designing rhetorical technologies of deliberation

An interesting article in The Atlantic,The Binge Breaker,” discusses the challenges of ethical design for social media, smartphones, and related technologies. The article focuses on familiar and widespread experiences in digital culture: its addictive qualities and attentional demands. It is no surprise that devices and apps are built with the express purpose of attracting user attention: “the digital version of pumping sugar, salt, and fat into junk food in order to induce bingeing. McDonald’s hooks us by appealing to our bodies’ craving for certain flavors; Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter hook us by delivering what psychologists call ‘variable rewards.'” So sure we are used to such subconscious inducements across most aspects of our consumer culture, and our default response is to call upon individual will to make good choices. To that rather uncritical response one might suggest that the best way individuals can make good choices here would be to begin by choosing to act collectively to insist on a different approach to design.

As I’ve discussed here in the past and has become a recurrent topic in the field, Ian Bogost’s conception of procedural rhetoric highlights the way in which digital media can undertake rhetorical, persuasive objectives through its design and computational procedures. Adding in the kinds of insights Mark Hansen brings about the way ever-faster technologies constitute a kind of precession of deliberation, making decisions for us before we even realize there are decisions to be made, we find ourselves in a situation where it is necessary to acknowledge, investigate, and intercede in the ways our media ecology encourages particular cognitive and agential capacities in our relations with it.

In straightforward terms, how do we approach the design of media and technology with a different set of values and purposes? How do we foreground a desire for our relations with the media ecology to develop a different set of cognitive-agential-rhetorical capacities? And what should those be?

Sure, there’s a certain amount one can do as a consumer. There’s no law requiring anyone to own a smartphone or have a Facebook account. If we set aside the “Just say no” option, one could experiment with a range of practices. The article mentions several in its focus on one particular individual, Tristan Harris, who is leading a kind of industry crusade on this matter. An obvious example would be shutting off all the automatic notifications. You could not use the fingerprint login on your smartphone and instead give yourself a very long and complicated password. You could set schedules for how you use your phone. Leave it in an out of the way place in your house when your home where you can hear it if someone really is trying to contact you but is not a temptation to just check.

But you could also design these apps so that they were less addictive. What if every time you went on Facebook it began by announcing how many times you’d been to the site in the last 24 hours and the amount of time you’d spent. Then it started running a clock on the time of your current visit. Would that be annoying? Probably. So maybe they could just stop doing all the things they do to suck you in, like videos that run automatically in your feed.

Those are all what I would consider kinds of brute force solutions. Back when I started teaching composition, violence on television shows was a common theme and the common answer was always “channel blockers” to prevent kids from watching the wrong shows. These answers are kind of like that. The more complicated question was to ask why we had shows like that, what their effects really were, and how we wanted the world to be different. Maybe we don’t want social media to be different; clearly a significant part of our collective psyches finds this all quite appealing. Indeed as this article observes in noting the counter-argument, one might say that “social media merely satisfies our appetite for entertainment in the same way TV or novels do, and that the latest technology tends to get vilified simply because it’s new, but eventually people find balance.” I think it’s possible to agree with that observation and say that what we’re talking about here is finding that balance and incorporating it into our design approach.

This is really where digital rhetoric should be working right? Examining how different people, communities, and cultures participate in digital media ecologies; describing how digital media technologies operate to foster rhetorical capacities; teaching students an awareness of the rhetorical function of digital media in their lives; helping students develop compositional strategies for these environments; developing best, ethical practices for technology design and use in different contexts–schools, universities, workplaces, civic life, etc; and getting directly involved in the design of these applications and technologies.

There must be dozens if not hundreds of different angles, methods, focuses, etc., etc. that one might take as a digital rhetorician coming out of this.  This particular angle interests me.


  • Skydaemon

    Here you present it as a design choice, and to some small extent it is. However, it’s much more about the economics driving the design. It is too cute by half to suggest that you can change the design goals merely by pointing out undesirable elements.

    Social media etc make money by a) selling advertising which is tied by the nuts to eyeball counts, b) selling user usage info which also increases in value with constant, pervasive usage. Further, they raise funding and gain clout by being able to claim they have billions of active users involved. These financial motivations are 100% of the orientation of the design. The designers know exactly what their apps push in behaviour and why, they also know how to alter it towards other ends. This is not a question of awareness, the designers are serving their paymasters excellently, and the people writing the cheques are not the users.

    If you want a healthier app, change the economics. If people pay to use social media directly, the apps will be designed to benefit the people doing the paying.

    • I agree with you about the economics. I would imagine that many of the suggestions above wouldn’t be undertaken by a social media company itself. Almost everyone knows on some level that a site like Facebook is primarily designed to make money by keeping you there and getting you to interact in some way. However, I think about the way cable tv works. We pay for that but is it really designed for our benefit? Even the premium channels that are ad-free? I would think it would be more accurate to say tv is designed to appeal to our desires but not necessarily to our best interests. I’m not interested in telling others what their best interests should be. However, if we can build rhetorical media tools to appeal to and shape our desires, it seems that we might also build tools and practices to counter such efforts. And yes we’d need to pay for them, including paying for an education that develops critical thinking and rhetorical awareness.