Addiction is everywhere from slot machines to Netflix
One morning in January 1996 an American biochemist named Jeffrey Wigand walked down to his mailbox and found a bullet inside. It was the beginning of a sustained campaign of harassment. Wigand’s “crime” was to blow the whistle on tobacco firms which knew cigarettes were addictive and dangerous while denying that in public. In the end, he was vindicated: the US Department of Justice successfully sued Philip Morris and eight other companies for a systemic conspiracy to deceive and defraud the public.
Today social media companies are having their Philip Morris moment. This week Sean Parker, one of Facebook’s founders, made an admission: the company’s guiding question has always been “how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” Social media, he said, “exploit[s] a vulnerability in human psychology”. By rewarding us with a rush of satisfaction when people respond to our posts, it trains us to post more often. Its designers “understood this consciously – and we did it anyway”. In other words, they set out to make their product as addictive as possible.
Not only that, but Parker also suggested that social media’s effects are bad for you. “It changes your relationship with society, with each other … It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” No wonder the philosopher Ian Bogost has called smartphones “the cigarette of this century”.
Writing in 1948, the psychologist BF Skinner believed it was wrong for the state to control people by force. Instead he thought it should reward them for doing the “right” things. That way we would feel like we were making our own choices, whereas in fact we would be doing what we’re told. He tested his ideas in an asylum, where patients received fake money for good behaviour which they could spend on perks.
Today we all live in Skinner’s world. The science of addiction is everywhere from slot machines to the way Netflix automatically plays the next episode if you don’t stop it within 10 seconds. Companies are valued on the basis of their ability to dominate our time. But any system of rewards is also a system of control, and with tech firms able to tweak rewards in sophisticated, personalised, data-driven ways, it’s not just Sean Parker who is asking how much free will we really have.
Currently lawyers for social media firms in America are busy defending their clients from accusations relating to the 2016 presidential election. But perhaps the real story is not about fake news and Russian interference. Perhaps it is about biochemistry, addiction and public health – about a psychological feedback loop which is having potentially unpredictable effects on us all. I’m not saying we should regulate Facebook just like tobacco. But at the very least we should think about what we’re smoking.
FOLLOW Laurence Dodds on Twitter @Lfdodds; READ MORE at telegraph.co.uk/opinion