by Julius WiedemannFeb 23, 2021
We live our lives in a pendulum between guarantees and stimulations. But it is stimulation that moves us forward. Stimulation can be as simple as reading an article to get to know a little more about something, to as complex as looking at the picture of someone on the top of the Everest and training five years to climb the highest mountain in the world. They play with our deepest mixture of desires and dreams and generate the transformations that are much needed. The digital world doesn’t fail to give people enough stimuli to encourage them to think about completely new realities, and motivations to build them. From likes to comments, from free books to Wikipedia. The overwhelming amount of information that we suck up every day, intentionally or not, must have to do with the diversity of creativity exercised today.
Take computer games here as an example. Minecraft for instance has over 126 million users who build new worlds every day. Recently the share prices of Microsoft soared because of a spike in Xbox sales.
The GTA (Grand Theft Auto) brand is estimated to have over 200 million users across multiple platforms. There are endless possibilities these days to entertain people for a long time. These are type of stimulations that didn’t exist before. Comparatively it is estimated that there are about 15 million online chess players. And its inception dates back about 1500 years.
The digital world carries a variety of tools for keeping us on our tolls and doing the things we understand we need. From reminders on calendars to push notifications, and specially these days through machine learning capabilities, we are constantly reminded of the things we do and the things we don’t. The universe of fitness apps is a good example of how structured motivation combined with great digital marketing strategies can push people to do things. The number of fitness apps users grew from 62.7 million in 2018 to 87.4 million users in 2020. The pandemic has collaborated to motivate people to do more exercise, for example, in the first quarter of 2020, the number of downloads of health and fitness apps reached 593 million.
In 2019 it was estimated that the average US smartphone user got 46 push notifications every day in a report from CleverTap (even though it is unclear whether this includes emails, WhatsApp etc.). A massive number indeed. I certainly get more than that and disable mine once in a while, when I think it’s overwhelming. But I am also addicted to using the Garmin app on my phone to monitor how many steps I take every day, the calories I burn, and my performance indexes. Addictive flow of information.
Reminders can be healthy when we outsource to devices things that we no longer need to worry about. At Domestika, where I work with a global team, we do what many start-ups do, sharing an open calendar where everyone can see time availability of colleagues, and propose meetings. The advantage of doing that in mass scale and in the digital world is that we can now study user’s behaviours much deeper and much faster than ever before. Every stimulation comes with a burden of possible exaggerations. In studies from 2020, more than two billion people frequently play video games in the world, including over 150 million in the United States. Online video game addiction from various studies show that anywhere from 1–10 per cent of gamers have compulsive addiction issues. The conclusions of these studies are elastic because of the focus of each study, but they generally show that males between the ages of 18–24 are the ones most at risk. The revenues of online gambling globally have surpassed USD 50 billion since 2019. About a third of the online education market in that year. It is a clear sign that online distractions can really feed into our darkest corners.
What we need to realise is that what digital technologies are building as habits is the fact that we have now endless possibilities to reach out to every corner of people’s minds, for the good for the bad. AI is becoming more predictive and insofar its effects are rarely visible. However, it is becoming clearer that we can now stimulate activate and stimulate the brain with more precision, and create strategies to control (hence, for the good and for the bad). Those strategies will be clearly more distinguishable in the future and both compliance and regulation are now becoming subjects of attention. According to Oberlo, about a third of companies are already using AI today, and its market will reach nearly 300 billion USD by 2027.
To conclude, with large branches of psychology shifting towards neuroscience-led approaches, it is becoming clear that stimulation through digital technologies need a lot more attention. Concern might be a too strong word, but I am cautiously optimistic about the tools we have available to manipulate opinions and perceptions. If we add transparency to all these tools, there is great hope that we will keep open the doors to free will.
Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.