The Dark Sides of Digital Marketing

The Illusion of Free Choice in the Age of Augmented Decisions

Fabian Buder, Koen Pauwels and Kairun Daikoku


Augmented Intelligence, Decision Making, AI, Algorithms, Free Choice

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The Age of Digital Convenience
The age of digitalization has created new opportunities for individuals, organizations, governments, and countries to cooperate and mutually benefit from each other. New technologies such as smartphones and mobile internet have enabled global networks and extended opportunities for individual and collective engagement and cooperation. Further, tasks that formerly meant tedious, long-lasting work or could not be accomplished at all, have become possible and even trivial with the extensive use of constantly improving technologies. However, more convenience has led to a growing reliance on these types of technologies in human decisions. In the augmented world we live in, a growing number of decision situations are designed by smart technologies - with unforeseen consequences for individuals and societies. Augmented decision-making undermines the freedom of choice. This is the price we pay for convenience.


Human Decision-Making in an Augmented World
The concept of augmentation or enhanced intelligence emphasizes, in contrast to the sometimes negatively evaluated concept of autonomous artificial intelligence (AI), a cooperation between humans and machines. While smart algorithms filter through data, identify patterns, and make recommendations, humans plan, think, and take the final decisions. Augmented intelligence is often considered as the future of decision-making for knowledge workers like doctors, managers or pilots. However, in our everyday lives, examples of augmented decisions are already omnipresent. Who determines what you see in your social media newsfeed, which movies and series you watch, or which products you buy? And think about the first thing you do when you plan to travel to a new destination. Most likely, you are using the map app on your smartphone, and not a classic road map or other directions. Following the route that the app suggests is usually the most convenient option.

Augmentation provides clear benefits in decision-making processes: AI helps reduce information overload, filter relevant information, and limit an otherwise overwhelming abundance of choices. The algorithms behind the services create a convenient world, freeing humans for more enjoyable tasks than gathering information, framing options and weighing alternatives for decisions. The recommendations and nudges of smart algorithms help humans to save time and still make choices that match their preferences. But this is only one side of the coin.

The dark side of digital convenience
There is a darker and often invisible side of the coin as well.

  • Loss of Freedom of Choice
    Augmented intelligence frees us from many chores, but it also limits free choice. We rely on our technologies, often unaware that we do no longer get the full picture, but a reality that might be curated for a specific purpose. In such cases, freedom of choice becomes an illusion. Humans have become accustomed to “doing everything” on their smartphones, and this tendency is reinforced by the apps and services of organizations such as Facebook, Google, and Netflix. Tech companies use technology as a vehicle to construct individual subjective reality, the internal space that frames our decision-making. Most of the information that humans base their decision on is filtered and pre-sorted by algorithms, which use huge amounts of user data to produce highly individualized recommendations to nudge us towards certain options (see Box 1).
    While such algorithms make our lives more convenient, they also fulfill various organizational objectives that users may not be aware of and that may not be in their best interest. We do not know whether algorithms augmenting human decisions truly optimize the benefit of their users or rather the return on investment of a company. In other words, producing a positive user experience is often a means to an end not an end in itself.
  • Polarization of beliefs
    A potential harm to societies and democracies is the emergence of information bubbles, enabling and strengthening a polarization of beliefs. Biased outcomes shape our identities, our view of the world, our social relationships, and most importantly the decisions we make. For instance, YouTube alone accumulates in total more than one billion hours of watch-time a day, and 70% of this time comes from watching recommended videos. Smart algorithms instantaneously and simultaneously recommend millions of videos to its users. At the same time, they test how to best retain user attention. Once a user continues to view another video the recommendation was successful, and the algorithm has controlled the user’s decision-making process. Under these carefully designed circumstances, humans may lose the ability to consciously choose between freely exploring or stopping to explore the content on the platform. Free choice is competing against smart algorithms which track and use individual preferences, while the user cannot control or does not fully understand the purpose and functionality of these algorithms. If such an algorithm learns that conspiracy videos are optimizing user attention, it may continue to recommend such videos until even radical conspiracy theories become kind of a shared reality for users. What they consume affects how the users think and behave. Even though users decide what they watch, YouTube’s, but also Facebook’s and Twitter’s algorithms have a large influence on what content - and what ideas and opinions - gets amplified or silenced.

Algorithms are not only designed for convenience but also to be addictive and this opens the doors for manipulation.

  • Addiction and manipulation
    As we have become accustomed to the quick, entertaining and convenient services offered by digital platforms, we have also adopted a practice of unintentionally fueling the process. We allow the collection of huge amounts of personal data that is used to personalize the user experience of digital platforms. From an individual perspective, this may seem innocuous. Being nudged by an algorithm to pay too much for an insurance or to occasionally buy a rather unnecessary product may seem to be a fair price for the convenience of the digital services. However, from a holistic perspective it seems more harmful, and the consequences go way beyond creepy personalized ads. The main purpose of new technologies is no longer enabling engagement, growth and connection but capturing and retaining user online attention for monetization and profit maximization. To reach these goals algorithms are not only designed for convenience but also to be addictive and this opens the doors for manipulation even wider. The experience they provide is simultaneously utopian and dystopian.

Strategies to Increase Freedom of Choice
Augmented intelligence fueled with personal user data has created a world of convenience and in exchange, humans have sacrificed freedom of choice. There are, however, some measures we can take to counteract the dark sides and keep freedom of choice less illusionary.

  • Develop algorithmic literacy
    In an AI dominated world, everybody needs to develop what is called “algorithmic literacy”. It involves a basic understanding of AI and on how algorithms work in the background. Algorithmic literacy also requires that users understand the role and value of the personal data they sacrifice in exchange for decision augmentation. This understanding should enable humans to be critical towards the outcomes of AI-driven recommendations and to information preselected by algorithms (Figure 1).


  • Make decisions more consciously
    Most decisions involve some level of risk, but the risk differs between fully automated, augmented or purely human decisions. Individuals should develop an awareness of their risk tolerance towards the different options when they want to reach certain goals and make more conscious decision about what to share, watch, or consume.

Algorithmic literacy and conscious decisions will be even more important in a world increasingly augmented by the Internet of Things. Imagine, for example, how evolving smart personal assistants - the future children of today’s Alexa and Siri - may one day automate every-day decisions like which products to purchase for us. Or imagine how augmented and virtual reality may change the way we interact with information. There will be even less options to check and question what we see and consume. A growing number of devices will make us even more dependent on algorithms. Whenever we opt for convenience, we should, therefore, take into account its dark sides as well.


Fabian Buder, Head of Future & Trends Research, Nuremberg Institute for Market Decision, Nuremberg, Germany, fabian.buder@nim.org

Koen Pauwels, Distinguished Professor of Marketing, Northeastern University, Boston, MA, USA, k.pauwels@northeastern.edu

Kairun Daikoku, Journalist, Nuremberg Institute for Market Decisions, Nuremberg, Germany

Further Reading

Carrington, V. (2018): “The Changing Landscape of Literacies: Big Data and Algorithms”, Digital Culture & Education, Vol. 10, pp. 67–76.

Harris, Tristan and Aza Raskin (2019): “Down the Rabbit Hole by Design”, Your Undivided Attention (Podcast).

Ricciardi, Victor and Douglas Rice (2014): “Risk Perception and Risk Tolerance”, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Thompson, Kelly (2020): “YouTube’s plot to silence conspiracy theories”, Wired, September 18, https://www.wired.com/story/youtube-algorithm-silence-conspiracy-theories/