Confronting the Great Mass Addiction of Our Era
Are you addicted to technology? I’m certainly not. In my first sitting reading Adam Alter’s Irresistible, an investigation into why we can’t stop scrolling and clicking and surfing online, I only paused to check my phone four times. Because someone might have emailed me. Or texted me. One time I stopped to download an app Alter mentioned (research) and the final time I had to check the shares on my play brokerage app, Best Brokers (let’s call this one “business”).
Half the developed world is addicted to something, and Alter, a professor at New York University, informs us that, increasingly, that something isn’t drugs or alcohol, but behaviour. Recent studies suggest the most compulsive behaviour we engage in has to do with cyber connectivity; 40% of us have some sort of internet-based addiction – whether it’s checking your email (on average workers check it 36 times an hour), mindlessly scrolling through other people’s breakfasts on Instagram or gambling online.
Facebook was fun three years ago, Alter warns. Now it’s addictive. This tech zombie epidemic is not entirely our fault. Technology is designed to hook us, and to keep us locked in a refresh/reload cycle so that we don’t miss any news, cat memes or status updates from our friends. Tristan Harris, a “design ethicist” (whatever that is) tells the author that it’s not a question of willpower when “there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have”. After all, Steve Jobs gave the world the iPad, but made very sure his kids never got near one. Brain patterns of heroin users just after a hit and World of Warcraft addicts starting up a new game are nearly identical. The tech innovators behind our favourite products and apps understood that they were offering us endless portals to addiction. We’re the only ones late to the party.
Addiction isn’t inherent or genetic incertain people, as was previously thought. Rather, it is largely a function of environment and circumstance. Everyone is vulnerable; we’re all just a product or substance away from an uncomfortable attachment of some kind. And the internet, Alter writes, with its unpredictable but continuous loop of positive feedback, simulation of connectivity and culture of comparison, is “ripe for abuse”.
For one thing, it’s impossible to avoid; a recovering alcoholic can re-enter the slipstream of his life with more ease than someone addicted to online gaming – the alcoholic can avoid bars while the gaming addict still has to use a computer at work, to stay in touch with family, to be included in his micro-society.
Secondly, it’s bottomless. Everything is possible in the ideology of the internet – need a car in the middle of the night? Here you go. Want to borrow a stranger’s dog to play with for an hour, with no long-term responsibility for the animal? Sure, there’s an app for that. Want to send someone a message and see when it reaches their phone, when they read it and whether they like it? Even BlackBerry could do that.
Thirdly, it’s immersive – and even worse, it’s mobile. You can carry your addiction around with you. Everywhere. You don’t need to be locked in an airless room or unemployed in order to spend hours online. Moment, an app designed to track how often you pick up and look at your phone, estimates that the average smartphone user spends two to three hours on his or her mobile daily.
I downloaded Moment (the research I mentioned earlier) and uninstalled it after it informed me that, by noon, I had already fiddled away an hour of my time on the phone.
Though the age of mobile tech has only just begun, Alter believes that signs point to a crisis. In 2000, Microsoft Canada found that our average attention span was 12 seconds long. By 2013, it was eight seconds long. Goldfish, by comparison, can go nine seconds. Our ability to empathise, a slow-burning skill that requires immediate feedback on how our actions affect others, suffers the more we disconnect from real-life interaction in favour of virtual interfacing. Recent studies found that this decline in compassion was more pronounced among young girls. One in three teenage girls say their peers are cruel online (only one in 11 boys agree).
Sure, communication technology has its positives. It’s efficient and cheap, and has the ability to teach creatively, raise money for worldwide philanthropic causes and to disseminate news under and over the reach of censors, but the corrosive culture of online celebrity, fake news and trolling must have a downside, too – namely that we can’t seem to get away from it.
There is a tinge of first world problems in Irresistible. World of Warcraft support groups; a product Alter writes about called Realism (a plastic frame resembling a screenless smartphone, which you can hold to temper your raging internet addiction, but can’t actually use); a spike in girl gaming addicts fuelled by Kim Kardashian’s Hollywood app – it’s difficult to see why these things should elicit much sympathy while one in 10 people worldwide still lack access to clean drinking water. This very western focus on desire and goal orientation is one that eastern thinkers might consider a wrong view of the world and its material attachments, but Alter’s pop-scientific approach still makes for an entertaining break away from one’s phone.
Irresistible is published by Bodley Head.