The Tech Addiction Empathy Gap

Photo by Ryan McGuire from Gratisography

Last week in The Guardian, Paul Lewis published ‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia”. There’s a lot in there worth discussing, but one theme in particular stood out: the general dismissive attitude toward tech addiction.

The piece itself makes several allusions comparing tech to drugs in order to frame the story. Hooked author Nir Eyal uses the word “addiction” — and then downplays what it means. “We’re not freebasing Facebook and injecting Instagram here,” he said. Isn’t that exactly what we’re doing? Most alcoholics don’t carry a bottle of liquor around in their pocket all day. Why is the implication that tech addiction is less serious, or less problematic, than drugs or alcohol?

For many people, using the internet is required for work or school. It’s increasingly inescapable. The idea that we have the power to completely control our exposure is either naive or disingenuous. Eyal mentions that he has an automatic timer that cuts off the internet for him — even someone who knows the the tricks has trouble disconnecting on his own. This point of view also requires a fair amount of victim-blaming: if you’re addicted, it’s because you’re not doing enough to fight the marketing and psychological manipulations being targeted at you.

In an attempt to clarify his position, Eyal changes the comparison to sugary baked goods. This is even more confusing, because sugar might be just as addictive as drugs or alcohol, activating the same chemicals in the brain. A study in Alzheimer’s & Dementia earlier this year attempted to show an association between consumption of sugary drinks and Alzheimer’s disease.

“Just as we shouldn’t blame the baker for making such delicious treats, we can’t blame tech makers for making their products so good we want to use them,” he said. “Of course that’s what tech companies will do. And frankly: do we want it any other way?”
- Nir Eyal

It’s easy to imagine the quote above coming from the mouth of a Philip Morris lobbyist about forty years ago. Again, this argument is oversimplified and facile. But even cigarettes, notoriously addictive, have nothing on the ability of tech companies to manipulate us. Philip Morris couldn’t analyze your smoke breaks and buying schedule; local stores couldn’t test marketing techniques, like scarcity or discounts, on an individual level.

If your local bakery begins using extra-addictive sugar in their cookies so that you buy more, does that benefit you? Apps and games aren’t being designed for the benefit of people, to enhance our lives in safe, healthy ways. The tech industry isn’t just making muffins; these companies are pushing highly-addictive, time-release sugar specifically designed to manipulate our brains, and then sharing that data to make money off of our behavior.

And then, once you’re addicted, once their techniques have worked, they downplay it. As highlighted in Lewis’ article, some creators will use the privilege of their positions to save themselves and dismiss the problems they helped create. Why is tech addiction so casually dismissed? And how do we start taking it seriously and talking about solutions?

What do you think? Is tech addiction taken seriously by the industry?