There is an old adage shared between poker players that quips that if you are sitting around a poker table, and you can’t spot the sucker, then you are the sucker. There is an updated version of this proverbial wisdom that has been making the rounds on various tech blogs and it states that if you are on a website and you can’t clearly identify what the product is, then you are the product. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all purport to provide a variety of services for free, but of course, nothing in life is free, and you are paying for the use of these sites – and so many others – with your time, attention, and personal data.
When you are browsing Instagram on your phone, or updating your Facebook profile on your laptop, you may think that you are the chooser of your choices; that you have supreme agency in the decisions you are making and the clicks that you are clicking. But what you must realize, is that behind every website, there are teams of thousands of engineers, psychologists and researchers who have dedicated their careers to manipulating you into taking action on those sites that is most advantageous to them – with little to no regard for the benefit or harm those choices have on you.
Whether this is news to you or not, you may be wondering why this is the topic of an article that every week tries to bring you new and interesting information about health, fitness and physical therapy. Well, as a physical therapist – who is well aware of the subtle and pervasive manipulation that occurs throughout our internet lives – I came across something that caught my attention during a conversation between two internet ethicists that struck a chord. In the endless quest of how best to control you through the use of technology, it has been discovered that if you are laying down while browsing your phone, you are more likely to browse sites longer and click on more links than if you were sitting up or on the go.
This may seem obvious, but what may not seem so obvious is that the natural conclusion that Facebook engineers came to as a result of learning this information. Because their primary goal is to expose you to as much advertising as possible, they decided to simply increase the frequency of updates and alerts sent to your phone first thing in the morning, hoping to catch you still in bed, making it more likely therefore that you will stay on the site longer. What they are also doing – however inadvertently – is contributing to the sedentary lives that too many of us are leading today.
Technology is not good or bad - it is both. There are many apps and websites that encourage movement and exercise, and these should be applauded, but there are even more who are trying to do the opposite. As someone who has dedicated his career to getting people moving, I am writing this article is to serve as a warning to all of us, reminding you to be a conscious consumer of technology, so that you can put technology to work for you while avoiding the traps that it sets.