An increasing reliance on technological innovations – from pervasive digital computing to smartphone devices – is changing the nature of human-technology relations.

UNSW Canberra academic Dr Andrew Lapworth said that these changes are in turn having a major impact on the nature of human behaviour and the ways in which governments, defence, and intelligence services understand, predict, and transform collective and individual action.

These issues are particularly important to the field of cybersecurity where we see growing interest in the role that human factors play in shaping the likelihood of hacks and other security breaches,” he said.

“Recent surveys have shown that human error (from the sharing of passwords, to clicking of unsafe weblinks) accounts for 24% of cyber security incidents, second only to phishing/malware at 31%."

According to Dr Lapworth understanding how human factors shape, and are being shaped by, new technical interfaces is vitally important in attempting to mitigate the potential for serious cyber security incidents.

“Our research attempts to develop new conceptual and methodological approaches to the human-technology interface. The study of human factors has traditionally centred on scientific and engineering questions that remain wedded to quite outdated assumptions around human subjectivity and its relation to technology,” Dr Lapworth said.

In contrast to scientific approaches that foreground the more quantitative and extensive impacts of technology on human behaviour, Dr Lapworth said that his research and that of his colleagues at UNSW Canberra draws on cutting-edge ideas in contemporary philosophy and social science to theorise the more qualitative and intensive dimensions of technological encounters – in other words, how technology is transforming the human in less obvious, often more unconscious ways. 

One way our research explores the evolving human-machine interface is through the conceptual lens of habit. Our argument here is that technologies really matter when they no longer seem to matter at all. That is, when they move from the new to the habitual, becoming an almost seamless part of our everyday lives such that we barely notice them anymore.”

Understanding how to channel the unconscious dynamics of habit is increasingly important factor in the design and implementation of technical interfaces across a range of domains. Social media platforms (like Facebook) have been leaders in this area for some time.

Utilising the latest neuro- and behavioural science, their interfaces contain a whole series of cues and nudges (sounds, push-notifications) that automatically trigger the user to check their phone, providing us with a a little reward – an enjoyable hit of dopamine when we see our friends liking our photo.

“Cue-Routine-Reward: this is what the author Charles Duhigg calls a ‘habit loop’ and it is the means by which companies get us hooked on using their apps and services,” said Dr Lapworth.

Whilst studies of technological habits often focus on questions of addiction and dependency, the research at UNSW Canberra goes further by exploring how habit might also be a force for the generation of more positive and productive behaviours.

“This is an important issue for cybersecurity professionals and teams, whose work is commonly centred on how to instil habits and behaviours of cyber hygiene in their workers or end-users.

“What our cultural geography research contributes to this exciting area is an understanding of the profoundly collective nature of habit formation. Habit is more than a matter of individual psychology or personality – it demands that we take seriously how things like the material design of technical interfaces, the symbolic cues and cultural reinforcements of our social relations, and even the various objects and distractions in the space we work in, can either enable or constrain the creation of safe and secure online habits,” he said.