Ad­dic­tion is ev­ery­where from slot ma­chines to Net­flix

The Daily Telegraph - - Comment - LAU­RENCE DODDS

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 tele­­ion

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