Digitalization: Their advantage is our disadvantage

Some cherish it, some despite it: Digitalization. Merriam-Webster defines it as a process of converting something to digital form (Merriam Webster, n.d.). It comes with many benefits: It provides a greater resource management and data-driven customer insights, it enhances the customer experience and simultaneously the work culture. Due to added working methods it increases agility and productivity. While the collection of data is an advantage on the one side, it can also portray a disadvantage on the other side, causing tremendous privacy issues.

Whenever we are online, data is being collected. Whether we are liking our friends vacation pictures on Instagram, watching a Zara haul on YouTube, researching a pasta recipe on Google, or even when we let Google Maps guide us to the new café we want to check out. Our data is being saved, sold and used to create a customized user experience. In a majority of the cases we are reminded of that by the classic cookie pop-up. However, we are not being told what exact data is being collected- that might even be the movement of your mouse cursor- or who that information is sold to. While awareness is being raised for this matter, not least by the Netflix Documentary “The Social Dilemma”, there is another aspect that is less known but at least as impactful: Dark Patterns.

Dark Patterns are “deceptive UX/UI interactions, designed to mislead or trick users to make them do something they don’t want to do” (Jaiswal, 2018). Here’s an example: Have you ever tried to unsubscribe from a website but weren’t able to find the unsubscribe button? That is a perfect example of a Dark Pattern. This means that companies design patterns, so that user act in a way that financially benefits the company and deceives the user. Or in other ways, we are being tricked into doing what they want us to do. This can be done simply by choosing more or less striking colors, forms or even fonts. What we consider bad design is a highly strategic manoeuvre. This way, a higher amount of customers is being attained, more sales are being generated, therefore more profit is being achieved.

Dark Patterns are the end result of deceptive practices in retail, research on nudges and growth hacking and have been around for decades (Chetty, Kshirsagar, Mathur, Narayanan, 2020). What makes them so controversial is that they go against European legislation but authorities are having a hard time to go against them (Caruso, 2019).

Oftentimes, websites for instance suggest anti-privacy options by default, or make it extremely difficult for the users to protect their data.

Although oftentimes it is even difficult to determine whether an aspect is added intentional or unintentional. The proceeding of Digitalization of course favors the generation of new technologies for Dark Patterns, such as Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence. To sum it up, this way of affecting people’s decision making by “obscuring, subverting or impairing consumer autonomy” (Zhu, 2021) turns this into a manipulative strategy.

Is this ethically correct? No! But the legislative fight against Dark Patterns is ongoing, and that makes it even more important for us as users to inform and protect ourselves from falling victim to these tricks. While it is an extreme time investment, it is possible to protect us from these Dark Patterns to some extent at least. For instance, we need to pay more attention to the overall design of the website, need to invest more time into reading before agreeing to anything and above all, educate ourselves on that topic. The latter is already a huge step towards protetcing your own data. While not as heinous as the data being collected by sites like Facebook and Google, these Dark Patterns are just as (if not more so) insidious, as they impact our behaviour in ways we don’t comprehend, until we educate ourselves.

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