The history of persuasion can be traced back to as far as the days of Aristotle, a great Greek philosopher and scientist. During this time in classical Greece, rhetoric was used during public speaking to persuade listeners. Affluent Greeks, usually males mastered the art of rhetoric and often exercised this skill to influence the opinions of citizens, encourage them to pursue a certain action and or change how they feel. During this time, the Greeks saw rhetoric and public speaking as a way of maintaining Greek democracy. Computers have become ubiquitous, everywhere and anywhere at the same time.
This article is an extract from my Master’s thesis. The article highlight the importance of persuasion and the role digital technologies plays in shaping the world through persuasion.
Today, rhetoric is still used often by politicians, and the best most recent example is during the Obama presidential campaign of 2008, where the candidate Obama used rhetoric such as in the phrase “Yes, We can” to persuade voters. Throughout the 20th century, the art of persuasion advanced, primarily due to social psychology research on behavioural aspects aimed at understanding what motivates people to change how they think, do and feel.
In 2012, the Obama campaign team used data to persuade citizens to vote for President Obama although, the technique used was previously used by the George W Bush’s campaign in 2004. What the Obama campaign team did differently to what the Republicans used in 2004 was that they involved brilliant behavioural and political scientists to mine consumer data and they used these insights to direct campaigns to potential voters on a mass scale often through using the internet. President Obama used this information to understand voters’ needs and thoughts; especially the Latino community who were decisive in the 2012 elections. President Obama incorporated this information in his speeches, which made him appealing to voters.
Moreover, the rise of the internet and social media has changed how persuasion happen, empowering individuals to be able to influence multitude of people in short period of time. The election of Donald Trump as 45th president of the United States of America has clearly illustrated power of social media; critics believe that the likes of Tweeter and Facebook influenced the election. Yes, this might be true to the extent that through sharing and retweeting millions of people were able to access fake news and political topic which instil fear and influenced people to vote for Trump.
In recent years, new trends have emerged leveraging on the power of technology, with the intentions of influencing people and encouraging them to adopt certain behaviours. The study of persuasion technology is not new; it has emerged in the late 1990s. Today, numerous scientific works exist, the prominent being the works of B.J. Fogg who is often referred to as the father of persuasion computing. There are two common definitions of persuasion technology. In his work, Fogg defines persuasion technology as interactive systems intended to change attitude and/ or behaviour.
In one of his earlier works, Fogg extended this definition to provide more detail by defining the concept of persuasion as an “attempt to shape, reinforce, or change behaviours, feelings, or thoughts about an issue, object, or action”.
Over the years numerous persuasive concepts have emerged, but not all of them are widely adopted like these two concepts: longer established persuasive technology and gamification. Generally, persuasive systems are built on assumptions that through technology human behaviours and attitudes may be influenced. However, humans are complex beings; therefore it is difficult to design a system that will change everyone’s attitude because every person is different in their own way.
In order for a system to be persuasive, it needs to incentivise the user. In other words, offer value to the user, either by improving the user’s life style or providing any other benefits. According to Fogg computers can be used in three basic ways; as a tool, actor and medium. If one reviews the different computing products and or solutions available today, it is evident that most of them combine these three roles.
Although not initially created for persuasion, computers have over the years evolved from large mainframes to desktops, and they have become essential components in our daily lives, changing people’s attitudes and behaviours. The ability of computers to change what people do, how they think and influence behaviour has made computers ubiquitous. Until a few years ago, the power of persuasion was only limited to laptops, main frame computers and or desktops. However, the emergence of powerful mobile devices such as mobile phones and tablets has made pervasive technology ubiquitous.
Embedded with sensors, these devices gather data within the user environment, providing clues, services and information to help mobile users make informed decisions. Furthermore, these devices do not only have the power to persuade but they are smart, with abilities to gather data. Presenting an opportunity for citizens not only to be consumers of data but empowering them to become data collectors.
No doubt, technology will continue to empower people to influence others, therefore help shape the world of their dreams. Thus, it’s up to you to embrace the technology or live in the world created by others.
Lameck Mbangula Amugongo is country Ambassador of 1 Billion Africa in Namibia. He holds B.IT: Software Engineering, B.Hons: Software Development (Cum Laude), MSc. Computer Science & PhD Candidate