Arianna Huffington On Quest To Create The Methadone Of Tech

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Ariana Huffington left Huffington Post in 2016 to create Thrive Global — a confounding venture that aims to help people reduce stress and burnout by taking control of their relationship with technology. Three years later, I’m even less sure what that means — and the company’s recent acquisition of a startup that uses neuroscience to make you more addicted to technology doesn’t help in the slightest.

Thrive Global’s most public platform is its wellness blog where virtually anyone can post, even if they falsely claim they’re a doctor. But the company also runs workshops and has a “behaviour change coach” app.

The company announced on Thursday that it has purchased Boundless Minds, which Thrive describes as a “neuroscience-based artificial intelligence company and leader in behavioural design and engineering.”

TechCrunch called Boundless Minds a “tech company that wants to make you even more addicted to your phone” in a 2017 article that explained the startup pulls from the engagement strategies of Facebook and other social media to hook people on other apps.

Two months later, Facebook’s first president Sean Parker condemned Facebook’s engagement tactics in an Axios interview, saying it “exploit[s] a vulnerability in human psychology” by giving users “a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever,” creating a “social-validation feedback loop.”

At the time, Boundless Minds was called Dopamine Labs.

In a Thrive blog post about the recent purchase, Huffington wrote that she first found out about Dopamine Labs when 60 Minutes featured the company on a segment about “brain hacking.”

“I loved the fact that they were using the same technology designed to hook people to social media and gaming to instead unhook us, and help drive us to more healthy habits,” Huffington wrote in her blog. “I know it sounds paradoxical, but the truth here is paradoxical. We’ll never be able to change behaviour at scale if we don’t use all of the tools in our toolkit, including the most cutting-edge technology.”

In the 60 Minutes segment Boundless Minds cofounder and COO Ramsey Brown doesn’t say that they’re using the same technology to “unhook” people from social media, but he does mention his company built an app that creates a 12-second delay before social media apps launch on a phone, that didn’t get accepted into the Apple app store.

According to TechCrunch’s post about the acquisition, Boundless Minds’ current technology monitors phone activity, and analyses that information and uses it to create prompts that stimulate behaviour, presumably for the betterment of the user.

Huffington wrote in her blog that Thrive will use this technology for its “behaviour change platform,” which will help users make good choices that will benefit their health.

It’s unclear from Huffington’s blog or the company press release about the acquisition how it actually plans to accomplish these goals. Neither release provides concrete details.

Gizmodo asked Thrive Global for examples of how it plans to use Boundless technology and Thrive chief brand officer Danny Shea was even more opaque. He said that Thrive already has a behaviour change platform that it provides for business customers, which uses “inspiring storytelling to help shift individual behaviour and organizational culture” and Boundless technology will “dramatically accelerate our technology roadmap and [Software as a Service] business.”

Shea continued:

By integrating Boundless — with its reinforcement system and experiment systems and performance feedback loops — we will make our platform smarter and stickier. We’ll be able to target the right Microstep to the right user at the right time. We’ll leverage the Boundless team that has joined us at Thrive and their expertise to ensure that our platform drives intrinsic motivation — that our users get and feel rewards for doing things that are good for them that go beyond the financial incentives and extrinsic motivation that defined the last era of B2B wellness offerings.

Microstep is a Thrive-ism, which Huffington defines as “small, actionable, incremental, and science-backed steps we can take to make immediate changes in our daily lives.”

For what it’s worth, Thrive is already working for me. Trying to figure out what any of this means has made me want to disconnect from technology entirely.

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