The balancing act

July 9, 2019: A roundup of news and perspectives on disruptive technology from around the world. In this issue: Nudge vs. boost, Superhuman fiasco, Monopoly’s origins, Amazon’s liability and problems with brain restoration

N S Ramnath

[Image by Greg Plominski from Pixabay]

Note: This Week in Disruptive Tech brings to you five interesting stories that highlight a new development or offer an interesting perspective on technology and society. Plus, a curated set of links to understand how technology is shaping the future, here in India and across the world. If you want to get it delivered to your inbox every week, subscribe here

The nudge paradox

Richard Thaler’s Nudge, which defends the idea of using psychological triggers to direct people to make the right decisions,  has made a formal entry into India’s mainstream economic policymaking. The latest Economic Survey, which has a full chapter (pdf) on it, wants the Central government to activate a behavioural economics unit in the Niti Ayog immediately, and perform behavioural economics audits on government programmes before implementation. It highlights its success in Swachh Bharat Mission and in Beti Bachao Beti Padhao. The UK, USA and Canada (among others) have all used nudge in government programmes. 

However, there is a fundamental issue with nudge, which assumes people are not rational, and don’t know what’s the right thing to do. How do we know that people who are designing these programmes are doing the right thing in the first place? In the words of Elizabeth Kolbert: “If people can’t be trusted to make the right choices for themselves how can they possibly be trusted to make the right decisions for the rest of us?”

Those who are opposed to nudge, offer an alternative called boost. In boost, instead of nudging people to make a choice you think is the best, you seek to develop the decision making capabilities of people. 

Dig Deeper

  • No fan of Richard Thaler, Nassim Taleb gives an outline of what he considers to be errors in behavioural economics. 
  • Paul Lewis, in this hugely influential story in The Guardian, details how Silicon Valley made technology so addictive. A lot of examples of nudges in there. 
  • Nine heavyweights—including Gerd Gigerenzer about whom I wrote hereweigh in on the problems with the ‘big nudge’, among other things. 
  • Can we really trust economists to make the right decisions for us, when they are so ‘meh’? Adam Grant consolidates some interesting studies on economics and economists. 
  • Francesca Gino, a Harvard professor, argues that behavioural economics can be misused, as it happened in the case of Uber, but there are win-win scenarios.
  • Till Grüne-Yanoff argues it’s all contextual. Nudge works in some situations, and boost in others.

Give me more

We have all complained that we get too many emails every day. At the same time, we have also felt that there’s too little in emails, and  there’s a sense that it’s not as good as it should ideally be. Rahul Vohra must have felt this stronger than anyone else. In 2010, he started a service called Rapportive, which worked with Gmail and showed the sender’s social media profiles in a side panel. It gave more context and more ways to take the conversation forward. (I wrote about it here.) LinkedIn bought it in 2014. 

Vohra then became even more ambitious about what one can do with emails. His latest venture, Superhuman, which came with the tagline ‘the fastest email experience ever made’, became the buzziest startup in Silicon Valley. Price to access the email service: $30 per month. Waiting list: 180,000. “The product makes you feel like a better version of yourself and is relaxing to use,” Jeff Morris Jr, director of product, revenue at Tinder tweeted. But then, it got into trouble. It emerged that a sender could see a recipient’s rough location and online status, a violation of privacy. Vohra swiftly shut down the tracking feature, and deleted location data from its servers. 

Ten years down the line, how will we look back at these missteps and corrections? Kindly? The way we will look at someone who is trying to figure out the answer by trial and error? 

Dig Deeper 

  • Rahul Vohra, CEO of Superhuman, on what he learnt from the entire episode. 
  • David Ulevitch of A16Z explains why they invested in Superhuman.
  • The issue is obviously not restricted to Superhuman. Mashable has a quick primer on how to avoid being tracked. 
  • JR Raphael presents the big picture of what’s happening in the world of Gmail.


The problem with games

[Image by Bruno Glätsch from Pixabay] 

In a short essay in Aeon, Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist, shines the light on the surprising origins of the board game Monopoly. Today, watching a bunch of kids playing the game, it will be easy to imagine the winner to be a Mark Zuckerberg, or a Jeff Bezos, or a Bill Gates (during his Microsoft years). The game is designed to reward the player who aggressively accumulates wealth and ruthlessly crushes their opponents. It’s a celebration of values that take you to the top and keep you there.

However, the game was invented by a woman named Elizabeth Magie who wanted to demonstrate quite the opposite: the evils of capitalism, the evils of “land grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences”. 

The roll of dice doesn’t always take you to the place you want to go. Or to the place you fear you might end up in.

Dig Deeper 

  • Bumble, the dating app, was built to empower women. Its headquarters doesn’t present a pretty picture. 
  • The biggest strengths of blockchain technology—anonymity, immutability, and distributed control—are also its greatest vulnerabilities.


The dog collar effect

[From Maxpixel]

A few years ago, a woman named Heather Oberdorf bought a dog collar with a retractable leash from a small seller called The Furry Gang through Amazon. She took her dog for a walk. At one point, the dog rushed forward, the collar broke, the leash recoiled, and it hit and blinded her left eye. She sued Amazon for selling a defective product. Philadelphia’s Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Amazon is responsible for her injury. 

How this case proceeds can fundamentally reset the boundaries we draw around the responsibilities of a platform. Platforms such as Amazon had an inbuilt system to signal quality—customer reviews and votes. That might not work any longer. Since these platforms get a disproportionate share of the value that gets created on it, they might also have to pay for the value that gets destroyed. 

Dig Deeper 

  • The Bloomberg story, published a few days before the ruling, explains the potential implications of the case. 
  • Vinay Kesari in a September 2018 column in Factor Daily explored the state of intermediary liability in India. 


The moral consequences of scientific progress

Earlier this year, there was news about Yale scientists restoring brain functions of 32 clinically dead pigs. In an essay in The New York Times Magazine, Matthew Shaer does a deep dive and explores its implications. The most mind bending implication is on the question of death itself. If brains can be restored after death, what is the meaning of death? What if a rich man wants to transplant his brain to another body after his death, and finds a scientist willing and able to do that?

The following sentence stood out as an example of how we think not just about the science of restoring brains, but about technology in general.  

“In our conversations, Sestan was always happy to expound on the science behind his experiment but cagier when it came to the implications.”

Dig Deeper

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About the author

N S Ramnath
N S Ramnath

Senior Editor

Founding Fuel

NS Ramnath is a member of the founding team & Lead - Newsroom Innovation at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book, The Aadhaar Effect. His main interests lie in technology, business, society, and how they interact and influence each other. He writes a regular column on disruptive technologies, and takes regular stock of key news and perspectives from across the world. 

Ram, as everybody calls him, experiments with newer story-telling formats, tailored for the smartphone and social media as well, the outcomes of which he shares with everybody on the team. It then becomes part of a knowledge repository at Founding Fuel and is continuously used to implement and experiment with content formats across all platforms. 

He is also involved with data analysis and visualisation at a startup, How India Lives.

Prior to Founding Fuel, Ramnath was with Forbes India and Economic Times as a business journalist. He has also written for The Hindu, Quartz and Scroll. He has degrees in economics and financial management from Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning.

He tweets at @rmnth and spends his spare time reading on philosophy.

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