Is the cool glow of a smartphone the sure sign of an addict?

“What exactly do you do here, I’ve been meaning to ask. Because I’m the producer, right? I cook. But from what I can tell, you are just a drug addict! You are a pathetic junkie too stupid to understand and follow simple rudimentary instructions!” – - Walter White from the hit TV show “Breaking Bad.”

Addiction is a word seething with negative connotations. It implies that someone is out of control with their life, making bad decisions with their money, and placing everyone around them at risk.

While we’ve all heard the horror stories associated with drug addiction, we have only recently begun to grapple with the overarching implications of the gadgets and technologies rapidly permeating our lives.

Our technology is consuming virtually all of our attention. Even our dogs have resigned themselves to the fact they are no long man’s best friend.

But while those who are desperately concerned with the wellbeing of our society are raising red flags, the business world is being incentivized to create technologies that elevate our addictions even further.

Here are a few thoughts on the likely turmoil ahead.

Just not addictive enough for Wall Street.

Measuring Up on the Addiction Scale

The reason Facebook stock took a nosedive after their IPO was because it wasn’t addictive enough. Even though it was consuming the attention of one out of every five people going online, Wall Street wanted more.

Even though Groupon practically invented the deal-of-the-day industry, it’s stock tanked after its IPO because customers who became addicted to their offers weren’t viral enough to maintain the same trajectory over time.

How different is this from the cigarette industry?

A study done by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health showed that between 1998 and 2004, at the same time that massive public health campaigns were being mounted to curb smoking, cigarette manufacturers increased the amount of addictive nicotine delivered to the average smoker by 10%.

Sadly, the underlying systems that incentivized raising the addictive nature of cigarettes are the same as those forcing tech executives to devise strategies to elevate the addictive nature of their offerings.

Four Key Drivers

As we dive deeper into the addictive nature of our online world, what exactly are we becoming addicted to?

Unlike the physical cravings and biological needs that drive our addiction to drugs and cigarettes, our gadget-driven access to the Web feeds the pleasure center of the brain in far different ways.

Here are four key drivers behind online addiction.

  1. Hyper-Awareness – With the pervasiveness of smartphones and instant connectivity, we are living in a society that is jacked-in 24-7 to the world around us. For some of us, our unquenchable thirst for information is creating a compelling need for more, and that thirst is permeating virtually every facet of our lives.
  2. Socialization – Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, texting, or an online game, people love being connected with like-minded individuals. In many of these social circles, if you’re not constantly connected you’ll miss out.
  3. Accomplishment – For Type-A personalities and accomplishment junkies, a variety of productivity, multi-tasking, and time-crunching tools can heighten both the quality and quantity of accomplishments made by any one person. In our incessantly competitive world, the one-upmanship of each new achievement can be very addictive.
  4. Escape – For anyone wanting to escape the stresses of daily life, the Internet offers exponentially more options than anything possible in the physical world. While it still lacks the intimacy of human touch and physical presence, it can be used to both facilitate and accentuate those interactions and much more.

No, a person who is addicted to checking their e-mails does not face the same consequences as someone pulling the lever on a slot-machine. And someone obsessed with online video games does not inflict the same kind of physical damage to their bodies as drug addicts.

But every obsessive personality trait, whether enhanced by technology or not, has a way of distorting human potential. The lure of constant stimulation, the pervasive demand for pings, tweets, and updates, creates a profound physical craving that can hurt productivity and personal relationships.

Time and Attention Addiction

A recent survey done in multiple countries showed that over 70% of people now take their smartphones and other devices along on vacation. Our always-on generation is finding it increasingly difficult to detach from the online world.

When it comes to work, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Americans are continually pushing the envelope.

Americans now put in an average of 122 more hours per year than the British, and 378 hours more than Germans. Going beyond working hours, virtually all of the other countries take weekends off, have paid vacation time, and paid maternity leave.

We live in a society that is being driven by work, and the tools that keep us connected are beginning to permeate every waking moment.

Winning the Addiction Game

A few years ago we often joked about the “crackberry” lifestyle. Blackberries were the tool of choice for the hyper-connected. How quickly times have changed!

Today we have a wide assortment of handhelds and tablets to keep us connected, and over the coming years we will be switching to wearable devices inside our clothes, worn as accessories, and somehow attached to our bodies.

Even though virtually every tech company has voiced concern over people who abuse their technology and can’t let go, they also have to feed the economic engines that keep them on top.

It’s still in their best interest to not only get people hooked, but also to both drive and perpetuate these obsessions to the fullest.

With money still being the primary incentive for business, companies who create the most loyal customers, even though they may suffer from addiction, will end up as winners.

Final Thoughts

Business has always been about getting people to fall in love with a product and constantly want more. So what is it that makes these products different, more addictive, and more dangerous? Well, it all boils down to the loss of self-control, and its still not clear to me whether the onus of responsibility stemming from this kind of abuse should be shifted onto the company that creates the product or service.

In much the same way Eddie Morra, the character played by Bradley Cooper in the movie “Limitless,” became addicted to the mental focus and clarity of the drugs he was taking, the online world is continuing to open vast new playgrounds for the mind that continually stimulate our own moth-to-a-light impulses.

The buyer of addictions is viewed entirely differently than the creator of addictions. Buyers are viewed as victims, creators, at least in the tech world, as our heroes.

Success is often determined by which company creates the most addictive product.

As I end this, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is addiction to technology too strong a term? Is this something we’ll be able to innovate around? How flawed are the systems that govern business and technology? Are we in serious trouble?

Sorry, but I need to go now because I’ve only checked my email, Facebook and Twitter feed 72 times this morning and someone is bound to be feeling ignored if I don’t get back with him or her this very instant.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything

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