New Paradigm

This examination of today’s tech-zombie epidemic is worth putting your phone down for – at least for a while.

Fatima Bhutto / The Guardian

Are you addicted to technology? I’m certainly not. In my first sitting reading Adam Alter’s Irresistible, an investigation into why we can’t stop scrolling and clicking and surfing online, I only paused to check my phone four times. Because someone might have emailed me. Or texted me. One time I stopped to download an app Alter mentioned (research) and the final time I had to check the shares on my play brokerage app, Best Brokers (let’s call this one “business”).

Half the developed world is addicted to something, and Alter, a professor at New York University, informs us that, increasingly, that something isn’t drugs or alcohol, but behaviour. Recent studies suggest the most compulsive behaviour we engage in has to do with cyber connectivity; 40% of us have some sort of internet-based addiction – whether it’s checking your email (on average workers check it 36 times an hour), mindlessly scrolling through other people’s breakfasts on Instagram or gambling online.

Facebook was fun three years ago, Alter warns. Now it’s addictive. This tech zombie epidemic is not entirely our fault. Technology is designed to hook us, and to keep us locked in a refresh/reload cycle so that we don’t miss any news, cat memes or status updates from our friends. Tristan Harris, a “design ethicist” (whatever that is) tells the author that it’s not a question of willpower when “there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have”. After all, Steve Jobs gave the world the iPad, but made very sure his kids never got near one. Brain patterns of heroin users just after a hit and World of Warcraft addicts starting up a new game are nearly identical. The tech innovators behind our favourite products and apps understood that they were offering us endless portals to addiction. We’re the only ones late to the party.

Addiction isn’t inherent or genetic in certain people, as was previously thought. Rather, it is largely a function of environment and circumstance. Everyone is vulnerable; we’re all just a product or substance away from an uncomfortable attachment of some kind. And the internet, Alter writes, with its unpredictable but continuous loop of positive feedback, simulation of connectivity and culture of comparison, is “ripe for abuse”.

For one thing, it’s impossible to avoid; a recovering alcoholic can re-enter the slipstream of his life with more ease than someone addicted to online gaming – the alcoholic can avoid bars while the gaming addict still has to use a computer at work, to stay in touch with family, to be included in his micro-society.

Secondly, it’s bottomless. Everything is possible in the ideology of the internet – need a car in the middle of the night? Here you go. Want to borrow a stranger’s dog to play with for an hour, with no long-term responsibility for the animal? Sure, there’s an app for that. Want to send someone a message and see when it reaches their phone, when they read it and whether they like it? Even BlackBerry could do that.

Thirdly, it’s immersive – and even worse, it’s mobile. You can carry your addiction around with you. Everywhere. You don’t need to be locked in an airless room or unemployed in order to spend hours online. Moment, an app designed to track how often you pick up and look at your phone, estimates that the average smartphone user spends two to three hours on his or her mobile daily.

I downloaded Moment (the research I mentioned earlier) and uninstalled it after it informed me that, by noon, I had already fiddled away an hour of my time on the phone.


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