestyle instill envy in us through status play. As soon as these images pierce our brains, we instantly become self-conscious and negative emotions eventually follow. Social media does have a positive angle for those who are not vulnerable or predisposed to addiction and use it the right way, however, more and more concerning research7 is coming out proving that thousands of young teenagers, especially young girls are committing suicide because of this and it’s increasing every year.
Anxiety and stress among the younger generations are on the rise and these problems began as soon as social media started to take off. It’s nothing new that social media is a toxic dump and there is no shortage of people whose lives have improved through detoxification. The fact that big tech knows this and has applied trivial effort to rectify this issue is very concerning.
Anon, (n.d.). Social Media | Jonathan Haidt. [online] Available at: https://jonathanhaidt.com/social-media/ [Accessed 5 Mar. 2023].
Google Docs. (n.d.). Social Media Use and Mental Health: A Review. [online] Available at: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1w-HOfseF2wF9YIpXwUUtP65-olnkPyWcgF5BiAtBEy0/
2. Normalizing mental disorders
Vanity metrics, likes, reactions, ghosting, flaw-eliminating appearance filters, mob mentality, and endless autoplay video scrolling all point to the symptom and not the truth that these interactions aim to normalize mental disorders such as narcissism, psychopathy, anxiety, and depression. The manipulation of our dopamine circuit and status play lure us into building repetitive systems of unhealthy addiction. Impulsivity through instant gratification is what prevents us from doing the hard things that sustain meaning in our lives. Finely tuned variable rewards leave us in a constant state of anxiety. Since the inception of social media, anxiety and depression have been on the rise and it’s only getting worse.
So why do we continue working so hard? One of the big answers, as most people realize, is that we’re stuck in a rat race. Or to put it in the terms we’ve been using throughout the book, we’re locked in a game of competitive signaling. No matter how fast the economy grows, there remains a limited supply of sex and social status — and earning and spending money is still a good way to compete for it. 3 The idea that we use purchases to flaunt our wealth is known as conspicuous consumption. It’s an accusation that we buy things not so much for purely personal enjoyment as for showing off or “keeping up with the Joneses.”
Simler, K. (2017). The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. [online] Oxford University Press, p169. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/28820444-the-elephant-in-the-brain [Accessed 01 May. 2022].
3. Polarizing us and them
Social apps including Facebook and Twitter were designed to bring us together to keep us informed but they are in fact doing the opposite and are willfully eroding democracy and exploiting those who are vulnerable. These so-called public squares were built on a corrupted foundation by sociopathic parasites who have no problem degrading the people who seek genuine connection and intentionally amplifying the voices of the outrageous few.
Algorithmic feeds, some of them manually controlled by internal staff and filled to the rim with bots, are designed by the attention economy to optimize for engagement8 and abstain from any form of consciousness, respect for boundaries, or fact-checking. Playing on our biases and our primitive sense of seeking novelty for survival, the more outrageous the content the more engaging, and the more engaging, the more eyeballs. Social cohesion is what sustains social stability and nothing has changed in the last decade.
As time progresses, generations are becoming more and more isolated from one another. This is especially true for Generation Z who were the first generation to grow up with social media since adolescence. All the evidence on wellbeing and healthy living point to having genuine connections to other people with physical touch being an important component. These connections are now being replaced with superficially designed dopaminergic transactions online and it is hurting us. Illusive highlight reels that require 20 retakes are designed to instill envy leading to an empty sense of exclusion and isolation. Loneliness10 is one of the biggest killers and failure to act will lead to further fragmentation and unrest.
We were shaped by individual selection to be selfish creatures who struggle for resources, pleasure, and prestige, and we were shaped by group selection to be hive creatures who long to lose ourselves in something larger. We are social creatures who need love and attachments, and we are industrious creatures with needs for effectance, able to enter a state of vital engagement with our work. We are the rider and we are the elephant, and our mental health depends on the two working together, each drawing on the others’ strengths. I don’t believe there is an inspiring answer to the question, “What is the purpose of life?” Yet by drawing on ancient wisdom and modern science, we can find compelling answers to the question of purpose within life. The final version of the happiness hypothesis is that happiness comes from between. Happiness is not something that you can find, acquire, or achieve directly. You have to get the conditions right and then wait. Some of those conditions are within you, such as coherence among the parts and levels of your personality. Other conditions require relationships to things beyond you: Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger. It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.
Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. [online] Basic Books, p238. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/96884.The_Happiness_Hypothesis [Accessed 29 Dec. 2022].
What goes up, must come down. The dopamine circuit is akin to chaos theory, a system highly sensitive to initial input. There is a dark side to this treadmill, however, and that’s pain. A spike in dopamine will lead to a relative spike in pain shortly afterward and with repeated exposure, more dopamine is needed as the baseline lowers. We have a limited supply of this neurotransmitter and consuming superstimuli such as social media, fake news, gaming, sugar, and porn depletes our motivation to pursue meaning and tilts people towards apathy and depression furthering us away from compassion.
There are no regulations on consumption, no warning labels, and no care for our values whatsoever. The dopamine circuit is always in search of more and superstimuli has an unlimited supply to cure our cycle of craving. Anxiety is on the rise and has been rising since the last decade. We are being gamed.
We’ve all experienced craving in the aftermath of pleasure. Whether it’s reaching for a second potato chip or clicking the link for another round of video games, it’s natural to want to re-create those good feelings or try not to let them fade away. The simple solution is to keep eating, or playing, or watching, or reading. But there’s a problem with that. With repeated exposure to the same or similar pleasure stimulus, the initial deviation to the side of pleasure gets weaker and shorter and the after-response to the side of pain gets stronger and longer, a process scientists cal neuroadaptation. That is, with repetition, our gremlins get bigger, faster, and more numerous, and we need more of our drug of choice to getthe same effect.
Lembke, A. (2021). Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence. [online] Dutton Books, p53. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/55723020-dopamine-nation [Accessed 21 Feb. 2022].
6. Playing with our biases
Design is all about playing with mental shortcuts, also known as biases to prompt people into action. There are plenty of design principles based on these shortcuts but the line between right and wrong is thin. A shortcut gone right is defined as a heuristic whereas a shortcut gone wrong is referred to as a bias11. These biases plague the world of design and they are used to elevate anxiety to rush people into mistakes, fear of missing out12 or losing applied effort, and priming without considering best interests.
Education in psychology is not a prerequisite to being a designer and understanding the biology of human behavior is an integral component to designing for people. This literature is non-existent in modern design. Deceptive design patterns are present in organizations of all sizes, even ones that are design-led. The existing usability heuristics outlined by Don Norman and Co. are outdated.
“At every single stage [of processing information]-from its biased arrival, to its biased encoding, to organizing it around false logic, to misremembering and then misrepresenting it to others-the mind continually acts to distort information flow in favor of the usual goal of appearing better than one really is.” Emily Pronin calls it the introspection illusion, the fact that we don’t know our own minds nearly as wellas we pretend to. For the price of a little self-deception, we get to have our cake and eat it too: act in our own best interests without having to reveal ourselves as the self-interested schemers we often are.
Simler, K. (2017). The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. [online] Oxford University Press, p8. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/28820444-the-elephant-in-the-brain [Accessed 01 May. 2022].
7. Attention economy
Capitalism is the only economic system that works, however, there are side effects that are slowly ripping apart the fabric of society. A company’s survival relies on generating revenue through growth at all costs. Money attracts those who are risk-takers and there is a positive correlation between CEOs possessing narcissistic13 traits with apathy being one of them. Superstimuli brazenly competes for attention that it has now become the new currency.
Customer Lifetime Value is a popular metric used in the startup world to determine loyalty which correlates with increased engagement. Time is a precious commodity and these collaboratively filtered psychopathic algorithms are optimized to keep us in our place and prevent us from realizing our legend by abusing our propensity to novelty-seeking behavior without any remorse. Apps like Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter, and Quora lack the creativity required to innovate that they spam their own interfaces with ads after every other post choosing profit over user experience, thus lowering the bar just enough to plug a paid version that promises to remove the painful experience which they themselves created.
8. Synthetic selection
Tech is rewiring our brains, especially for the younger generation who grew up with tech since puberty. 99% of our existence has been in tribes. We’re moving further away from human nature and into a pervasive world immersed in experiences designed to play on our biases. Tech is pushing us away from the science-backed ways of living a life of meaning through cultivating social relationships and spending time in nature into a life of isolation and depression through dopamine depletion and status play. The dopamine baseline has been raised so high that even appreciating the autumn leaves has become unappealing.
As best we can tell, from the earliest times, more than a million years ago, humans lived in small, intimate communities, most of whose members were kin. The Cognitive Revolution and the Agricultural Revolution did not change that. They glued together families and communities to create tribes, cities, kingdoms and empires, but families and communities remained the basic building blocks of all human societies. The Industrial Revolution, on the other hand, managed within little more than two centuries to break these building blocks into atoms. Most of the traditiona functions of families and communities were handed over to states and markets.
Harari, Y. (2011). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. [online] Vintage, p461. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23692271-sapiens [Accessed 09 Jan. 2022].
The lack of design authority, flawed design education, deceptive marketers, leaders who prefer things over people, and the low barrier to entry into tech collectively lead to a toxic world starving of compassion for the people who consume products designed to make this world a better place and make our lives better. We need a new set of design ethics, especially in the age of AI to protect those who are vulnerable to the plight of the attention economy, unintended social implications, institutions with low UX maturity, snail-paced policies and regulations, algorithmic bias, ignorant or incompetent cut-throat sociopathic leaders and company cultures designed without informed designers as well as a lack education in the biology of human behavior.
Big tech is fully aware of these problems with their big budgets and large research teams however they are victims of conformity bias, loss aversion, VC pressure, and the myth of greed that money solves all ailments and is the root of all happiness. Nobody will make the first move to self-regulate and safeguard those who are vulnerable as their bottom line will diminish and the first to move will be the first to fall. Big tech is sluggish and it’s near impossible to change large-scale cultures without a huge shift in leadership and or a new hero. CEOs spread cultural values through their behavior and when their behavior becomes toxic or exclusive, it sets a new standard for how others should act and the cycle continues. Mirroring others is a fundamental component of empathy.
Waiting for the government to impose regulations won’t be enough as there’s always a way to undercut the law using loopholes found by those in sharp suits. These are design problems that are not being solved and even those who were responsible for building persuasive tech do not have a solution themselves.
Like a newborn, big tech has a knack for making a mess yet they are futile at cleaning up after themselves. The only way to solve these challenges is to redefine how company cultures are designed from inception using new design ethics driven by compassionate awareness of our values, boundaries, and vulnerabilities as humans.
I am no stranger to these illusive design patterns myself and I know that I am not alone in my concerns. I’m not going to stand by and do nothing, I want you to join me as I embark on a new journey to set an example by designing a new movement that helps each one of us see through illusive design to become the best version of ourselves. We can design a better future driven by the desire to help others through altruism whilst realizing our legend. These are hard design problems and the people deserve better.
To find out more about how we can take on big tech and join the movement, check out circlo.com and share this video to help spread the word. I’ll be making more videos about the biology, science, and psychology of design and how we can design a world that we can be proud to live in. I’m on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Substack, and all other socials to spread the message so take a look for unique content.
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- Anon, (n.d.). Social Media | Jonathan Haidt. [online] Available at: https://jonathanhaidt.com/social-media/ [Accessed 5 Mar. 2023].
- Lieberman, D. (2018). The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity — and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race. [online] BenBella Books, p201. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/38728977-the-molecule-of-more [Accessed 10 Jul. 22].
- Google Docs. (n.d.). Social Media Use and Mental Health: A Review. [online] Available at: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1w-HOfseF2wF9YIpXwUUtP65-olnkPyWcgF5BiAtBEy0/
- Chen, A. (2021). The Cold Start Problem. [online] Harper Business, p . Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/55338968-the-cold-start-problem [Accessed 06 Dec. 2022].
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- Simler, K. (2017). The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. [online] Oxford University Press, p8. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/28820444-the-elephant-in-the-brain [Accessed 01 May. 2022].
- Chen, A. (2021). The Cold Start Problem. [online] Harper Business, p . Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/55338968-the-cold-start-problem [Accessed 06 Dec. 2022].
- Zakolyukina, A., Tayan, B., O’Reilly, C. and Larcker, D. (2021). Are Narcissistic CEOs All That Bad? [online] The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance. Available at: https://corpgov.law.harvard.edu/2021/10/25/are-narcissistic-ceos-all-that-bad/.
- www.youtube.com. (n.d.). Chamath Palihapitiya, Founder and CEO Social Capital, on Money as an Instrument of Change. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMotykw0SIk&t=1134s [Accessed 5 Mar. 2023].