“Persuasive technology” challenges people
“Persuasive technology“ is an umbrella term for any technology that sets out to encourage people to do something such as fasten their seatbelts or turn the central heating down a couple of degrees.
Dr. Andreas Spahn admits that persuasive technology is really a dubious phenomenon. “We find it most decent to convince others through reasoned argument. Forcing or manipulating others is viewed as incorrect. Generally speaking, persuasive technology lies midway between convincing and manipulating, though forcible examples may also be given.”
The latter is perhaps best illustrated by, for instance, the RSI programmes that close down people’s PCs for a few minutes and are thus designed to force the user, for his own good, to take a break. In most cases, though, technology stops at irritatingly warning, such as by flashing a light or giving off a bleep any time that a driver forgets to fasten his or her seatbelt. Even traffic lights are, in effect, types of persuasive technology, albeit with legal sanctions in the form of a fine if you ignore them. Another example is the Wattson Energy Meter, an appliance that transforms home electricity consumption into atmospheric lighting, thus simultaneously indicating how economical the people in that particular household are. As soon as such a light turns very red people should be prompted to switch off some of their appliances.
Classical persuasive technology makes use of lamps and sounds to attract attention. From psychological research it also emerges that certain signals can affect people’s subconscious minds. It is a technique that is certainly deployed in the world of advertising but the Wattson Energy Meter also has slightly similar features because the light effects can be very subtle.
“The first ethical question that arises with persuasive technology”, remarks Spahn “is that of human autonomy. Is it right to try to influence people or should you allow them to make their own decisions? It is also of course true that people often like to give themselves a certain impetus because they know that that is what is needed to get them to do or, for that matter, not do something. After all, they are the ones who install such RSI programmes for themselves in the first place.”
Persuasive technology furthermore also brings with it questions of responsibility. If such a kind of technology is integral to something but it does not convince then whose fault is that? Or conversely, if someone blindly trusts technology but the signal fails then who is to blame? At an abstract level these are academic questions but it all becomes very relevant if one thinks that in the cockpit there is always an ongoing battle between electronic systems and the pilot: who or what is actually flying the plane? The passengers are convinced that it is the pilot who is in charge of their well-being but all too often he allows himself to be steered by lamps and indicators or even hands everything over to the automatic pilot.