The Illusion of Algorithms

The Onset

His palms began to sweat, his arms went numb, his legs began to tingle, and his heartbeat was pounding through his chest. The sense of dread and the fear of inevitable death stirred with nausea left a scar. Being tortured with panic attacks every day he left his house took its toll and trained him to avoid the triggers outdoors. If he can’t have a social life offline, he’ll try to forge connections online.

The social feed algorithm had no idea who he was during the cold start. There were no previous interactions to use for determining his worldview and no third-party information on his interests, behaviors, or beliefs. The cold start was indeed cold. Not knowing what to do, he browsed each tab until he reached the Explore feed, a collection of the most trending and popular images and videos from the most trending and popular celebrities in the one percent. The algorithm decided that if it didn’t know what he wanted, it would just spit out the most irrelevant content and pray that it would attract his attention with some engagement. Like a psychopath, not taking into account respect for values or boundaries.

Once a behavioral pattern was found through each consecutive interaction, the algorithm would then be able to predict with better certainty and slip in more dopaminergic content to increase engagement and retention. These vanity metrics served well for the algorithm, as it exploited a similar algorithm used by his dopamine circuitry. The ultimate goal of the slave algorithm, however, was to serve its master’s mission of sustaining profitability by extending his lifetime value by developing habitual behaviors over time.

At first, he was hooked. Distorting his worldview through the filtered lens of the highly manufactured one percent browsing images without disclaimers of the fake wealthy who spend hundreds of dollars for a photoshoot in a rented jet. Admiring the flawless, untouched selfies without disclaimers of those who use filters. Fitness influencers with six-pack abs are taking photos without disclaimers while trying not to faint from flexing and sucking in their stomachs too hard.

Exposing him to more and more dopamine, novelty, and outrage kept him returning. However, being an artificial psychopath with no feelings, it did not fully comprehend the functionality of the algorithm used in the dopamine circuitry. What goes up must eventually come down, and what the algorithm eluded to was the pain circuitry that began growing after every hit of dopamine.

His dopamine reservoir was depleted, and the pain from the cold start began bearing down on him, elevating his levels of anxiety even further. With no interaction apart from engaging with unverified bots and being ghosted by replies, his sense of loneliness navigating a mass-scale social experiment reminded him of why he felt excluded. The bombardment of distorted, flawless selfies exploited his comparison bias, reminding him of why he was ugly, and the sheer dominance of outrageous trash plagued his negativity bias, toiling with him to spiral down into depression. The algorithm, barring any weaknesses, emotions, blindspots, or shortcuts, was doing its job.

The Evolution

The mind, made up of neurons and matter, processes information analogously to the way a computer processes ones and zeros. The dopamine circuit uses an algorithm that runs on novel stimuli and, if exhausted, runs another algorithm from the pain circuitry. The mind evolved naturally through millions of years of natural selection, but it didn’t come without a few hiccups. Critically processing information became burdensome, burning up unnecessary energy, so algorithmic mental shortcuts evolved to help us save time in predicting future outcomes for success. In the modern age, algorithms have the power to improve, optimize and make our lives more efficient. However our primitive mental shortcuts are being manipulated by a more sophisticated synthetic algorithm.

Technological revolutions now outpace political processes, causing MPs and voters alike to lose control. The rise of the Internet gives us a taste of things to come. Cyberspace is now crucial to our daily lives, our economy, and our security. Yet the critical choices between alternative web designs weren’t taken through a democratic political process, even though they involved traditional political issues such as sovereignty, borders, privacy, and security. Did you ever vote on the shape of cyberspace? Decisions made by web designers far from the public limelight mean that today the Internet is a free and lawless zone that erodes state sovereignty, ignores borders, abolishes privacy, and poses perhaps the most formidable global security risk [1].

Interactive Game Theory

The origin of Illusive design stems from the unintended side effects of capitalism attracting those who dominate upper management, marketing and business development promising to make it rain for the VC’s. The burden is then placed on the designers and engineers to convert those promises—even if completely made up [2]—into reality. The battle between design and business, usability and costs, accuracy and speed, us and them have been longstanding yet the final word is won with money and not usability [3].

On the flip side, this strategy being a zero-sum game is counterintuitive as bad usability almost always incurs greater costs in the long term with wasted time, more training and support [4]. The tit for tat strategy constructs the building blocks of how we interact with others and products. Companies are playing a zero sum game by copying each other’s features but their users are playing an iterative game which leads to alienation. Instagram is losing its market share to TikTok so Instagram copies TikTok’s algorithm transitioning to reels and away from images. Artists and photographers are then left behind. In game theory’s tit-for-tat strategy for mutual cooperation, when player 1 makes defects, they are punished by player 2. However player 2 in this case being the user, is outnumbered and can’t fight back. Nash equilibrium is never achieved.

Software that interacts with people on a mass scale are nothing more than social experiments run by unqualified scientists who have fallen for the bias towards illusory superiority. The unintended consequences of the toxic like button, depressing Instagram feed and comparative SnapChat beauty filters are released with the sole intention of instant adoption and engagement and not for wellbeing over a time continuum. Illusive design claws its way into a product when there are no metrics to track its trail and when there is a clear lack of design involvement at inception.

Algorithms have enabled artificial selection by creating superficial relationships, promoting psychotic behavior, amplifying neurosis, overstimulating and draining dopamine, and leading to impulsivity, instant gratification, and conformity. Polarization from isolation, filter bubbles, and amplifying our biases It is fundamentally eroding the fabric of society and pushing us apart rather than uniting us. Gambling experts assist with fueling this addiction and misery through highly curated highlight reels of comparison.

We became designers to make this world a more usable and inclusive place. To evoke a positive visceral response with our products designed to solve problems. Products today look stale, and copycat branding has become commonplace, lacking personality. Algorithms have more control over our lives than the government does and algorithmic bias is a major issue for our democracy. We need to take back the power from those who execute their algorithms without regulations and dictators who lack interest in people yet are conducting some of the largest mass-scale social experiments on those who are most vulnerable.

The Cure

The algorithm’s aptitude to learn about his behavior was matched by his ability to learn about how every interaction influenced the outcome of what he consumed. Having awareness of the reminders about how he felt when his attention was hijacked and challenging his unconscious distorted thoughts that bubbled to his mind from mindless consumption relieved some of his attempts at escaping reality. His distorted thoughts derived from the algorithm dulled his worldview, providing a false sense of reality and self through the exploitation of his biological vulnerabilities. Being naturally avoidant of the offline world, he retaliated and succumbed to following through by avoiding the online world, as his own algorithms evolved through natural selection were no match for the emotionless, psychopathic algorithms evolved through synthetic selection.

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The content in this article is only a small portion of the 8,000 word essay exposing the unique world of illusive design. Consider subscribing to our Substack and get full access to 50+ unique illusive interaction patterns and how they exploit our biology and cognition along with real examples and solutions. Be part of the change and level up your skills. The research takes time to collect and the Substack will be a growing repository of new patterns where you won’t find anywhere else. Below is a small example of what you can get as a subscriber discussing one of the new ethical design heuristics along with 3 examples of illusive interactions.

Design Altruheuristics

On Psychopathy

One of the most disgraceful interactions that has been normalized in the world of tech is being treated like a statistic when hunting for a new role. There are companies that pride themselves in caring about their employees, customers and boasting about their great culture yet have no regard for future employees. Those who have been laid off, fired or quit find themselves anxiety ridden, spending hours filling out applications, crafting a cover letter, uploading CVs, only to be met with complete silence. The applicants are left in a state of uncertainty, being told that they ‘may’ receive a reply if there is a match yet they never hear back. There are those who have visas close to expiration yet no consideration is taken into account.

Roles are uploaded to LinkedIn, made available, and then closed without warning. There are roles that linger on for months, disappear, and then reappear a few days later. We exerted effort into applying for these roles only to find that they were never available in the first place. There are roles that are filled internally without notice. There are roles that are advertised but are not available when filled out. There are roles that are only available for the sole purpose of filling up their talent pool.

None of these interactions are fed back to the user. They’re left dealing with elevated levels of anxiety and cognitive distortions from such a lack of consideration for the user experience. Ghosting is a form of psychopathy, and keeping those in desperate need in a state of uncertainty without providing closure is a form of illusive design.

Illusive Interactions

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  1. Harari, Y.N. (2015). Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, p.436.
  2. Silberling, A. (2023). Unicorn social app IRL to shut down after admitting 95% of its users were fake. [online] TechCrunch. Available at:
  3. Norman, D. (2002). The Design of Everyday Things. [online] Basic Books, p262. Available at: [Accessed 21 Jan. 2023].
  4. Norman, D. (2002). The Design of Everyday Things. [online] Basic Books, p241. Available at: [Accessed 21 Jan. 2023].
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Categories: Illusive Design