The genius behind creating things too impractical to buy

How do companies keep getting you to buy the "latest and greatest" iteration of the product you already own? By testing the boundaries.

David Eagleman: The future is very hard to see—where the world is going. And most ideas die. And even really good ideas don’t last.

So just as an example, if you look at the Blackberry phone market share you’ll see that they were doing really well for a while and then they just tanked out. Why? Because they had a good idea, which was the physical keyboard on the phone, but that didn’t last. They held onto a good idea a little bit too long.

And this is something that creative companies need to be aware of all the time, is this constant updating. In other words they’ve got some great thing that’s working but it’s not going to last and they need to keep updated.

And this is why companies put out their “new and improved” models all the time.

We’re now on the iPhone 10 and it’s going to keep going because you can’t put out something great and then say, “all right, I think we’re done.” So the challenge for companies is that it’s hard to know what’s going to stick. And this is because if you do something that’s too close to what you’ve done before, your audience will be bored. If you do something that’s too wacky, then no one’s going to follow you there.

And so companies need to figure out how to feel out the border of the possible. And this is something that good companies work on all the time. The solution is to proliferate options. The solution is to put out lots of options, and those options should actually be at different distances from community standards.

Just as an example, fashion designers do this all the time. They have their next model of clothing and it’s great, it’s pretty similar to what came before. And they do wackier and wackier stuff all the way out to haute couture, where it’s not actually intended that anyone is going to wear this wacky outfit but it’s a way of “feeling out” the border of the possible. In the same way car designers do this.

So Mercedes Benz is constantly upgrading and updating its sedans. But they also like all car companies make these concept cars that are completely wacky.

So Mercedes recently put out this thing called the “biome concept car” which is the idea of a car that is grown from seeds and the fuel runs through the car body, and the tires and everything is powered by the electric, by the solar panel sunroof at the top, and the whole thing is biodegradable. Now Mercedes has no plans to actually build the biome concept car. It only lives on the computer.

But this is a way of taking a throw into the far distance to figure out what’s on the distant horizon, to figure out if you can move in that direction or not.

And all good companies have ways of doing that. Fisher Price is constantly updating its strollers and toys or whatever. But it has also this future of parenting line where they think about the impact of technology on childrearing of the future with very wacky things and projected images all around for your child and so on.

So even a company like Lowes—they sell tools and so on. That’s the standard stuff. But they have this essentially a “holodeck” where you step in and you get to design your room and so on. You put on these VR glasses and you get to see everything before you buy it. They call this the “marriage saver.” And this is what companies, good companies try to do is cover that spectrum, so they can figure out exactly what’s going to work to pull them into the future.

Do you really need another iPhone? Not really, but there's going to be another one anyway. That's because companies, as neuroscientist David Eagleman put it, "need to figure out how to feel out the border of the possible." It's a remarkable way to get you to buy more, and it works across the purchasing spectrum from cars to phones to houses. David's latest book: The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World.

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  • Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada.
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  • Unregulated "surveillance capitalism" commodifies people's personal information and makes them vulnerable to sometimes misleading ads.

LGBT groups are saying that Facebook is endangering lives by advertising misleading medical information pertaining to HIV patients.

The tech giant's laissez-faire ad policy has already been accused of threatening democracy by providing a platform for false political ads, and now policy could be fostering a major public-health concern.

LGBT groups take on Facebook’s ad policy

According to LGBT advocates, for the past six months Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada. The ads, which The Washington Post reports appear to have been purchased by personal-injury lawyers, claim that these medications threaten patients with serious side effects. According to LGBT organizations led by GLAAD, the ads have left some patients who are potentially at risk of contracting HIV scared to take preventative drugs, even though health officials and federal regulators say the drugs are safe.

LGBT groups like GLAAD, which regularly advises Facebook on LGBT issues, reached out to the company to have the ads taken down, saying they are false. Yet, the tech titan has refused to remove the content claiming that the ads fall within the parameters of its policy. Facebook spokeswoman Devon Kearns told The Post that the ads had not been rated false by independent fact-checkers, which include the Associated Press. But others are saying that Facebook's controversial approach to ads is creating a public-health crisis.

In an open letter to Facebook sent on Monday, GLAAD joined over 50 well-known LGBTQ groups including the Human Rights Campaign, the American Academy of HIV Medicine and the National Coalition for LGBT Health to publicly condemn the company for putting "real people's lives in imminent danger" by "convincing at-risk individuals to avoid PrEP, invariably leading to avoidable HIV infections."

What Facebook’s policy risks 

Of course, this is not the first time Facebook's policy has faced scrutiny when it comes to false or ambiguous information in its ads. Social media has been both a catalyst and conduit for the rapid-fire spread of misinformation to the world wide web. As lawmakers struggle to enforce order to cyberspace and its creations, Facebook has become a symbol of the threat the internet poses to our institutions and to public safety. For example, the company has refused to take down 2020 election ads, largely funded by the Trump campaign, that spew false information. For this reason, Facebook and other social media platforms present a serious risk to a fundamental necessity of American democracy, public access to truth.

But this latest scandal underlines how the misconstrued information that plagues the web can infect other, more intimate aspects of American lives. Facebook's handling of paid-for claims about the potential health risks of taking Truvada and other HIV medications threatens lives.

"Almost immediately we started hearing reports from front-line PrEP prescribers, clinics and public health officials around the country, saying we're beginning to hear from potential clients that they're scared of trying Truvada because they're seeing all these ads on their Facebook and Instagram feeds," said Peter Staley, a long-time AIDS activist who works with the PrEP4All Collaboration, to The Post.

Unregulated Surveillance Capitalism

To be fair, the distinction between true and false information can be muddy territory. Personal injury lawyers who represent HIV patients claim that the numbers show that the potential risks of medications such as Turvada and others that contain the ingredient antiretroviral tenofovir may exist. This is particularly of note when the medication is used as a treatment for those that already have HIV rather than prevention for those that do not. But the life-saving potential of the HIV medications are unequivocally real. The problem, as some LGBT advocates are claiming, is that the ads lacked vital nuance.

It also should be pointed out that Facebook has taken action against anti-vaccine content and other ads that pose threats to users. Still, the company's dubious policies clearly pose a big problem, and it has shown no signs of adjusting. But perhaps the underlying issue is the failure to regulate what social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff calls "surveillance capitalism" by which people's experiences, personal information, and characteristics become commodities. In this case, paid-for personal-injury legal ads that target users with certain, undisclosed characteristics. It's been said that you should be wary of what you get for free, because it means you've become the product. Facebook, after all, is a business with an end goal to maximize profits.

But why does a company have this kind of power over our lives? Americans and their legislators are ensnared in an existential predicament. Figure out how to regulate Facebook and be accused with endangering free speech, or leave the cyber business alone and risk the public's health going up for sale along with its government.