December 08, 2020

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What The Seven Sins May Teach Us About Innovation, And Its Risks

One morning at our local bagel shop I watched as a tall man in skinny jeans approached to order, still scanning his iPhone 11 and intently push-pulling through the posts of some app or other. Standard behavior these days of course, but what happened next was interesting…

As Skinny Jeans ordered his onion bagel, while looking directly at the young woman taking his request, his thumb continued -- moving content up, down, pausing a moment, tap-tap and another swipe. His gaze never left the clerk but his thumb carried on undisturbed. This continued for several seconds at least, as things were apparently being blindly executed.

What was going on here? A combination of muscle-memory from 10,000 hours of practice? Was I being punked? (Looking around for camera.)

Or is this just where we find ourselves today: So connected to our devices that we can communicate almost intuitively, like longtime couples able to finish one another’s sentences.

I suppose we can lump it in with the rest of techno-social critiques that grabbed headlines this year, much of it focusing on negative impacts and troubling side effects: Our children are filled with anxiety while parents are persuaded to follow digital paths contrary to their good nature.

Creators of warning signals like Tristan Harris’s earnest docu-drama “The Social Dilemma” would have you believe all this is a result of innovative mind-manipulation cooked up in psycho-social courses at Stanford, or from overeager “growth hackers” tweaking algos to both give you what you want and lead you to what you didn’t know you needed.

While architects of these social media empires regret-bragged their past genius to the camera, lamenting in retrospect that circumstance turned it all to wickedness, I’m not aware of any of them returning the piles of money their tactics garnered.

Still, “The Social Dilemma,” along with the scores of other published screeds condemning the hazards of tech, does expose underlying ill intent with aplomb. A closer look shows that in many cases these takedowns preach a more important subtext: Bits control atoms. We humans are vulnerable to, if no match for, the ones and zeros.

Few of us building digital products advocate for subtly leading customers down a darkened path of fealty to the machines. Yet, here we are.

Before powerful analytics existed to reveal patterns inferring why people clicked this and tapped that – and long before clever algorithms were doing the work dynamically – some of us were tweaking product features in real time, “watching” live to see how consumers responded.

We were looking for indicators that would point the way to a better understanding of behavior, making us, in a sense, human algorithms absorbing input; learning and responding with our interpretation of what was being sought.

What I saw in the clicks became obvious, like when the contents of a “Magic Eye” poster snapped into focus. People were consistently responsive to anything tickling one of the so-called seven deadly sins: Pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and, of course, good old sloth. The “Sevens” if you will.

I started to think of the Sevens as a homing tool to help deliver what people were seeking, in the way they wanted it. It was a sextant for navigating innovations in the nascent digital world.

What I found is that most successful consumer products tapped into at least one or two of the seven sins.

So when an idea was held up to the Sevens and generated a “spark,” I assumed that electricity was a sign to consider moving forward.


Could any of the on-demand delivery services exist without our sloth? How would Instagram feel without envy? Robinhood might not be going gangbusters without greed. You get the picture.

It’s easy to see how this calculus could be a little distasteful, perhaps akin to the kinds of exploits lamented in “The Social Dilemma” and elsewhere. But I’d argue it’s a tool like any other, and judgement should lie in the result and not the process.

Our goal as makers of interesting experiences should not be to propel customers like wayward pinballs in hopes they’ll tap as many bumpers as possible. We want to satisfy needs at a deeper level, thus building a bond that draws people back under their own power.

Oscar Wilde may have been sensing our human condition when he wrote, “The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” Blurring the lines of judgment by placing us all in the soup is a clever way of making a point.

We may want to take this to heart, though, knowing that the nature of human behavior is unlikely to ever change much: Whether it’s with a swipe or a nod or a wink, it’s a safe bet people will continue their intimate relationship with tech, all while struggling with the attendant ambivalence.

Perhaps it’s time to absolve our customers of that struggle and create a platform for a common future where human nature – with all its frailties and foibles – can safely engage technology, without surrendering to servitude.

Whereas we may still communicate with our machines while simultaneously ordering breakfast, we'll want to be the ones doing the ordering rather than the other way around.


Some of my other writing can be found here:

Images: Pexels.