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Book Review of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked
We're becoming behavioral addicts.
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As you read this, I’d be willing to bet that you have a certain something on your person: Your phone. Sure, it might not be in your pocket, but you have it within reach. Indeed, you might even be reading this on your magical little pocket portal right now. I’d also hazard to guess that, were you to have it taken away from you for a few hours, you’d feel denuded. Naked.
It’s not your fault, dear reader, and you’re certainly not alone. Yours truly lost his phone a while back, and believe you me, it presented quite the conundrum. This incident brought with it two revelations: I’m extremely dependent on my phone for all sorts of different things rendered impossible without it in my possession; and I may or may not be hopelessly addicted to the digital screen.
According to author and academician Adam Alter, I shouldn’t be surprised.
Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked is an in-depth look at a problem many of us don’t even realize we have: We’re becoming behavioral addicts. Half the developed world is addicted to something, and Alter informs us that increasingly, that something isn’t drugs or alcohol, but technology.
There’s a reason the world’s greatest technocrats follow the cardinal rule of drug dealing, “never get high on your own supply,” with respect to themselves and their children. Steve Jobs wouldn’t let his kids use an iPad. Evan Williams, a cofounder of Twitter, won’t either. An editor at Wired severely limits his kids’ screen times “because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand.” Indeed. Studies even show that the brain patterns of heroin users just after a hit and World of Warcraft addicts starting up a new game are nearly identical.
Unfortunately, for many of us we’re “too far gone” to heed any implied warning. Recent studies suggest that the most compulsive behaviors we engage in are related to the digital screen, which is now so ubiquitous as to be inescapable. Forty percent of us have some sort of cyber-based addiction, whether it’s checking email (36 times an hour for the average person, with 70% of office emails read within six seconds of arrival), online shopping, or obsessing over pictures of cats wearing costumes on Instagram.
Neuroscience has made incredible leaps and bounds over the past decade, and we now know something that a lot of people are reluctant to accept, in large part because it strongly conflicts with the oppressive imperative to health that’s become the center of a new Western morality: Every human brain has the capacity for addiction. Like all pitfalls in life, addiction is remarkably democratic; the presumption that certain people are inoculated against maladaptive behaviors for any reason — socioeconomic standing, race, occupation, genetics — is false. Even though science has revealed that addiction isn’t a moral weakness or an issue of self-control, but largely a function of environment and circumstance, there are still people who’d rather continue thinking otherwise. The idea that a very thin line separates those who develop addictions from those who don’t, and but for the grace of God it could just as easily be you who’s so burdened, is something many would prefer not to contemplate. Much easier to go on believing that your tendency to swan-dive into the dark spiritual anesthesia of Twitter in a dysfunctional effort to psychologically deal with one particular seminally scarring attempt at asking someone out for a date years ago is just a bad habit that you’re reluctant to give up.
Alter illustrates how behavioral addictions are no different than substance addictions. The behavior itself isn’t addictive until we learn to use it as a therapeutic salve for our psychological troubles. If you’re anxious or depressed, for example, you might find that certain digital-based behaviors that involve a rise in dopamine — online gambling, video games, shopping, etc. — lessen what hurts. Alter’s thesis is that tech companies know these things and design their products and platforms to trigger addictions in users. As design ethicist Tristan Harris sees it, this isn’t about lack of willpower, it’s that “there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have.”
And the internet, with its unpredictable loop of intermittent rewards by way of positive feedback, simulation of connectivity, and culture of comparison in which everyone is auditioning for one another, is “ripe for abuse.” In the information era it’s simply impossible to avoid, which is a big part of the problem. Studies show that a recovering alcoholic or drug addict is much more likely to stay sober/clean if they can avoid the contextual triggers and ensnaring circumstances that led to the addiction, but someone addicted to online shopping almost certainly must use the internet in some capacity every day, whether it’s on a smartphone or a computer for work.
The internet is also infinite and expanding at the rate of the universe. The iOS App Store launched in 2008 with 500 apps. Today, there are over five million available across iOS and Android platforms, covering every genre and niche. And according to Siteefy, there are 1,139,467,659 different websites, a number that continues to increase exponentially.
Just as importantly, the internet is immersive—and even worse, it’s mobile. We can carry our addiction around with us without anyone ever knowing we have a problem. How many people do you interact with every day who have an addiction to Netflix or social media or buying useless things on Amazon or what have you? One needn’t be unemployed to indulge in such behaviors, as privacy isn’t necessarily a prerequisite. As a grad student at USC, I lost count of the number of times I came across someone on campus, eating, alone, with their phone propped up as they watched something or other. In fact, I went to a Lakers game a couple of years ago where I sat behind a guy who brought his laptop and was watching The Office while he was watching the game. (Yes, really; laptops aren’t on the NBA’s prohibitive item list, apparently.) Both experiences suggest it might not be a stretch to assume that, for some folks, daily happiness is directly proportional to time spent streaming, which is really kind of fascinating when you think about it.
The scary part is that the digital age is still very much in its infancy, and according to Alter, we’re rapidly heading toward a crisis. He uses a broad range of interesting psychological studies and interviews to support and explain his conclusions, painting an unsettling picture. In 2008, Americans spent an average of 18 minutes on their phones per day; in 2015, they were spending 2 hours and 48 minutes; today, it’s nearly 5.5 hours. Over the average lifetime, that amounts to a staggering fourteen years. Many people don’t even realize they have a problem, but a full 46% say they couldn’t bear to live without their smartphones (some would rather suffer physical injury than an injury to their phones), while 80% of teens check their phones at least once an hour. This sort of overuse is so prevalent that researchers have coined the term “nomophobia” to describe the fear of being without one’s phone (an abbreviation of “no-mobile-phobia”).
In one study, 60% of respondents reported binge-watching dozens of television episodes in a row despite planning to stop much sooner. Up to 59% of people say they’re dependent on social media and that it makes them unhappy.1 Of that group, half say they need to check social media at least once an hour. After an hour, they are anxious, agitated, and incapable of concentrating. And our ability to focus isn’t getting any better. Microsoft Canada found that our average attention span was 12.5 seconds long. Today, it’s 8 seconds. Goldfish, by comparison, can go 9 seconds.
One particularly intriguing study by two psychologists revealed that the mere presence of smartphones is damaging. Participants in the study were paired up and asked to engage in conversation. Some of the pairs talked while a smartphone sat idle nearby, while for others the phone was replaced by a paper notebook. Every pair bonded to some extent, but those who grew acquainted in the presence of the smartphone struggled to connect. They described the relationships that formed as lower in quality, and their partners as less empathetic and trustworthy. Even when they’re not in active use, phones are distracting “because they remind us of the world beyond the immediate conversation, and the only solution, the researchers wrote, is to remove them completely.”
The effect of extensive screen time on the developing brain is currently a topic of intense research, but there’s no doubt it’s created what might be conservatively termed a climate of concern among parents, and rightly so. In an increasingly complicated economy, the capacity to concentrate without distraction is becoming more and more valuable. Social media especially weakens this skill. The more you use it in the way it’s designed to be used — persistently throughout your waking hours — the more your brain learns to crave a quick hit of stimulus at the slightest hint of boredom. It’s pavlovian.
Research has given us an idea of the prevalence of other mental health disorders in young adults that co-occur with internet addiction, with the most common being depression and ADHD. Seventy-seven percent of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds claimed they reach for their phones before doing anything else when nothing is happening. Eighty-seven percent said they often zoned out, watching TV episodes back-to-back. More worrying, still, Microsoft asked 2,000 young adults to focus their attention on a string of numbers appearing on a computer screen. Those who spent less time on social media were far better at the task.
Sure, it’s debatable whether our protracted betrothal to technology has a net negative impact on society, but I submit that limited reading and writing of (often abbreviated) prose on social media and an overreliance on texting are why many of today’s young adults have the explicative ability of toothless toddlers. Research has also shown that the more time one spends on social media, for example, the more one is negatively affected by the unholy trinity of anonymity, disinhibition, and instant gratification. The ability to empathize is a virtue requiring real-life interaction, so we can see how our words and actions impact others, but on the internet, young people and Americans more generally tend to be wholly lacking in the virtues of compassion and altruism.
Alter discusses the future of behavioral addiction and offers some solutions in the final section of the book, but it’s a rather tepid conclusion that leaves the reader in some measure wanting. One such suggestion Alter writes about is called “Realism,” a plastic frame resembling a screen-less smartphone, which you can hold to temper your extreme internet addiction but can’t actually use, and which sounds about as likely to work as yours truly playing in the NBA. Moreover, abstinence is out of the question now that the pervasive digital screen pulls your average American in like a well-groomed moth to a flame.
Our challenge is to re-exert control over these machines, using them purposefully according to the exigencies of our souls rather than the other way around. But the bottom line is that the portents seem poor.
Overall, Irresistible is an important, worthwhile read, and its subject matter is certainly relevant. The book will both confirm some pre-existing fears surrounding technology and highlight some new ones. Importantly, Alter’s writing is much more accessible than your standard academic-type book, broadening its appeal and “readability,” but his decision not to include in-text citations of any sort has the effect of diluting the work’s authority on the subject. That being said, much of the evidence used throughout came from interviews, of which there are a respectable plenitude.
I would say that reading Irresistible was an entertaining break away from technology, but I’d be lying. I read it on Kindle. . . on my phone.