There are many accusations against Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon and others for their addictive effects on our brains and culture. Most of the discourse is about how evil tech companies are (covertly) peddling addictive products/services that are destroying our minds, our society and our relationships. I’ve been frequently quoted in this dialogue as an example of someone who used to focus on increasing addiction (through gamification) to a “changed man” who now believes things have gone too far — with a startup to prove it.
I know intimately that if we want to achieve tech-life balance, people must start taking responsibility for their choices. No one is forcing consumers to buy an iPhone, use Facebook, stare at Twitch, masturbate to porn or any of the other millions of things you can do with technology. Every single one of those actions is a choice we make, and if there is one lesson from addiction treatment that everyone should hear it is that it is nearly impossible to help someone who doesn’t want help.
My company, Onward, has helped nearly 50,000 people conquer their tech addictions — and there’s plenty more work to be done. But what we see very clearly in the data is a lot of half-hearted effort. Users reach out to us for help with their tech overuse (a spouse catches them using porn, their bank account is drained by Rent the Runway, a news article about depression and social media, etc.), but within a day or two they’re back to their old habits. Their likelihood of successfully changing behavior is not correlated to either their stated desire or amount of time they spend in unwanted screen time.
What does this tell you about people? Perhaps, as with environmentalism and anti-racism, many people care more about virtue-signaling than actually solving the underlying problem. For example, those friends and celebrities who take a Facebook “detox” and are right back only days later.
More likely, it’s that most of us are ambivalent about our tech overuse. On one hand, we know that something about Facebook’s software is getting us to keep scrolling. But on the other hand, we also acknowledge that the platform can be used to get and stay connected with each other. On one hand, we know that binge-watching Netflix for 8 hours when we should be studying is excessive. On the other hand, it’s a cold day, you’re tired and need a mental health break from the real world.
We must enlist the tech, porn, gambling, gaming and e-commerce industries to be our partners, not demonize them.
This is largely why tech companies cannot and must not be the arbiters of designing for anti-addiction. They must not be entrusted to do this because experience tells us addiction peddlers will water down any good idea to its bare essence (e.g. Please Drink Responsibly). They can’t be trusted because they are hamstrung by their own user experience needs and their business models, which depend on our attention.
And those business models are also our collective responsibility. Free Facebook is an outgrowth of our “Tragedy of the Commons” desire to never pay for online content and investors’ preference for growth over sustainability. Major tech companies wouldn’t care much about engineering for addiction if we paid for their services. But we won’t, and for that we are at least somewhat responsible. If tech giants try to block our overuse, they risk major user backlash and will have to backdoor everything anyway, much as Waze has for distracted driving.
This isn’t to diminish anyone’s problems or to try to water down people’s real addictions. It’s also not carte blanche for the tech industry to do as it pleases. I care passionately about this issue (enough to start a company and invest a lot of my own time and money into solving it), but I’m frustrated by the tone and tenor of the discourse. As long as we’re filled with nothing but outrage, histrionic accusations and ridiculously misplaced anger, we will continue to experience a gradual decline in our collective sociability and IQ driven by technology. Unfortunately, much of the media coverage of this topic glosses over the important nuance that we live in an addiction economy of our own making.
If we want to change things — and I believe the solution is within our grasp — we need to start by treating people as though they have agency, giving them tools and guidance for how to create their own rules and limits. We must enlist the tech, porn, gambling, gaming and e-commerce industries to be our partners, not demonize them. We must stop solely blaming tech companies for this problem and take a hard look at our choices — both individually and as a society.
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