Goads and dark patterns

A goad is a traditional farming tool: a long stick with a pointed end for managing behaviour in animals, and encouraging them to move in a particular direction, by means of painful prodding. This could be used of a range of animals, from cattle to elephants. Most animals, wanting to avoid pain, will move. A stubborn animal might refuse to move, for as long as it can endure the pain. It might even kick the goad, causing even more pain.


An elephant goad (Wikipedia)

Like cattle, humans also tend to take the path of least resistance, avoiding unnecessary hassle, and allowing ourselves to get herded in a certain direction. Life is too busy and too stressful, so we yield and go with the flow, because fighting against it is just too much effort.

The Monopolies and Mega-Corps of this world know it. Late-stage capitalism is a grotesque array of companies employing increasingly cynical tactics to maximise profit from a customer. An ISP that makes money off its existing customers by raising prices, rather than seeking to gain new customers. Or indeed attracting new customers with deals that aren’t available to existing customers. That new customer will become an “existing customer” quite soon, locked in to the new price tariffs. These companies know that most people will just accept the new price with a grumble, and life goes on. They could even leak large quantities of customer data in a hack, and still keep their customer base.

Insurance companies raise your premium by 20% or 30% at renewal time, and still retain some customers. It doesn’t seem in their interest any more to keep customers for life. Price hikes and bait-and-switch offers are instead the order of the day.

Digital Rights Management is a painful goad that prods us to take the easy route, and just buy a Kindle, and buy e-books from Amazon forevermore. Buying DRM-free books, or stripping DRM from books purchased elsewhere, has been made deliberately complex and perhaps illegal - just in the aim of reading your book outside of the vendor’s walled garden. Very few people can sustain this effort on a continuous basis. Even getting a public domain book from the Gutenberg project onto a kindle device is such an effort that many people just buy a copy from Amazon. It hurts when you kick against the goad that’s prodding you. You can’t manage it for long, and end up complying. Isn’t it awful that our lives have been deliberately made stressful, just so that we conform to the path set by these big companies, and be under the false illusion that these companies are making our lives easier by having good integration with their own products and poor support for open standards?

In the UK, the government have given energy companies a target to achieve a certain percentage of “smart meters” installed in homes. In turn, the energy companies apply the pressure to the customers, under the grey area of advertising that allows them to suggest that smart meters are an energy saving device, so long as you provide enough small print. The first goad, is an regular prod from the energy supplier, “we are in your area and are ready to install your smart meter”. The second goad, a bit sharper, will be a request to submit meter readings with increasing frequency. The final step is financial penalty for non-smart meter users (or ineligibility for certain tariffs, which I hear is already happening). At some point we will give in, for an easier life. I’m starting to sound like a Luddite, but the first generation of Smart Meters were flawed, and now need replacing. And still, no end-user will see any benefit.

A dark pattern is a name for sneaky activity employed by companies to either catch us out or wear us down. Hidden costs, vendor Lock-in, extra items being automatically added to your basket at checkout item, having to decline the mandatory “would you like to supersize that meal?”, overly complex range of tariffs that are impossible to realistically compare, subtle differences in model numbers of appliances, so that price matching and comparison is largely impossible. Automatic opt-in to data-sharing services. Then there’s the stuff we don’t really see: profiling, selling your data, telemetry, invasive ads, trackers, browser fingerprinting… The list is long, and all boils down to companies not respecting their customers, while wanting to extort the most out of them.

So what can we do? The behaviour is so endemic, that there’s not a lot we can do without wearing ourselves out and becoming bitter.

These companies require us to make a decision. Either:

  • comply fully
  • be a customer while trying to exercise some sort of free-will, but submit to a lot of prodding with the goad
  • not use their services.

Where possible, it seems we need to look for alternatives that treat customers better. One such example is Free Open Source Software. While Google Chrome and Edge are harvesting your data, Firefox is respecting privacy - yet losing market share, partly due to anti-competitive measures (they don’t own the OS you are using), and partly due to lack of education. This option is a straight-forward choice for me, because Firefox is a worthy browser in its own right. Other areas are admittedly not so clear-cut where there are fewer good choices on the market, due to price, features or market-share. For example, I’d like to see alternative social networks and video sharing sites get bigger market-share - I use the alternatives, but I still also need to access content and community on twitter/youtube/etc that doesn’t quite exist on the alternatives yet (and unfortunately, while market share is small, the alternatives seem to have a significant population exhibiting weird or extreme behaviour under the guise of free speech - until more “normies” get on these platforms it’s destined to stay a bit…fringe) - each time I visit Youtube, I am harassed by an ever-increasing range of nagging messages to buy the premium service. The dark patterns on Youtube in particular make me hate myself for using the platform. I opt-out of personalised ads, and receive the same smutty ones in my feed day after day, with no way to choose not to see that particular ad again. I queried this with Youtube support, who eventually understood the issue, and suggested I file a feature request into the ether.

Even in the areas where it feels like the battle is lost, I think there’s room for disruption in the market that offers something fairer, or user-respecting. In the mobile phone scene, you have operators that offer monthly contracts and have kept prices stable for many years, while increasing the data allowances. Maybe there’s room in the market for an insurance company that offers a fair renewal price, and can keep its competitive edge? Or an energy company or a bank that doesn’t put you on an unfavourable rate after a year or so?

What do you think? Let me know on Mastodon (during the course of writing this post, I decided to remove Disqus comments from my blog).