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A Stanford professor studies how your computer is manipulating you

Wednesday, Apr 12 2000
f you think your spouse might be stepping out, Stanford University student Alex Osipovich has designed a Web program that might be of interest to you. was conceived to help jaundiced husbands and wives catch their spouses in the act of cybercheating by "[sniffing] out their e-mails and [showing] you what they're up to."

Embellished with kitschy black-and-white photos from old romance movies, the site asks for e-mail and IP addresses of the supposed philanderer, and then sends a "covert monitoring program" to the suspect spouse as an inconspicuous e-mail greeting card. Once implanted on the target's computer, the program sifts out other e-mails containing keywords such as "kiss," "passion," or "kill," and forwards copies to the suspicious spouse.

Before you log on to look for it, be aware that isn't actually on the Web now. Osipovich created the program for a computer science class at Stanford University as an exercise to demonstrate the Web's more pernicious side.

The class in captology (Computers as Persuasive Technology) is Stanford professor B.J. Fogg's brainchild, a new area of study into ways that computers are particularly useful in persuading people to change attitudes, buy certain products, or relinquish personal information.

Though the notion that computers can be persuasive seems obvious now, Fogg began his work in the early '90s. At the time, devoting attention to the subtle influences computers can have on human behavior -- and the ways that behavior might be manipulated -- was an idea that was often dismissed as ludicrous -- and sometimes earned Fogg poor grades.

"Before the Web came around, it was not apparent that computers could be used to motivate or persuade," Fogg says. "People didn't see it. They were concerned with making their computers work properly, then they were concerned that the computer was user-friendly. The idea that computers could persuade was not on many people's radar screen. But once the Web became popular, so much about the Web was persuasive. Now it is key."

Fogg's research, he says, has found that computers can be even more seductive and manipulative then traditional advertising and media, because they are interactive. Computers are both "ordinary and extraordinary" in their ability to persuade, Fogg says, because they can use all the persuasive tactics of standard media, plus employ humanistic strategies that are programmed into them -- all without a human's ethical conscience., for example, would unabashedly -- and guiltlessly -- snoop in people's e-mail inboxes, raising some serious privacy and ethics questions. Osipovich did well on the project because the class assignment asked him to create the most sinister piece of persuasive technology possible. And that's because Fogg, Osipovich's professor, encourages students to explore both the positive and dark sides of captology.

"Persuasive computing is both good and bad, depending on how the technology is designed and how people use it," Fogg explains. "It's important to educate ourselves and others about persuasive computing. This knowledge helps us benefit from pro-social persuasive technologies and guard ourselves from those that aren't in our best interests."

Though is not technically up and running, it very well could be. All the technical and conceptual ideas are in place, and a mock version is available on Osipovich's personal Web site.

"The main thing we realized while doing is that it's a completely feasible idea; it's a very natural fit to the level of technology available today," Osipovich says. "It just shows how easy it is to do something unethical on the Internet. I'm surprised nobody is doing this right now."

Fogg argues that people best learn about the darker possibilities of computers, because persuasive technology is becoming more common; we are inundated with examples of captology every day. Even the most pedestrian aspects of our Silicon Valley, tech-crazed lives -- Web banner ads, installation software, and computer games -- force us to succumb to computerized persuasion. Web banner ads that use games, surveys, and splashy graphics to seduce us into clicking on the ads are obvious examples.

More complex forms of captology, or "devices," include a CD-ROM program that attempts to curb college binge drinking by simulating drunkenness at a frat party. AutoWatch tries to persuade teen drivers to stay under the speed limit by allowing parents to monitor speed through a sensor.

A quirky example of captology that is becoming popular in high schools across the country is the Baby Think It Over Doll. The $250 doll is a computerized version of the home economics class assignment where students simulate parenthood by carrying an egg around for a week. Unlike the now-archaic egg, Baby Think It Over is a life-sized doll that cries at random and mimics the needs of an infant in order to dissuade teens from becoming premature parents.

Captology grew out of Fogg's early Ph.D. thesis work at Stanford in 1994. Though persuasive technology has been around since the '70s, Fogg is recognized as the inventor and leading proponent of the study of persuasive technology -- he is a captology prophet of sorts.

Fogg, who also runs the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, says he is the only professor in the world teaching courses specifically on the subject; Stanford is the only university to offer the class. As a result, Fogg says there are only about 100 people around the globe whom he considers well-versed captologists -- many of them former students or colleagues at Stanford.

Fogg recently christened 22 more captologists in early March when he sauntered into a classroom during finals week at Stanford and announced to his students that they had become world experts in captology. "This is probably the only course where you can become a world expert in 10 weeks because this is so new and fresh," the lanky and easygoing Fogg told his students as they prepared for final presentations.

Of course, not everyone is overly impressed with the academic niche Fogg has carved out for himself.

Ben Shneiderman, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland at College Park, says that many academics probably haven't even heard of captology. "It's not a field yet," Shneiderman says. "Let's not get carried away. Fogg created the term, a few people are interested. It will either grow or it will become a part of the social sciences."

But captology is beginning to spread beyond the Peninsula. In addition to teaching a class every year at Stanford for the last three years, Fogg regularly makes the rounds on the collegiate speaker circuit. Fogg's book on the subject will be published later this year.

Fogg says he crams teaching and speeches and interviews with reporters into his hectic schedule because educating the masses about captology is his ultimate goal. Baby Think It Over Dolls and anti-drinking CD-ROMs are only one side of the story, he says. On the flip side is what Fogg calls the ethically questionable "dark side" that can produce Web sites like

"There is no question whether or not persuasive technology will be used for undesirable purposes," Fogg says. "It will. The issue is, can consumers be savvy enough to identify what's going on? We need to generate that understanding for interactive technology so people can protect themselves. The first line in the defense is education."

The dark side of captology already exists, though perhaps unknowingly to product designers. Fogg's favorite example is a computer software company that designed its Web banner ad to look like an emergency alert, implying that the computer would crash unless the user clicks on the ad.

"It's not just persuasive," Fogg says of the ad, "it's also downright deceptive."

And several years ago, Hewlett-Packard launched its goldfish screen saver, a gimmick to get computer owners to use more HP paper and ink cartridges. Every time something is printed on an HP printer, users earn "bubble points" to buy thermometers, plants, and aphrodisiac fish food for their virtual aquatic pet. But as Fogg points out, an environmentalist would take issue with the program because it actively encourages more printing, and the excessive use of paper.

"The people that designed it were very clever when you look at it as a way to sell more ink cartridges," Fogg explains. "But from an environmental standpoint, it's a bad idea."

San Francisco's Netpulse Communications has also used persuasive technology to boost profits. Netpulse has incorporated Internet access into an exercise bike, and boasts on its Web site that it "provides consumers with unlimited broadband access to the Internet while they exercise. At the same time, Netpulse offers sponsors a compelling medium for precisely targeting high impact advertising, merchandising, direct marketing, and e-commerce programs to reach a demographically attractive yet hard-to-reach audience."

"Most people on the Web are savvy enough to know that there are things designed to sell them stuff, like commercials," Fogg explains. "What people may not realize are the subtle capabilities that computers have in terms of watching who you are, and what you like, and what you do. What makes a computer different from a brochure is that interactive quality. It can have the persuasive quality of humans without the weaknesses of humans. It is always persistent, watchful, it never gets tired."

In the worst-case scenario, Fogg foresees a time when institutions -- perhaps the government -- impose persuasive devices on the masses to influence the way we think or act.

So Fogg has dedicated much of his study of captology to battling the dark side. He hosts captology ethics conferences each year at Stanford, and encourages his students to dream up sinister applications of persuasive technology so they can realize the full extent of its power.

"We want to identify, early on, the trouble areas with persuasive technology, and raise awareness with the general public and with designers," Fogg says. "Designers have an ethical responsibility, like business or government."

Ethics, however, is murky territory and other than advocating education and ethics discussions, Fogg hasn't come up with specific, foolproof ways to prevent the dark side from taking over.

But studying captology can reap many benefits, Fogg and his supporters say. Already, Army researchers at Ft. Leavenworth have begun exploring "virtual peacemaking," technology to help state leaders avoid conflict and war.

Still, the University of Maryland's Shneiderman remains unconvinced by Fogg's technological rhetoric. He refers to captology as Fogg's "lovely invention and infatuation."

"It's clever," Shneiderman continues. "He has identified what I think is a fresh perspective about thinking about computers. He makes us aware of the potential for technology to purposefully, surprisingly, and disturbingly change our attitudes. But from my point of view, more attention needs to be paid to human responsibility. The designers and implementers of these technologies must be held accountable for their usage."

"Some see it as a horrible use of technology and another way to interfere with people's lives," Fogg counters. "But persuasive technology is here, and more is coming. Whether we understand it or not, it's going to play out. In the future, computers might be more persuasive than people because they have more access to information. And that's where the potential and the pitfalls lie. That's why we need to understand it now. And one of the most ethical things we can do is understand -- and understand early -- how to apply it in good ways."

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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