Many successful new technology companies seem to be deliberately creating new addictions. I analyze this and propose a remedy.
A student of mine was giving a presentation on his favorite hobby – playing video games – when I asked, “What was the longest game session you ever had?”
I was expecting him to say “6 hours.”
“One summer, when my parents were away, I started playing a game Tuesday afternoon and did not stop until Thursday evening. I mean, I ran to the bathroom a few times and got some drinks and food from the kitchen, but I was playing that whole time.”
He played for well over 50 hours, and his deadpan expression and plausible details meant he was not exaggerating. Other kids said they had played all night a few times, surprised when they looked at the window and it was light out.
I investigated this a bit more: there are a spate of stories, mostly in East Asia, of people dying of heart failure while playing video games in cyber cafes. The heart failure was caused by exhaustion. Some of them had been playing for 80 hours. “Video Game addiction” has been estimated to affect upwards of 9% of video game users under 18.
A book, “Reality is Broken,” by Jane McGonigal, traces the path the video game industry took from being a nerd niche to being the major entertainment industry it is today. The book describes the involvement of psychologists in the industry, many who found and named “new emotions.” The book launched the now buzzy “gamification” movement.
Her discussion of the importance of feedback in games is telling: “What makes Tetris so addictive [emphasis mine] is the intensity of feedback it provides.” Did the psychologists working with the gaming industry figure out how to turn gaming into an addiction? Is this to be celebrated and imitated?
Evolutionary biologists have a term, “supernormal stimulus,” for any sensory input that overrides the inborn feedback mechanisms and creates a response far stronger than the evolved response. Nesting birds can be made to prefer artificial eggs to their own eggs. Junk food overrides mechanisms that regulate feelings of fullness so that consumption continues. (It has been suggested that the most supernormal food is flaming hot Cheetos: crunchy, fatty, sweet, “carby,” with an addictive spice added on.)
Video games seem not simply to override the feedback mechanisms our brain has, but to actually hijack them. There is no “normal” stimulus that the video game is operating on; the gameplay itself creates a new need. Perhaps much of technology can be understood this way.
The traditional view of addiction, that certain people have a personality flaw that makes them prone to it, has been rethought in recent years. The original view was shaped by a flawed experiment that showed that a certain small percentage of rats became addicted when offered cocaine. These rats, it was recently pointed out, were isolated and kept in a deprived environment. When placed in a rich environment with other rats, their rates of addiction plummeted.
In humans, psychologist point to the fact that 95% of the heroin “addicts” among troops in Vietnam simply gave up the drug when they returned home to their family, friends, and a non-threatening environment.
So addiction, rather than a simple flaw in brain chemistry, is about bonding. The addict substitutes drugs (or video games, or junk food, or gambling) for healthy human relationships and a rich, friendly environment.
Social media can obviously exploit this need. The techniques of the gaming industry have been used to “optimize” the “user experiences” on popular social networks. The results are predictable.
“For the likes” has become a cliché supported by stories that range from pathetic (people posting fake photos of themselves with imagined girlfriends or expensive cars) to horrific (a woman slowly poisoning her child and documenting his “disease” on Facebook for internet sympathy).
Many of the successful technology business models resemble traditional addictive industries. For years, the tobacco industry was focused on getting young people to smoke, as it was harder to hook adults. Look at how every new social network is focused on the preteen age group, despite this group having limited spending power. And “freemium” sounds like the local drug dealer offering party favors and then charging when the users become addicts.
So what should “we” do?
Technology seems to be creating these new needs with every advance. With addiction being so poorly understood, it seems hopeless that the government could react to profitable businesses in any effective manner.
I propose a simple solution: beauty.
The wine drinking cultures of Southern Europe have far lower rates of alcoholism than the hard drinking cultures in Northern Europe. Alcohol is a dangerous substance that addicts many people, but treating it like a craft and obsessing over the details of it might prevent excess. (And provide a healthier social context.)
Notice that there are no ultra premium cigarettes that command analogous prices to premium wines. Cigarettes are surprisingly new, having been developed at the end of the Civil War. Cigarette smoking was not widespread until the 1880s, when technological advances made mass production possible. Previous to this, tobacco was consumed in the form of cigars and pipes, with craftsmanship being an integral part of these products; use was far lower. (Note that there are very expensive cigars.)
What would premium games look like? Or premium social networks? I don’t know, but they would probably involve a mix of technology and reality, rather than being isolated “infinitely scalable” products.
Consider, also, the converse of consuming beautifully-crafted products: making them. It is often the creators and artists who notice and lament how much the Internet and technology distract them from their work.
The wave of industrialization in the late 1800s that turned cigars into cigarettes also fomented a counter reaction, the Arts and Crafts movement. This movement, unlike later counter reactions that rejected industrial life more sharply, emphasized craftsmanship and traditional styles but wanted to incorporate the new technology. It gave birth to the Gothic Revival, Art Deco, and shaped politics and education for a few generations.
The time seems ripe for a new Arts and Crafts Movement: look at all the artisanal food in hip neighborhoods of every city in the country.
But instead of handmade hamburgers, let’s find a deeper and broader application of craftsmanship. It is a necessity.
I'm an entrepreneur and I teach math, history, economics, and fitness. I'm looking for arguments.