A Stanford professor studies how your computer is manipulating you

Fogg recently christened 22 more captologists in early March when he sauntered into a classroom during finals week at Stanford and announced to his students that they had become world experts in captology. "This is probably the only course where you can become a world expert in 10 weeks because this is so new and fresh," the lanky and easygoing Fogg told his students as they prepared for final presentations.

Of course, not everyone is overly impressed with the academic niche Fogg has carved out for himself.

Ben Shneiderman, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland at College Park, says that many academics probably haven't even heard of captology. "It's not a field yet," Shneiderman says. "Let's not get carried away. Fogg created the term, a few people are interested. It will either grow or it will become a part of the social sciences."

But captology is beginning to spread beyond the Peninsula. In addition to teaching a class every year at Stanford for the last three years, Fogg regularly makes the rounds on the collegiate speaker circuit. Fogg's book on the subject will be published later this year.

Fogg says he crams teaching and speeches and interviews with reporters into his hectic schedule because educating the masses about captology is his ultimate goal. Baby Think It Over Dolls and anti-drinking CD-ROMs are only one side of the story, he says. On the flip side is what Fogg calls the ethically questionable "dark side" that can produce Web sites like jealousy.com.

"There is no question whether or not persuasive technology will be used for undesirable purposes," Fogg says. "It will. The issue is, can consumers be savvy enough to identify what's going on? We need to generate that understanding for interactive technology so people can protect themselves. The first line in the defense is education."

The dark side of captology already exists, though perhaps unknowingly to product designers. Fogg's favorite example is a computer software company that designed its Web banner ad to look like an emergency alert, implying that the computer would crash unless the user clicks on the ad.

"It's not just persuasive," Fogg says of the ad, "it's also downright deceptive."

And several years ago, Hewlett-Packard launched its goldfish screen saver, a gimmick to get computer owners to use more HP paper and ink cartridges. Every time something is printed on an HP printer, users earn "bubble points" to buy thermometers, plants, and aphrodisiac fish food for their virtual aquatic pet. But as Fogg points out, an environmentalist would take issue with the program because it actively encourages more printing, and the excessive use of paper.

"The people that designed it were very clever when you look at it as a way to sell more ink cartridges," Fogg explains. "But from an environmental standpoint, it's a bad idea."

San Francisco's Netpulse Communications has also used persuasive technology to boost profits. Netpulse has incorporated Internet access into an exercise bike, and boasts on its Web site that it "provides consumers with unlimited broadband access to the Internet while they exercise. At the same time, Netpulse offers sponsors a compelling medium for precisely targeting high impact advertising, merchandising, direct marketing, and e-commerce programs to reach a demographically attractive yet hard-to-reach audience."

"Most people on the Web are savvy enough to know that there are things designed to sell them stuff, like commercials," Fogg explains. "What people may not realize are the subtle capabilities that computers have in terms of watching who you are, and what you like, and what you do. What makes a computer different from a brochure is that interactive quality. It can have the persuasive quality of humans without the weaknesses of humans. It is always persistent, watchful, it never gets tired."

In the worst-case scenario, Fogg foresees a time when institutions -- perhaps the government -- impose persuasive devices on the masses to influence the way we think or act.

So Fogg has dedicated much of his study of captology to battling the dark side. He hosts captology ethics conferences each year at Stanford, and encourages his students to dream up sinister applications of persuasive technology so they can realize the full extent of its power.

"We want to identify, early on, the trouble areas with persuasive technology, and raise awareness with the general public and with designers," Fogg says. "Designers have an ethical responsibility, like business or government."

Ethics, however, is murky territory and other than advocating education and ethics discussions, Fogg hasn't come up with specific, foolproof ways to prevent the dark side from taking over.

But studying captology can reap many benefits, Fogg and his supporters say. Already, Army researchers at Ft. Leavenworth have begun exploring "virtual peacemaking," technology to help state leaders avoid conflict and war.

Still, the University of Maryland's Shneiderman remains unconvinced by Fogg's technological rhetoric. He refers to captology as Fogg's "lovely invention and infatuation."

"It's clever," Shneiderman continues. "He has identified what I think is a fresh perspective about thinking about computers. He makes us aware of the potential for technology to purposefully, surprisingly, and disturbingly change our attitudes. But from my point of view, more attention needs to be paid to human responsibility. The designers and implementers of these technologies must be held accountable for their usage."

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