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Persuasion technology

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Persuasion technology (or persuasion aids or presentation aids or coercion aids or coercion technology) is the most general term for presentation technology[?] and technologies used in brainwashing, cult recruiting[?] and hard sell[?] methodologies. Any technology designed and deployed for those purposes can be considered to be a persuasion technology - a more neutral term that does not assume coercion.

Assumptions that technology is coercive are common among those who use this term. Those who don't often refuse to differentiate adaptive technologies of persuasion that exploit discovered weaknesses of the audience in real time, and pressure one person or group to commit, from mass media broadcast advertising or even public broadcasting that reinforces widely held views. If one denies this distinction, one may see the role of technology as akin to peer pressure or the persuasive powers of a skilled orator - not in itself something to be studied.

Also, since most of the technologies described have non-persuasive or social uses, some refer to persuasion by technology or persuasion via technology. However, there are also technologies, e.g. PowerPoint, that are clearly designed for persuasive power, and are constantly enhanced based on feedback - from persuaders.

Table of contents

augments conversation 'unfairly'

Generally, persuasion technology is used to augment a human face-to-face or voice interaction, particularly in a selling or other situation where the seller seeks to gain an edge on the buyer. In this general sense, 'sellers' can be those promoting a particular point of view, and 'buyers' anyone they recruit. Political or religious views can be promoted using the same methods and technologies, as became obvious in recent times as the use of advanced technologies became affordable for nearly any group.

What distinguishes a persuasion or coercive presentation technology is the impossibility of the individual being persuaded from responding with or creating an equally-effective response in real time. Whereas in ordinary conversation, an individual speaking from his or her own experience or views may be more eloquent, but does not achieve a technological and arguably unfair advantage.

Compare that situation to a radio talk show[?], or the TV news[?], and the differences become obvious. A host or journalist enjoys the priveleged position and can cut off speakers, refer to carefully prepared materials or questions prepared beforehand. Objections to the slant or the assumptions, or in the case of advertising the pitch can be muted by likewise referring to scripts.

Those answering the questions or raising the objection simply cannot do this, as they have not seen the pitch before, and do not have the technology or time. The technological and preparation advantage of the radio host, TV host, weblog sysop, or experienced salesman is decisive - in this sense technology is no more an edge than preparation.

spin control

However, technology stands alone as a pre-defined body of preparation - Lawrence Lessig observed that source code and its architecture are the decisive influence on most ordinary decisions of how communications work. And, social institutions and power, tend to form both the technology's priorities and how it is used to address the society's important issues:

Persuasion technology is of particular interest to political leadership, who can exploit characteristics of certain media to ensure their message is heard, and not diluted, while simultaneously breaking up the dissent; The growth of 'narrowcasting[?]' has made it possible to reach friends and avoid enemies - the email lists[?] are the most obvious example. If they control the actual medium in which their message is expressed, there is every chance that they can anticipate objections and select responses - this is called spin control[?] and those who do it are spin doctors.

Politicians, increasingly, can control the time they spend in front of the press, make themselves a scarce resource, and effectively force members of the press to please them or lose access. Politicians have access to other, more persuasive, forms of technology, including email, the web, television advertising, and etc. - thus persuasion may be implicit whenever politics meets electronic media. Noam Chomsky, Douglas Rushkoff[?], Jane Jacobs and Marshall McLuhan among others have claimed that this is in fact the case, although they say quite different potential problems. Media theory[?] is concerned with issues of how the characteristics of media itself influence the decision or options or speed with which the decision is considered - itself a kind of culture bias if the media or technology that one uses to make decisions is a 'culture'.


Different scenarios of locale, vocabulary, and technology result in some well-known impacts, e.g. infrastructure bias, on persuasive ability:

  • face-to-face conversation in person, with a simple vocabulary, is the traditional or default mode of communication between human beings - in say Papua New Guinea, there are 3 million persons speaking 750 languages in day to day life - almost all of which have less than 2000 words each
  • face-to-face conversation in person, specialist vocabulary, permits the specialist to exploit any lack of familiarity of the other with the terms - professions impose ethical codes to limit this conflict of interest.
  • face-to-face conversation in person, institutional or ideological vocabulary, permits the person allied to power to exploit this alliance and demonstrate to the other that they gain power by adopting these terms - a key reason that cult recruiting[?] or brainwashing works.
  • voice conversation via telephone, no charge per minute, handsfree, cordless, permits conversations of roughly the same ease as face to face, permitting parties so enabled to wander around, possibly do chores, and sometimes even to do errands.
  • voice conversation via telephone, cost charged per minute, puts the party being charged more in control of the agenda, i.e. "it's your dime", and it may restrict the willingness of the poorer party to initiate questions if they are concerned about telecom cost, and they are the party being charged.
  • voice conversation via telephone, restrictions on movement imposed, especially if they are imposed only on one person, i.e. by a phone cord while the person persuading is happily walking around unencumbered for the duration of a long call, and can say silently go to the bathroom as the person they are talking to squirms on the phone, themselves unable to do so.
  • voice conversation via telephone, while driving, puts the driver under extreme attention constraints, as they must keep their eyes on the road - failure of many drivers to do so has led to legislation in many US states against any use of cellphones while driving.
  • blackboard, the conventional medium of persuasion technology in the classroom, provides only one colour (typically white), and requires each presentation to be authored from scratch, typically while the presenter is also talking. They clearly put one party in a room in charge of the presentation, however, and audiences are trained to let them take charge.
  • soundtrack alongside a presentation may influence emotion in the listeners, even perhaps disrupting the critical faculty of the brain (eg: induce undue fear or comfort)
  • overhead projectors[?] or flip-charts[?] which may be predrawn rather than scribbled out anew, let the presenter concentrate on oral aspects of his presentation, and may be useful to distract attention or limit forms of objection - especially if time is tight and the audience knows that an objection only leads to another slide that they otherwise can avoid.
  • 35mm slides[?] which are typically higher resolution, full colour and include photographs - which can provide graphic evidence for a position. By contrast, the audience typically does not have such photographs on hand as evidence, and also typically cannot present them easily to everyone at once, as they are not in 35mm slide format for use in the projector.
  • selling scripts[?] organize verbal/oral aspects of presentation in advance, permitting the seller to focus on objections and relationships - by contrast their audience must actually think up objections on the spot, and probably cannot form new relationships with everyone else in the room, many of whom they may be meeting for the first time, unlike the seller.
  • Microsoft PowerPoint, which combines the advantages of both slides and scripts, and permits integration potentially with many other media, including the World Wide Web, to reach people not present currently. When combined with Internet video[?] technology, the whole presentation can be packaged with its prepared and spontaneous elements, making it seem to the viewer that they had the opportunity to raise objections themselves, when in fact they didn't - the basis of the infomercial[?].
  • Movies - high sensory impact; expensive to produce.
  • Radio - pervasive; but is regulated.
  • Customer relationship management systems which typically enable "cross-selling[?]" and "up-selling[?]" based on records of customer buying habits. Very often these include personal information about the customer such as family status and number of children, possibly political views (especially when employed to promote political candidates), etc., and are a potentially great risk to customer privacy and even to political privacy or medical privacy[?] if such details are stored. This information of course greatly enables the selling of practically anything in a telemarketing scenario where the customer cannot see the degree to which the salesperson is looking up scripts or personal details.
  • Internet chat bot[?] deployed to sell something, e.g. a net porn service, possibly most devious of all, as it can pretend to be another ordinary user, but in fact may embody unlimited artificial intelligence or collective intelligence deployed for any purpose.
  • Exit console[?] - pop-up web browser window to pitch related products/services when user is about to switch off.

reputedly 'egalitarian' technologies

Technologies that pretend to be egalitarian and equal access, such as Instant messaging or email or wikipedia, have great potential for use in persuasion, as they eliminate the most obvious objections that one group has power over another (aside from hardware access, bandwidth, typing speed and language mastery, which are themselves major barriers).

The deployment of bots in an IM medium, scripts and responders and forwarding filters in email, and the extreme power of sysops or script-authoring users over any wiki (but most especially wikipedia where there is no central system of real governance nor any board of directors), clearly provide a substantial edge that is based purely on technology and skills that are associated with it.

Accordingly, these technologies are not particularly 'egalitarian' when compared to traditional meeting systems - except insofar as they permit participation by people who are widely geographically distributed and not required to come to a single physical place to discuss things - itself possibly a more potent barrier to participation than communications technology.

future potential

Future potentials for persuasion technology range from the benign to the dystopic. Some view all communications technology as good and a 'rising tide' that will ultimately enable rural and urban people to participate in a common civics. Others view these technologies as inherently bad and distractive from one's physical surroundings, i.e. the environment - and from social relationships with one's family and friends who are truly and uniquely physically present. Some consider the idea of community via technology to be the most dangerous, as it permits people to pretend to some shared tolerances or shared values that simply do not exist. The explosion of telemarketing fraud[?] in recent years is evidence for this, as many cheated individuals claim they were 'raised to trust in people' - a stark indictment of the power that technology gives to the untrustworthy to evade the responsibility of their actions, say across national borders.

Another concern is that so-called pervasive computing[?] (or "augmented reality" in the words of its promoters) will lead to carceral states where there is little or no consumer privacy, customer privacy or even political privacy. Client confidentiality[?] in the professions would have little meaning as Total Information Awareness and similar programs picked up conversations, e.g. between lawyer and client, and made it easier for police or intelligence officials to extract confessions from persons who had no way of knowing whether confidentiality had been broken.

Beginning with non-intrusive monitoring (such as temperature, perspiration, nervous behaviour, vocal stress), adaptive persuasion monitors susceptibility and receptivity and adjusts itself accordingly.

A less extreme statement of this potential is that individuals prompted by means of mobile communications technologies could be enabled to persuade us at random, identifying who we were and what we "need to be sold" by a combination of biometric identification[?] and online auctions trading directly in their attention, which they could no longer control.

System alert: turn to the person next to you and say, "rough night?" and begin a sales pitch of some alertness pill. This is clearly technically feasible but might lead to social resistances that make it impractical compared to present methods of coercion.

Finally, there is potential according to some for truly drastic extension of spying and monitoring into the human senses and brain itself. Such a "cognotechnology", which has actually been proposed by researchers at the United States military's Lawrence Livermore Labs[?], would have the potential to "detect criminal intent before it happens" and prevent an undesired behavior. In this case, no persuasion of an overt nature would be required, as the desire to behave contrary to authority would itself be extinguished at source. Whether this is practical or not, it is being discussed as if it might be, and that in itself has persuasive potential, e.g. directing funding for research into neurosciences and intelligence.

The extreme view of this potential is that a technological singularity will simply place the collection and distribution of information about us beyond human control entirely, and we will be persuaded by the equivalent of "disembodied voices", prompting us, as often reported by sufferers of schizophrenia. The technology involved would be incomprehensible and opaque, equivalent to magic or angels or demons to the average person.

threat or nuisance?

These scenarios would seem to be the ultimate in persuasion technologies. They might also seem to be the ultimate in paranoia - dystopias that project current trends to logical absurdity. At the very least, they require levels of collective intelligence and even artificial intelligence somewhat beyond that available for any current use.

Interestingly, the computer industry itself provides some examples of rejecting certain technologies simply for their power to persuade: Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems declared his company a PowerPoint-Free Zone, which was seen as a simple attack on his rival Bill Gates of Microsoft. But Lou Gerstner[?] of IBM went further, and declared that no presentation technology[?] at all would be used in his office, but that proposals would have to be presented on a single overhead slide with a single color of marker. He spoke strongly against the distraction of effort into persuasive presentations, and away from the core elements of business cases and real customer service. He did not, unlike Sun, ban his own salespeople from using these - a tacit acknowledgement that there was indeed power to sway decisions in such methods and technologies - and that he considered it an obligation to stockholders not to be himself swayed by it in his own office.

See also: brainwashing, persuasion, coercion, selling[?], artificial intelligence, technological singularity, Self-reference

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