A Stanford professor studies how your computer is manipulating you

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. Jealousy.com 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 jealousy.com 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.

Jealousy.com, 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 jealousy.com 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 jealousy.com 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.

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