Tuesday, May 02, 2017

botherware, blue whale and outsourcing of decision-making

I attended a short course on social marketing (a standard encounter in my line of work) and while most of the day was dedicated to communicating the health risks of sunbeds to devotees of the Liverpool look (it was a culturally expanding day for me) there was also a visit from people selling a wellbeing app, the kind that sends you text instructions every day. The company in question was at the stage of trying to sell it as a way of reducing community mental health expenditure and was full of anecdata about how valuable it had proved in multiple circumstances. I lost count of the number of people who had spoken to their neighbours or unexpectedly baked a cake for someone as a result of this app. Naturally I signed up on the spot. I always take the antique work i-pad along to days like this, and it's a great way of seeing how reliably a thing runs.

I managed to sign up. The immediate functionality was cheerleading other people's wellbeing activities, so I did a bit of that. Then I forgot about it, like you do.

A few days later, I started getting the texts. Go screen free this evening! Take a different route home! Compliment a colleague! Spot ten things you don't normally see! Watch someone talk for ten minutes on Youtube about wellbeing!

Hmmm. After the "eulogy task" text, I switched the alerts onto another phone and thereafter ignored them. Chalk it up under "inexplicably popular, but not for me"? Or is there something more going on?

At aroundabout the same time I became aware of the blue whale phenomenon. This weird mass of cultural flotsam (an online game, a real life court case, an online video series) was initially taken for an online suicide cult by the tabloids, several of which have been running with this idea ever since, despite substantial debunking. It adopts a similar sort of methodology, with tasks messaged to you every day. Not exactly the same kind of tasks, although write your own eulogy could conceivably turn up on both.

Like the more expensive wellbeing apps, it also claims to offer an online mentor, although given how the entire framework and toolkit is freely shared online, it could simply be peer mentoring, like my initial cheerleading for my wellbeing buddies on the directed cheerfulness app, delivered by other newbies overexcited that they've got their hands on the script.

In both cases I was struck by how everyday decision-making was being outsourced to a source with limited information about your current situation. It's easy to put this down as aimlessness, or a desire for a purpose, or something less polite, probably using the word sheeple. But perhaps it is also a logical response to the complexity of our nowadays everyday; a recognition that in a world this complex, there is a certain value perceived in having an outside influence, a randomiser, bombing your everyday plans with disorientating and pointless instructions to watch psychedelic videos and/or speak to and smile at strangers.

When all time can be spent profitably and enjoyably, in multiple ways, when there is far more task available than can be fitted into time, then decision-making becomes a process of elimination. The known good can displace unknown activities of uncertain reward, and the joy of happenstance, exploration, and participation in the unknown and extraordinary can fade unless actively cultivated or curiously pursued,

In this densely packed world of infinite entertainment, the desire to switch off from the current curators of our cultural life and try something different taps directly into our fears of missing out or being left behind. Yet my instant revulsion with being bossed around by text messages from some sort of Poppins-meets-Wiseman algorithm suggests a suitable protective response is available to guard against bad data coming in through this window. It can be summarised very briefly:

You what? This is bullshit. No.