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How technology has been designed to ‘hook’ us: A Q&A with Irresistible author Adam Alter

Here’s a fact that you may find mildly alarming: Steve Jobs, the creator of the iPad, didn’t actually let his kids play on them.

“We limit how much technology our kids use in the home,” he told The New York Times in 2010.

Meanwhile, Tony Fadell, a former senior vice president at Apple who played a key role in bringing the iPod and iPhone to the world, also recently voiced his concerns over what he has created.

“I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, what did we bring to the world?” he says.

“Did we really bring a nuclear bomb with information that can – like we see with fake news –blow up people’s brains and reprogramme them? Or did we bring light to people who never had information, who can now be empowered?”

Are we addicted?  Some survey results to ponder:

  • 50 percent of respondents would choose to have a broken bone over a broken phone.
  • The top 10 percent of smartphone users checked their phones over 5000 times a day.
  • 58 percent of men and 47 percent of women suffer from nomophobia (the fear of being without a mobile device).
  • 20 percent of young adults have admitted to checking their phones during sex.
  • 24 percent of respondents think going to a strip club and messaging an ex on Facebook are equally bad.

Adam Alter, the author of the new book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, says this is akin to the drug dealer ‘don’t get high on your own supply type’ mentality.

At the heart of it, this is a design problem: Technology products are being created by designers to be as addictive as possible, and in hindsight, figures like Fadell are feeling a mixture of guilt and pride over creating products so powerful, people refuse to put them down.

This is the topic of Irresistible, which explores the rise of behavioral addiction, and explains why so many of today’s tech products are too tantalising for many people to resist.

See our Q&A with Alter below, in which he discusses how we’re being ‘hooked’.

 Idealog: Why do you think Steve Jobs refused to give his kids an iPad?

He recognised that children and teens struggle to interact with other people, to do their homework, and to generally avoid using screens when those screens are in front of them. The iPad, with all its captivating content is especially difficult to resist.

How does this behavioural addiction to technology compare to that of a substance addiction? Are they on a similar level of dangerousness?

Substance addiction is more dangerous — it’s more likely to kill or deeply harm you — but substance and behavioural addictions share many of the same hallmarks. They influence the brain in similar ways (though more strongly for substances) and they both treat psychological needs that aren’t met otherwise, including boredom, anxiety, loneliness, and depression.

What are some of the ways product designers are crafting their designs so users end up addicted?

They build in unpredictable rewards — likes, reposts, comments, shares, and so on — which people seek whenever they share content online. The possibility of these rewards is hard to resist in the same way that playing slot machines, with the promise of monetary rewards, is hard to resist. They also create artificial goals: “Reach 1000 followers! Reach 100 likes! Conquer all 300 levels of this game!” Which humans struggle to ignore once they exist. And they also introduce a social component into the process, so that people feel indebted to others or responsible for responding to what others do online.

What are the main risks associated with becoming addicted to a form of technology, such as social media?

The major risks are social: the quality of your social interactions decline as you spend much of your free leisure time tethered to a device. There’s also some limited evidence that you struggle to tolerate boredom when you spend a lot of time engaged with a device that keeps you entertained (especially true for children). Boredom has the capacity to inspire creative thoughts — we tend to do the same thing over and over again if we don’t allow ourselves to think freely from time to time.

What’s the most devious trick you’ve seen used to ‘hook’ people in technology?

Streaks on Snapchat. Snapchat counts how many days in a row you’ve communicated with a particular person. People hate letting streaks end, so a lot of teens will give their passwords to friends when they go on vacation to make sure their accounts remain active (and their streaks remain alive).  

It was pointed out to me that a book is a form of technology, too, and can have the same addictive qualities (e.g. someone becoming obsessed with a series and reading it from start to finish). Why do you think electronic technology has proved to be more harmful than other forms of technology that’ve come before it?

Books demand a lot of you. You have to remain engaged. That isn’t true of screens, which visit themselves on you with engaging content, lights, sounds, and so on. Screens do all the work for you, whereas you do all the work of engaging with a book.

There hasn’t been much oversight into the way technology has immersed itself so heavily into our daily lives. Why do you think its negative effects of it have blindsided us somewhat?

We focus so much on its obvious upsides, which have profoundly disrupted our lives. Many of its downsides have crept up — for example, email began as a low-level way of communicating from time to time, but now workers in many cultures feel tethered to email 24 hours a day. That didn’t happen overnight, which is one reason why people haven’t paid as much attention to it as a downside.

Social media is one of the most normalised forms of tech in day-to-day life. Do you think people are aware of how much it impacts on and alters the world they’re living in?

I don’t think many people are aware. Apart from losing time to social media (time which could be spent on other, more enriching or important activities), social media is a breeding ground for bullying and antisocial behavior. It’s easier to behave badly when the people you’re affecting are invisible and their responses are hidden behind screens. About 40% of teens report experiencing bullying online from time to time.

Is there a way to regulate against technology – or at least keep in check the ethics surrounding it? Or is the opportunity long gone?

I think it’s very difficult — but governments could intervene the way they have for smoking and the tobacco industry, or for the drug and alcohol industries.

Do you think we’re losing some of our humanity by focusing so much on these screens constantly?


What’s your thoughts on the morality of technology? Do you believe technology, such as a mobile phone, is neither good nor bad until a company uses the technology’s power to commoditise its product?

Yes, I do. Tech can be miraculous — the morality of tech depends on how it’s designed and how it’s consumed.

If someone feels as though they’re addicted to technology, do you have any tips on how to curb it or at the very least, get it under control?

Pick a certain time each day to begin — like dinnertime — and stop using screens during that time of the day. In my experience people enjoy this sacred period of time to such an extent that they extend that brief tech-free period to cover weekends and nights more generally.

Elly is Idealog's editor and resident dog enthusiast. She enjoys travelling, tea, good books, and writing about exciting ideas and cool entrepreneurs.

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