Room for Chaos in Transformative Tech

The role of novelty, randomness, and exploration in technology-assisted transformative experiences From a near-death experience following a random car accident to the unexpected horizon-expanding trip abroad to becoming a first-time parent, much of life’s deeply spiritual and transforming events are messy, chaotic and unpredictable. Sometimes, it is the seemingly random and unplanned events that lead us to our greatest insights and moments of profound connection with the world around us. But how do we consider the role of novelty, randomness, and exploration when designing technology assisted transformative experiences?  One of my favorite implementations of these principles was SyncTXT, a pioneering platform inspired by Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity, or meaningful coincidence. It was developed in 2009 by Psyleron, a group of Princeton Engineering and Anomalous Research Lab (PEAR) alumni, for the purpose of making consciousness-related research and technology more accessible to the public. The technology was simple.  Your account was assigned to a random event generator (REG), a device that produces truly random bits such that any event (either a 1 or a 0) is entirely unpredictable and independent of any other.  When your REG deviated from randomness beyond a certain threshold, SyncTXT would send you a randomly selected message. Thus you would receive random texts at random times that, for users, often felt were imbued with profound meaning.  On one occasion, I was mindlessly scrolling my Facebook feed, ignoring my cat who was weaving in and out of my legs begging for affection. At this moment a SyncTXT message came: “Someone who adores you greatly is hidden right before your eyes”.  This was merely one of many such experiences. Though it may seem like a silly example, it felt meaningful and relevant, as if the Universe was tapping me on the shoulder, hinting at a much deeper layer of reality. To acknowledge synchronicity is to accept that the “random” is not always random. Yet, the current landscape of technology leans much more heavily on the side of prediction and exploitation over chance and exploration. Today’s tech is almost epitomized by models designed to analyze, interpret, monitor, and monetize nearly every aspect of our lives. This is not a universally negative approach to transformation, however, and when executed properly can be quite empowering. Indeed, the big data revolution and huge upsurge of AI and machine learning has afforded incredible new opportunities to reveal patterns that might otherwise go unnoticed. Consider, for example, the insights to be gleaned from the data repository of tens of millions of Fitbit users as compared with the typical laboratory psychophysiological experiment leveraging only a few dozen participants. To be sure, algorithm-driven biofeedback can be quite transformational, helping us make positive behavioral changes, manage our sleep, physical activity and stress. But the key question is whether our tools strike the right balance between exploitation and exploration.  Think of the auto-curated playlists on Youtube and Netflix, the suggested travel destinations, products to buy, books to read or new connections to follow – these all deliver what we are predicted to desire. But as our tools become increasingly orchestrated by intelligent algorithms, are we leaving enough room in our lives to honor the random?  Any data scientist or person working with statistical models will tell you of the dangers of overfitting. Overfitting occurs when the predictions of our model become too closely aligned with the data from which the model was created.  For example, take the classic “Turkey Problem”. The turkey, applying a very limited set of data, i.e., their feeding schedule, formulates a mental model of its reality; “The human comes with the food”.  But because of its inability to draw inferences or extrapolate meaning from beyond its limited experience, the turkey’s mental model of the world is overfitted. From this data, It cannot anticipate its inevitable demise – at some point, probably around Thanksgiving,  the human will come the ax. Similarly, In terms of personal transformation, there is a potential opportunity loss as the models that know us all too well offer us up only what they can predict we want.   Unfortunately, big data alone does solve this problem.  No matter how large the trove of data, there will always be experiences, opportunities, and unprecedented events lying outside the model’s ability to predict them. It is for this reason that economist and philosopher Nassim Taleb warns us not to underestimate the role of randomness in our lives, nor try too hard to control it, for fear that it will blow up in our faces. As a cautionary tale, Taleb, who coined the term “black swan” as an unexpected and unprecedented event in human history, points to the over-controlled markets that yield prolonged periods of relative stability but are frequently punctuated by flash crashes and periods of hyper-volatility.       Certainly, data-driven approaches can be instrumental for our personal transformation efforts, helping us to make linear and measured incremental steps towards goals, staying the course, and monitoring our progress along the way. Nevertheless, regardless of how much data we gather to help chart our way forward, transformative experiences seldom conform to our most sophisticated predictions.    One way for applications to allow for more serendipity and randomness is to nudge people towards new experiences. For example, one forward-looking application that has been taking this approach is Randonautica, the self-described “first ever quantumly generated adventure game that takes you on a journey of true randomness.”  Similar to SyncTxt, Randonautica interfaces with a random source to select map coordinates. After setting an intention about the kind of experience they are seeking, users (AKA “Randonauts”) venture out to the randomly determined locations. The app has seen a steady rise in enthusiastic Randonauts sharing videos and anecdotes about these experiences on TikTok and social media etc.  In exploration, we actively seek new perspectives that lie outside of our existing mental models and help shift our worldview. Think of the Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who experienced a life-changing expansion of consciousness, known as the “overview effect”, when he looked down upon the Earth from […]

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Building Ethical Technology in a World Addicted to Screens

In spite of its promising innovations,  the buzz and excitement residing at the forefront of human potential, transformative technologies often face challenges when it comes to competing for users’ shrinking attention. The pessimist might say that transformative tech  – tools that promote physical, mental, or spiritual wellbeing – is like a broccoli stand in the back of a candy store.  Useful and functional with obvious and measurable benefits, it often scrambles to break through the noise in a market dominated by commodified dopamine. Take Headspace, the Los Angeles-based mindfulness and meditation app, which has been downloaded 70 million times across 190 countries, and was ranked among the top 5 most popular yoga and meditation apps last year.  Despite its smashing popularity, Its average user retention drops down to 8.5% within the first 30 days, according to Neura, a mobile app analytics startup. In other words,  92% of people quit using the app after only a month.  For comparison, an average app saw a 66% 30-day consumer retention last year. One possible explanation of this trend is pretty simple.  Unlike the engagement that comes with a promise of instant gratification, transformative tech often places a larger burden on the part of the user. It doesn’t offer the seduction of surrendering to one’s impulses. And therefore, for the very reasons these tools can be empowering, they can be equally challenging for users. The path of personal transformation holds the promise of beautiful vistas at the journey’s end, but the way is mostly uphill.  Whether we’re talking about apps promoting positive behavioral change, wearables that monitor physical health, neurofeedback devices, or meditation software, ultimately these products still rely on user engagement.  But because positive change and personal growth typically involve disrupting the status quo of our lives, technologies that promote such transformation often do not fit so seamlessly within those patterns they aim to disrupt. As a consequence, regardless of how useful the products may be, they often lack that stickiness factor that keeps us engaged.  Technology that is essential by virtue of being addictive is entirely antithetical to this aim. Herein lies the challenge facing the transformative products and companies – finding the delicate balance between having a successful business model, which aims to increase user engagement, while simultaneously holding true to the ethics and principles that drive these innovations to begin with. But this is a non-issue for most of the products we routinely engage with. The brain hacking techniques common across social media and entertainment platforms often keep us glued to screens and seamlessly integrate into our patterns by co-opting the behavioral path of least resistance. But the path of least resistance rarely leads us to anywhere we want to go. So how can product designers and companies make the uphill path more likely to be followed? How can they convince the user to just keep putting one foot in front of the other because the journey is worth it? According to the Center for Humane Technology, the answer lies in moving beyond the attention economy paradigm, which thrives on exploiting human weaknesses and cognitive limitations. Companies can start by examining and strengthening, rather than merely hacking, the things humans are naturally good at and inclined towards. Here are some ideas to consider:  Social Validation  Our need for social validation, reward seeking and attentional biases towards novelty can either be leveraged for or against us depending on the design and underlying aims of the tech. Under the current paradigm, companies often hijack people’s yearning for social belonging, nudging them toward carefully crafted marketing niches.  Under a more human-centric paradigm, a company’ user-engagement strategy might focus on more authentic community-building in which the product facilitates genuine forms of communication, comraderie, and social support. For example, several gaming companies incorporate social connection components, leveraging algorithms to foster friendship between players. Goal Setting and Motivation  Transformative tech generally taps into higher-order goals (e.g., “wellness”, “health”, “flourishing”) which are often abstract to the users, who typically gravitate towards lower-level concrete and immediate incentives.  Consider the perpetual internal conflict – scrolling your newsfeed has an immediate low-level reward, but offers no real long-term benefit or value.  At the same time, people routinely engage in difficult, cumbersome, or strenuous activities that are in the service of  higher-order goals (e.g., you hate running, but do it anyway because it yields the health results you’re aiming for).   To make the right behaviours easier, and abstract goals – more concrete, wellbeing companies can tap into the latest research in neuroscience. For example,  helping users follow well-structured bite-sized tasks enables a release of dopamine, which allows them to stick to a long-term goal.  (Ego) Rewards System User engagement and user benefits should not be thought of independently of one another. But how do the low-level activities with the product subserve the higher order goals, values, and outcomes associated with use of the product?  It is one thing for a wellness app to engage users by allocating badges and points and providing links for them to brag about it on social media. It is another for the app to generate the same level of engagement while actually facilitating real human flourishing and growth.  Merely Tools From the standpoint of developing successful technology products, the tools that become “essential” in the minds of customers and users are certainly those that can drive a business. However, much of what is deemed essential in the technology space is often more addictive than it is useful. Transformative tech must strike the right balance between a successful business model driven by engaging tech, while not compromising the product’s essential mission. And like the proverbial door through which one still needs to walk through, even the best technologies are merely tools for transformation. Ultimately,  we must do all the work.  

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