Technology dominates the daily life of most Americans. The Pew Research Center reports that 89% of adults have access to the Internet, 77% have access to smartphones, and 69% use social media. Among teenagers, 95% have access to smartphones, and 45% are almost constantly online.
Most will argue that people cannot afford to live without technology. However, a more important question remains unanswered: Can people afford to live with addiction to technology? Adam Alter, an associate professor of marketing at New York University addresses this question in his book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked. The 2017 book links behavioral addiction with technology and exposes the efforts of tech companies who use this addiction to drive sales.
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“Never Get High on Your own Supply”
Alter’s interest in this topic was piqued when he heard that Steve Jobs prohibited his children from using an iPad. He later found out that many executives from high-tech companies send their children to low- tech schools. When leaders of the world’s biggest tech companies limit their children’s exposure to technology, they must know something the rest of the world does not.
In his book, Alter concludes that tech giants are so successful in marketing addiction to others that they are afraid their children will fall into the very snare of their own making. He points out that they seem to follow the same rule as drug dealers “Never get high on your own supply.”
Catalysts to Addiction
Alter defines behavioral addiction in his book as “when a person can’t resist a behavior, which, despite addressing a deep psychological need in the short-term, produces significant harm in the long term.”
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Tech addiction is a type of behavior that makes every tech user just a catalyst away from becoming addicts. One chapter in his book titled “The Addict In All Of Us” gives many examples of catalysts that are common among users.
People and Rewards
One catalyst is people. Alter gives an example of a young man who played World of Warcraft with his friends. He joined the popular videogame because he liked to interact with others. It soon led to a gaming addiction. For weeks, he never left his game–neither for class nor even to shower. His family finally persuaded him to go to a gaming addiction recovery center. He recovered from the addiction but soon returned to the habit when found himself surrounded by the same gamer friends at college.
Another common catalyst to addiction is the promise of a reward. Alter points out that how this technique is used in wearable tech and fitness watches. The user enjoys setting fitness goals and thrives on gaining the tech’s “approval” when goals are met. Social media apps also use rewards by making users feel happy when they get a like, thumbs up or view. On the contrary, when there is no feedback reward on social media, the user feels rejected and humiliated before followers. This desire for approval drives the user to post things constantly.
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These catalysts not only make it easy to form an addiction, but also make it difficult to shake off one. However, the worst part of addiction is that it is not a state one stumbles into unwittingly. It is an effect that is studied, designed and marketed.
Technology Designed to Cause Addiction
Tech companies like Apple or apps like Facebook make the experience of using their technology addictive. The sound of every click, the texture of every device, the goal of every app is designed and marketed to cause addiction.
Alter believes that tech companies have intentionally “coded” addictive characteristics into their products. Alter lists six ingredients they use: “compelling goals that are just beyond reach, irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback, a sense of incremental progress and improvement; tasks that become slowly more difficult over time; unresolved tensions that demand resolution; and strong social connections.”
Design ethicist Tristan Harris argues that the problem does not reside in people who lack willpower, but the fact 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.”
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Citing study after study, Alter reveals just how big the problem is. He points out, for example, that adults averaged spending 18 minutes on their phones daily in 2008. By 2015, they averaged 2 hours and 48 minutes daily. Such a drastic change in behavior is not accidental.
The Destructiveness of the Rule of Money
Companies use their knowledge of how addition works on to drive up sales. They are part of a business culture that thrives on the rule of money above all else. There are few worse examples of intemperance than addiction and few worse agents of addiction than tech companies. This economy driven by the rule of money is a recipe for disaster.
Author John Horvat describes this addictive behavior in his book, Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society – Where We’ve Been, How We Got Here and Where We Need to Go. He writes how people lose their sense of balance when “social, cultural, and moral values are put aside. In their place is a set of values that attaches more importance to quantity over quality, utility over beauty, matter over spirit.”
Breaking Free From Tech Addiction
In Irresistible, Alter provides practical solutions to end tech addiction. First, he challenges companies to design products without exploiting addictive catalysts. Then he suggests control measures like “games… built with natural stopping points,” without features that continuously draw the person to the next level. He believes “numerical feedback” on social media platforms should be removed. Should companies take such measures to avoid addiction, Alter feels social media technology could improve direct communication and create greater social bonds among people.
Alter’s optimism is hard to share since companies will probably not change their design and marketing approach. They are ruled by money, not virtue or values. This means it is people need to change.
People need to spend more time on leisure, family, and prayer without tech interruptions. Making time for these important things will separate people from the catalysts that cause tech addiction. For Catholics, leisure should be understood as anything that strengthens family, social, religious or cultural ties.
This could be something as simple as restoring family conversations instead of posting on Instagram, a recreational sport instead of video game sessions, or time in prayer time instead of the mindless search for the next rewarding piece of feedback. Only by replacing an obsessive habit with something truly important will people have a fighting chance against tech addiction.