Escaping from freedom: the problem of designing for user agency

Fromm, "Escape from Freedom," 1941

Fromm, “Escape from Freedom,” 1941. on the appeal of totalitarianism.

The Guardian had an excellent story recently, “Conscious computing: how to take control of your life online” by Oliver Burkeman. It focuses on movements, tools, and practices that seek to counteract the deliberately distracting tendency of most current Internet media and services.

The problem is aptly described by Nir Eyal, a Silicon Valley internet entrepreneur who cites the “behavior design” models of Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg as inspiration:

Let’s admit it, we in the consumer web industry are in the manipulation business. We build products meant to persuade people to do what we want them to do. We call these people “users” and even if we don’t say it aloud, we secretly wish every one of them would become fiendishly addicted.

Eyal advocates a version of this approach for product development, which he calls the “Hooked” method, which is also the title of his forthcoming book.

I think of this situation as part of a more general pattern: the perennial tension in the information environment between user agency and producer agency. User agency is when the user has control over the environment/media: for example, time- and device-shifting of content, peer-to-peer media, blogging, open-source tools, remix culture, net neutrality, and general-purpose computing devices. Producer agency, on the other hand, is exemplified by broadcasting, bundling of information goods (e.g. cable TV), click-wrap licensing, DRM, etc.

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