You need to put your phone down. Here’s why you can’t.

Book re­view by Tim Wu

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK -

Thirty years ago, we ac­cepted sec­ond­hand smoke, sug­ary so­das for kids and tan­ning sa­lons as sim­ple facts of life. What will we think is crazy 30 years from now? That we lived with­out enough sleep? Treated an­i­mals so badly?

If psy­chol­o­gist and mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor Adam Al­ter is right, the an­swer may be our use of ad­dic­tive tech­nolo­gies. By his ac­count, we have ca­su­ally let our­selves be­come hooked in a man­ner not un­like Vic­to­ri­ans tak­ing cocaine and opium, think­ing it no big deal. We, like them, are sur­prised at the con­se­quences.

Al­ter’s sweep is broad: He in­cludes not just the more ob­vi­ous ad­dic­tive tech­nolo­gies such as slot ma­chines and video games, but the whole sweep of so­cial me­dia, dat­ing apps, on­line shop­ping and other binge-in­duc­ing pro­grams. He takes in ev­ery­thing whose busi­ness model de­pends on be­ing ir­re­sistible (which to­day is most things). If he’s right, most of us are nurs­ing at least a few mi­nor “be­hav­ioral ad­dic­tions” and per­haps a ma­jor one as well. By the end of his en­joy­able yet alarm­ing book, “Ir­re­sistible: The Rise of Ad­dic­tive Tech­nol­ogy and the Busi­ness of Keep­ing Us Hooked,” you may be con­vinced that Al­ter is right and want to se­ri­ously re­think the be­hav­ioral ad­dic­tions in your life.

IR­RE­SISTIBLE The Rise of Ad­dic­tive Tech­nol­ogy and the Busi­ness of Keep­ing Us Hooked By Adam Al­ter Pen­guin Press. 354 pp. $27

Some peo­ple ob­ject to the use of the word “ad­dic­tion” for any­thing other than a phys­i­cal de­pen­dence on sub­stances such as heroin and al­co­hol. But Al­ter, a mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor with a PhD in psy­chol­ogy, ar­gues that any dis­tinc­tion is mean­ing­less. Any­thing, he says, can be ad­dic­tive — it comes down to its role in your life. If your ac­tions “come to ful­fill a deep need, you can’t do with­out them, and you be­gin to pur­sue them while ne­glect­ing other as­pects of your life, then you’ve de­vel­oped a be­hav­ioral ad­dic­tion.” He is care­ful to point out that many be­hav­ioral ad­dic­tions aren’t med­i­cal mat­ters re­quir­ing treat­ment. But more likely than not, you have some be­hav­ior that you return to, un­con­trol­lably, and that in­ter­feres with your goals. Al­ter posits that “half of the de­vel­oped world is ad­dicted to some­thing, and for some peo­ple that some­thing is a be­hav­ior.”

Al­ter di­rects his sharpest crit­i­cism at those who are in­ten­tion­ally de­sign­ing ad­dic­tive tech­nolo­gies — that is, much of the high-tech in­dus­try. Some­times a new tech­nol­ogy causes ad­dic­tion by ac­ci­dent — no one de­signed email to be ad­dic­tive — but of­ten the re­sult is will­ful. There is some­thing dark about the de­lib­er­ate cre­ation of tech­nolo­gies meant to de­stroy what­ever is left of the pub­lic’s self-reg­u­la­tion. Yet as Al­ter doc­u­ments in case af­ter case, us­ing tricks and tech­niques such as un­pre­dictable re­wards, a mis­lead­ing sense of early mas­tery and pop tunes that stay in your head, many if not most en­ter­tain­ment and tech­no­log­i­cal prod­ucts are now specif­i­cally de­signed to ad­dict their users.

It is worth ask­ing how tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion and the de­lib­er­ate pro­gram­ming of ad­dic­tion have come to be so closely linked. In ear­lier days, in­ven­tions such as the in­ter­nal­com­bus­tion en­gine, the zip­per or the cal­cu­la­tor weren’t solely in­tended to cre­ate some kind of habit in their users. They were about progress, cre­at­ing a new com­fort or ef­fi­ciency. But to­day a large num­ber of the prod­ucts emerg­ing from the world’s might­i­est tech firms are geared to­ward get­ting peo­ple to do things they might not oth­er­wise do. “The best minds of my gen­er­a­tion are think­ing about how to make peo­ple click ads,” sci­en­tist Jeff Ham­mer­bacher once said. “That sucks.”

The deeper rea­son for this, I sus­pect, is an enor­mous shift in the busi­ness mod­els of the high-tech in­dus­try. Com­pa­nies are mov­ing away from the cre­ation of re­ward­ing tech­nolo­gies for hu­man en­hance­ment, such as the cal­cu­la­tor or the bi­cy­cle, and to­ward tech­nolo­gies meant to lure peo­ple to de­vote large amounts of time and at­ten­tion to them — think Face­book or BuzzFeed. Some­thing like a bi­cy­cle or a cal­cu­la­tor didn’t need to be ad­dic­tive to be valu­able. But for a prod­uct like Face­book, suc­cess and user ad­dic­tion are the same thing.

Should you try to avoid all be­hav­ioral ad­dic­tions or just some of the more tech­no­log­i­cally rigged ones? Af­ter all, many of life’s great­est pas­sions and sat­is­fac­tions are re­ward­ing and some­what ad­dic­tive — surf­ing, col­lect­ing an­tiques or hunt­ing for mush­rooms, for in­stance. Sat­is­fy­ing work can be ad­dic­tive as well. In Al­ter’s es­ti­ma­tion, any of th­ese things could be­come dan­ger­ous ad­dic­tions if one loses the “abil­ity to choose freely whether to stop or con­tinue the be­hav­ior” and ex­pe­ri­ences “ad­verse con­se­quences” in life. This sug­gests that the key to thriv­ing in the 21st cen­tury is wise man­age­ment of our var­i­ous ad­dic­tions, which would sound like a science fiction dystopia if it wasn’t true.

Al­ter thinks there is lit­tle chance we can re­sist temp­ta­tion. He draws on the words of de­sign ethi­cist Tris­tan Har­ris, who con­tends that the prob­lem isn’t a lack of willpower. Rather, Har­ris says, “there are a thou­sand peo­ple on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-reg­u­la­tion you have.” Out­matched, it is clear we need to draw hard lines — like quit­ting so­cial me­dia and not us­ing de­vices in the home — as op­posed to try­ing to fight temp­ta­tion in the mo­ment. While he is a lit­tle vague in his pre­scrip­tions, Al­ter is push­ing for long-term cul­tural change and a re­pro­gram­ming of our lives to cre­ate spa­ces that are free from ad­dic­tive tech­nol­ogy.

That seems right, but I’d take it slightly fur­ther. Within the tech world it­self, we need to des­ig­nate the de­lib­er­ate en­gi­neer­ing of ad­dic­tion as an un­eth­i­cal prac­tice. More broadly, we need to get back to re­ward­ing firms that build tech­nolo­gies that aug­ment hu­man­ity and help us do what we want, as op­posed to tak­ing our time for them­selves.

As the ex­am­ples of sec­ondary smoke or opium sug­gest, we are ca­pa­ble of even­tu­ally learn­ing from our mis­takes, and my hope is that we’ll look back at this mo­ment as the era when high tech hit rock bot­tom and we be­gan to take a hard look at how we could do bet­ter. Tim Wu is the au­thor of “The At­ten­tion Mer­chants” and a pro­fes­sor at Columbia Univer­sity Law School.

ALEX BRAN­DON/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Gamers try out new prod­ucts, top and mid­dle, at a con­ven­tion in Los An­ge­les last year. Like slot ma­chines, video games are in­ten­tion­ally de­signed to keep play­ers hooked.

KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/GETTY IM­AGES

KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/GETTY IM­AGES

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