Program Me: A Product Request

Here is a product request:

Dear Product,
Please program me to do more of what I want to do.

I’ll even write the request in a format all you PMs can understand:

As a… human concerned about the quality of my mind,
I want to… adjust my own dials,
so that… I can live more rationally and in greater accord with my values.

Why do I need this product?

The short answer is that I lack self-control.

The long answer is… longer.

Product Need: A Long Answer

My systems are not wired up / integrated / talking to each other in satisfactory ways.

The systems that enable me to form language, seek reason, and lose at chess are not sufficiently influencing the motivational systems that determine my minute-by-minute behavior. The machinery is uncalibrated, and I don’t know which dials to turn which direction.

I’d like the systems working together, so that the good ship Ethan – pre-yoke oxcart Ethan might be a better metaphor – can have the wind fall softly at his ample stern. I’d like all the mateys (ahoy!) rowing, and all the oxen pulling, in the same direction.

How it’s going

Let me illustrate by way of a personal example:

I check my email approximately 12,000 times per day. LinkedIn, a few times less.

Am I choosing this?

Or when I pull-to-refresh the ESPN app on my phone to see if there’s a new headline, am I choosing that activity on its merits? Different but related question: are these activities good for me?

I think not. And I think that in ways both obvious and subtle, these behaviors make me, and my subjective experience of my waking hours, worse.

We Have The Technology

“What a haughty request!” you may be thinking. “What overwrought, simplistic observations! Everyone wishes they were in greater control of their mental resources; who are you to suggest you can or should rise above these very human limitations on your faculties? A machine cannot exhort your mateys nor yoke your oxen – only you can do this!”

You make some good points, I say, trying not to take this feedback too personally.

And go on to say, without missing a beat (because I’m writing for both you and myself – kind of cheating I agree):

This notion of benign behavioral manipulation has become stuck in my mind for two key, related reasons:
1) I know it to be possible
because
2) I’m currently being programmed the wrong way.

1) How do I know this to be possible? Because products exist that speak directly to our motivational systems. We know this. Sadly, the most powerful products in this space exist not to motivate us to live in accordance with our values but rather to get us to buy more stuff. A boring dystopia, indeed.

2) How am I being programmed the wrong way? Beyond compulsive email checking and ESPN refreshing, unexamined usage of consumer software circumscribes my thinking, gradually but firmly changing nudging the life of the mind towards something more anxious, reactive, and surface-level.

Is it so much to ask to be nudged in the other direction or in a direction of my choosing? That path may be more difficult and the business model less obvious, but we have the technology.

How It Could Work

A reminder of the the objective: program me to do more of what I want to do.

I’ll even lay out some steps for you. I mean, this is a slam dunk.

Put the biscuit in the basket

The product should:

  1. Ask the user (me) what they (I) want to do more of or less of
  2. Combine passive and active data collection from my internet-connected devices to infer relevant inputs and outputs (don’t worry, I’ll grant you all the permissions)
  3. Learn the function that maps inputs to “good” outputs (“good” defined and self-labeled by me, the user)
  4. Using the learned function, optimize those inputs to maximize peak Ethan output

Simple stuff, really.

A Short Summary / Lament

I carry in my pocket the most powerful behavior-manipulation device ever made, and I guess I’m just disappointed that its main use case is to get me to buy more Spider-Man t-shirts; (I have) enough already!

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