Tim Wu is the author of “The Attention Merchants” and a professor at Columbia University Law School.
Thirty years ago, we accepted secondhand smoke, sugary sodas for kids and tanning salons as simple facts of life. What will we think is crazy 30 years from now? That we lived without enough sleep? Treated animals so badly?
If psychologist and marketing professor Adam Alter is right, the answer may be our use of addictive technologies. By his account, we have casually let ourselves become hooked in a manner not unlike Victorians taking cocaine and opium, thinking it no big deal. We, like them, are surprised at the consequences.
Alter’s sweep is broad: He includes not just the more obvious addictive technologies such as slot machines and video games, but the whole sweep of social media, dating apps, online shopping and other binge-inducing programs. He takes in everything whose business model depends on being irresistible (which today is most things). If he’s right, most of us are nursing at least a few minor “behavioral addictions” and perhaps a major one as well. By the end of his enjoyable yet alarming book, “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked,” you may be convinced that Alter is right and want to seriously rethink the behavioral addictions in your life.
Some people object to the use of the word “addiction” for anything other than a physical dependence on substances such as heroin and alcohol. But Alter, a marketing professor with a PhD in psychology, argues that any distinction is meaningless. Anything, he says, can be addictive — it comes down to its role in your life. If your actions “come to fulfill a deep need, you can’t do without them, and you begin to pursue them while neglecting other aspects of your life, then you’ve developed a behavioral addiction.” He is careful to point out that many behavioral addictions aren’t medical matters requiring treatment. But more likely than not, you have some behavior that you return to, uncontrollably, and that interferes with your goals. Alter posits that “half of the developed world is addicted to something, and for some people that something is a behavior.”
Alter directs his sharpest criticism at those who are intentionally designing addictive technologies — that is, much of the high-tech industry. Sometimes a new technology causes addiction by accident — no one designed email to be addictive — but often the result is willful. There is something dark about the deliberate creation of technologies meant to destroy whatever is left of the public’s self-regulation. Yet as Alter documents in case after case, using tricks and techniques such as unpredictable rewards, a misleading sense of early mastery and pop tunes that stay in your head, many if not most entertainment and technological products are now specifically designed to addict their users.
It is worth stepping back and asking how technological innovation and the deliberate programming of addiction have come to be so closely linked. In earlier days, inventions such as the internal-combustion engine, the zipper or the calculator weren’t solely intended to create some kind of habit in their users. They were about progress, creating a new comfort or efficiency. But today a large number of the products emerging from the world’s mightiest tech firms are geared toward getting people to do things they might not otherwise do. “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” scientist Jeff Hammerbacher once said. “That sucks.”
The deeper reason for this, I suspect, is an enormous shift in the business models of the high-tech industry. Companies are moving away from the creation of rewarding technologies for human enhancement, such as the calculator or the bicycle, and toward technologies meant to lure people to devote large amounts of time and attention to them — think Facebook or BuzzFeed. Something like a bicycle or a calculator didn’t need to be addictive to be valuable. But for a product like Facebook, success and user addiction are the same thing.
Should you try to avoid all behavioral addictions or just some of the more technologically rigged ones? After all, many of life’s greatest passions and satisfactions are rewarding and somewhat addictive — surfing, collecting antiques or hunting for mushrooms, for instance. Satisfying work can be addictive as well. In Alter’s estimation, any of these things could become dangerous addictions if one loses the “ability to choose freely whether to stop or continue the behavior” and experiences “adverse consequences” in life. This suggests that the key to thriving in the 21st century is wise management of our various addictions, which would sound like a science fiction dystopia if it wasn’t true.
Alter thinks there is little chance we can resist temptation. He draws on the words of design ethicist Tristan Harris, who contends that the problem isn’t a lack of willpower. Rather, Harris says, “there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have.” Outmatched, it is clear we need to draw hard lines — like quitting social media and not using devices in the home — as opposed to trying to fight temptation in the moment. While he is a little vague in his prescriptions, Alter is pushing for long-term cultural change and a reprogramming of our lives to create spaces that are free from addictive technology.
That seems right, but I’d take it slightly further. Within the tech world itself, we need to designate the deliberate engineering of addiction as an unethical practice. More broadly, we need to get back to rewarding firms that build technologies that augment humanity and help us do what we want, as opposed to taking our time for themselves.
As the examples of secondary smoke or opium suggest, we are capable of eventually learning from our mistakes, and my hope is that we’ll look back at this moment as the era when high tech hit rock bottom and we began to take a hard look at how we could do better.
By Adam Alter
Penguin Press. 354 pp. $27