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How Technology Influences Our Decisions

Technology is deeply embedded in our daily lives and can influence our behavior in surprising ways. Join Fabio Pereira and Chris Atherton’s discussion about both the short-term and long-term effects of technology on our lives, along with what a constructive approach to UX design looks like and how that might lead to a healthier relationship with technology.

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Technology is deeply embedded in our daily lives and can influence our behavior in surprising ways. Join Fabio Pereira and Chris Atherton’s discussion about both the short-term and long-term effects of technology on our lives, along with what a constructive approach to UX design looks like and how that might lead to a healthier relationship with technology.


Preben Thorø: So my name is Preben Thorø. I am at GOTO Copenhagen, and I managed to bring Fabio Pereira and Chris Atherton together here with me. Could you make a short introduction for yourself?

Fabio Pereira: Sure. My name is Fabio Pereira. I think the best way to describe me is that I work with technology, but I don't work with technology because I actually work with people. Like my biggest passion is people’s behavior. I started studying people’s behavior about 10 years ago. I do have a computer science degree and I work with digital transformation. But human behavior and cultural change are what really inspire me.

Fabio Pereira, Chris Atherton & Preben Thorø interview

Chris Atherton: Hi. I'm Chris Atherton. I am a designer. In some senses, I used to be an academic psychologist and I worked a lot in cognitive neuroscience. So I'm super interested in both the brain/mind and also what we do with our attention, how we spend our time, and what that has to say about who we will become as people. That sounded very ponderous. I'm sorry.

What is the impact of technology on people?

Preben Thorø: But who will we become as people? What is technology doing to us?

Chris Atherton: This is a really interesting question. People ask if we're kind of evolving to be something else. My temptation is always to say no because evolution takes many, many generations. So it's going to be a long, long time. Even if we have this technology for a long time, we won't necessarily see very much meaningful change. Like I couldn't imagine the brain is going to change very quickly. Epigenetics is kind of interesting. It's not something I know very much about, but it's the idea that we might change a little bit already in response to our environment. But long-term evolutionary change, that's the long game. I doubt people will still have an iPhone by the time that is happening or anything else.

Preben Thorø: Is that true? Does evolution take that long? Don't we see changes from generation to generation right now?

Chris Atherton: Biologically, it takes a lot longer, that’s my understanding. I am not an evolutionary biologist. Take this with a pinch of salt. But our behaviors are changing, well, our society is changing, our expectations are changing, the available technology is changing. All of those can have an effect on our behavior. Nobody grows up in a vacuum, or they shouldn't.

Fabio Pereira & Chris Atherton interview

Fabio Pereira: Yes, in my opinion, I actually believe that what technology is doing to us, is to some extent making a lot of decisions on our behalf. So we make about 35,000 decisions a day, which is about one decision every two seconds. You probably just made a decision there. What technology is doing to us is that it's making a lot of those decisions for us, which can actually, to some extent, offload our brains when it makes good decisions for us, but it can actually clutter our brain when it actually takes off our attention because our attention is limited. So I see technology doing these two big things to us. That's a lot of the things I talk about in the book, “Digital Knowledge,” in which there is the technology that nudges for good which is the technology that makes good decisions for us.

So to give a very simple example, back in the days, we would know the path to go somewhere like turn left, and right now the GPS, the maps applications, they do that for us. So we don't need to think about which way we are going because we offload our brain decisions to that technology. But at the same time, we have social media that sucks our attention and we spend hours and hours and hours on social media. 

We don't even know why we are doing it sometimes, because we spend hours and suddenly we're watching like videos of kittens and we don't even know how we ended up there. So that's how I like to see what technology is doing to us. Sometimes it sucks our attention. Sometimes it actually offloads our attention and it helps us make better decisions.

The impact of social media

Preben Thorø: Talking about social media, I would argue that it actually loads us with even more decisions that we need to make rather than a technique making decisions for us.

Fabio Pereira: I agree. It all depends on our goals and our intentions. Sometimes when we go to social media, it's just really a way to offload some things that we are feeling inside of us. I really like a book by a friend called "Near Realities." It's called indestructible. He says that distractions come from within. So instead of thinking that it is the phone that is distracting us, we are actually getting distracted from something that's coming from within and then we go to kind of fix that feeling that we are feeling right now. Then we go to social media to feel something else. I actually think that some applications and some technologies can help us and some can harm us. That's the whole ethical discussion we have to have about why we are building something and why we are using something and to have control over that technology.

Chris Atherton: Well said.

Preben Thorø: Let me ask you a question. Are you on Facebook?

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Chris Atherton: No.

Preben Thorø: Why not?

Chris Atherton: I never joined. But the reason for that was I didn't feel the need for it. So back in the day, I was on Live Journal, if you remember what that was. It was a social network before Facebook. It worked pretty well with sociability. It was nice. I had a few people that I would talk to and who I knew. It was mostly people I didn't know in real life, but that was okay. Then Facebook came along and I thought it was just another of the same. Then it started becoming very clear that Facebook had a very cavalier approach to security and privacy, and they would turn everything upside down on you, so it's one day to the next. I thought, "I don't want to join this. This isn't compatible with my ethics. I don't believe that they're doing good." Much as I hate to say I told you so, it kind of looks like I was maybe right about that. 

Like every new story that comes out, I'm just like, "Oh, why?" So yeah, long story short, not on Facebook. Very happy not to be on Facebook.

Preben Thorø: Are you?

Fabio Pereira: I reduced my Facebook usage considerably. The thing is I don't believe that we have to completely detox from technology and completely stop using it. What I usually recommend is to use it consciously. The thing is if we have control over the time and the intentions we have on social media and if we create mechanisms to actually help us with that… So if we say, "Okay, I'm only going to use this for, let's say, half an hour a day," I think it can help us. So I've lived away from my family for too long. I'm Brazilian, and I've lived in Australia for eight years. Then, of course, technology helped me a lot to keep in touch with what was happening with family and Facebook was definitely a way to keep track of that of, like, my nephews and my nieces who were being born. And I was missing all that.

I think that technology can help us connect with people who are away from us. But sometimes it's actually harming us because it disconnects from people who are really next to each other. We could be having breakfast in front of someone and talking to someone on the other side of the world instead of having that physical connection eye to eye with someone who's really next to us. So I believe in conscious usage as opposed to completely detoxing and getting rid of it.

A constructive approach to UX design

Preben Thorø: That sounds like one for you. You're working with UX, designing the user experience. So the need for understanding what it does to us and be, say, constructive about it. I guess that's very crucial to know the times you're living in.

Chris Atherton: Yes, I think that's really important. So what you were saying about how we need to be conscious about how we use it. I think that's absolutely the key. It's not like I'm on Facebook because I don't want to keep in touch with people. But I choose other ways to connect with them that work for me. I was on Twitter and I left about a year and a half ago I guess. It was a very conscious decision to go, "Right. Okay. Enough of this. Let me see if I can make my relationships work with people who live far away, who live near me using another medium." Because it was more important. Twitter was not the important thing, the important thing was to keep in touch with people. A consequence of that is that you lose a lot of weak ties so you end up maybe not daily connected to as many people and the flip side of that is that you end up reinforcing your strong ties. So you end up spending more time with family, friends, more time thinking about family and friends, and a little bit less time just kind of grasping around and things which are moving and shiny.

And as you say that kind of unquiet inside, "Oh, I must do something with this." If there are fewer surfaces to just, kind of, spray that disquietude. If there are fewer spaces to just, sort of, spread that feeling around, then you have to think about, "What is it that I want? And who should I tell this to?" It's almost like I have this sort of media center in my brain that's going, "Oh, I've had this thought. This is a useful thought. How can I share this? Who would be the right person to share this with?" Whether it's my parents or, you know, my friends or my husband. Where's the right place for this thought rather than just everywhere. Let me just spray it all over every surface. And that seems interesting, maybe helpful.

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Fabio Pereira: I just want to comment on that. I completely agree. It feels like some of the social media [platforms] try to make the default broadcasting. 

One thing I like about Instagram is that it created the concept of close friends. So if you do want to post something that only your close friends would be able to see, then you can create that subset which is, I think, what you're calling the strong connections. And definitely, we have to consciously think about who we are sharing what with as opposed to just broadcasting everything to everyone as if it was. So, yes, some things we should not be sharing with everyone in the whole world that follows us. 

If you could freeze time, what moment would you stop at?

Preben Thorø: This conversation has pretty much turned into a talk about the dystopia we're living in. Technology certainly has ups and downs. But let's face it, we have possibilities that we never ever had before, that is amazing. However, I would like to add one final question. If you could freeze time, looking back on your entire life, if you could freeze time, at any point, where would that be?

Chris Atherton: You're looking at me. Okay. I think I would choose 1991? No, no, let me take that back. I think I would choose 1993. I was a student. I had access to the Internet. It was great. It was pretty quiet. There was lots of interesting stuff. Everything was text-based pretty much until we got Netscape Navigator I guess at the university. It was just great. You could just explore all day long, you could talk to random people in a different country. It was pretty relaxed in a way. I miss that.

Everything seems very fast now on the internet. But a consequence of that, which I think is probably important to remember is that the internet excluded a lot of people, a lot of people who didn't have access to it, couldn't afford it, didn't have a computer, didn't even have electricity. So my nice little internet of 1993 is not real in the sense that it's very exclusive and privileged. But I did enjoy it anyway.

Fabio Pereira: It's a hard question. To be honest, I don't think I would freeze. I'm a true believer in the flow of time and the concept of impermanence, which is like everything changes, and it will keep changing and I like change. So I think if I dreamt about freezing something, I would go against my passion for change. My true and genuine understanding is the fact that things change. So just the word freeze, just reminds me of the whole thing like, "code freeze.” We can't change that code because it's code freeze time now. But I think there are elements of the past that we can remember and maybe get back to. I think I would even go back like before my childhood, and I would say that one of the elements that we should go back to as humans is our connection with nature.

I would say that we've locked ourselves into buildings, and we are far from nature. I truly believe, and I've done experiments with myself when I go out for lunch and I look at the green and I go to a park. I look at trees and I come back to work after lunch and I feel better. Linda Rising is actually someone who talks a lot about this research that shows that when we connect with nature, that we release things in our bodies, neurochemicals actually make us feel better. In fact, people are more productive after lunch if they go out and they see nature. So I would say that's far back from my childhood, but I think we should reconnect more with nature. That's one of the things I would take the element of the past and bring to the present and maybe to the future.

Preben Thorø: I think that's a wonderful statement to conclude this conversation. Thanks a lot for joining us.

Fabio Pereira: Thank you.

Chris Atherton: Thank you