Engineer automaticity in digital capitalism: from Bauman’s gardening state to the synthetic biology corporation

There’s a fascinating piece in 1843 magazine about the history of behaviour design, told through the figure of B.J. Fogg. It is a partial history which glosses over the intellectual context in which Fogg was able to draw existing strands of research and practice together into an innovative program of applied research. Accounts like this are important though because they foreground the people who have driven the contemporary behavioural revolution. People with commitments, passions and projects which the behaviourism they promulgate is unable to take seriously. People who have hopes about where their research might lead and fears about where it is leading. People whose influence often fades away as their work become part of the architecture of our everyday lives, even as that work remains inexplicable without a recognition of their agency. As the author observers, Fogg “comes from a Mormon family, which has endowed him with his bulletproof geniality and also with a strong need to believe that his work is making the world a better place”. This approach also helps draw out the connections between them and others responsible for building the infrastructure of digital capitalism:

Fogg has been called “the millionaire maker”. Numerous Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and engineers have passed through his laboratory at Stanford, and some have made themselves wealthy.

It also introduces one of Fogg’s students who now does corporate consulting. For instance the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products (a profoundly amoral book I read when it was first released) is an ‘alumni’ of Fogg, a term which leaves the reader unclear as to whether he’s a former student or former corporate workshop participant. The humane tech guru Tristan Harris is a former student of his as well. A network ethnography of academic figures in behavioural design would be a fascinating endeavour.

When applied in the wild these innovations lead to familiar and unwelcome results, as the incentives engineered into the platforms easily give rise to compulsive behaviours:

Fogg introduced me to one of his former students, Noelle Moseley, who now consults for technology companies. She told me that she had recently interviewed heavy users of Instagram: young women who cultivated different personas on different social networks. Their aim was to get as many followers as possible – that was their definition of success. Every new follow and every comment delivered an emotional hit. But a life spent chasing hits didn’t feel good. Moseley’s respondents spent all their hours thinking about how to organise their lives in order to take pictures they could post to each persona, which meant they weren’t able to enjoy whatever they were doing, which made them stressed and unhappy. “It was like a sickness,” said Moseley.

It’s important to retain a degree of hermeneutic sensitivity in relation to such cases. While tech-humanists might see this as hacking the ‘lizard brain’, a more sociological reading would ask about how these outcomes came to matter to the people concerned, how they understand ‘success’ and what it means to them. As the author of the 1843 piece succinctly puts it, “Unconscious impulses are transformed into social obligations, which compel attention, which is sold for cash”. There’s a complex process here which traverses the psychological/social divide and is difficult to understand within the narrow confines of existing disciplinary frameworks.

Nonetheless, I think sociological theory has a large role to play in making sense of these developments. There’s a social relation at work which didn’t exist prior to modernity: engineering automaticity in others, as opposed to seeking action through compulsion or persuasion. I’m reminded of Bauman’s metaphor of the gardening state, framing its people as objects to be tended and cultivated. The behavioural design industry is a privatisation and intensification of this, equivalent to seeking a genetic engineering of individual plants and flowers within the garden.

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