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 longer 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 likes, 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  stimulate our own moth-drawn-to-the-light impulses.

The buyer of addictions is viewed in a far different light than the creator of addictions. Buyers are viewed as victims, creators, at least in the tech world, are 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

13 Responses to “In Search of the Next Great Addiction”

Comments List

  1. Bob Fleischmann

    Hi Tom, As a tech guy myself I am amazed over how obsessed people are about smartphones. Just stand in the airport TSA line and watch people. They can't be idle - they break out the smartphone and check email, Facebook, Twitter, the weather, flight status, etc. Idleness has become obsolete.
  2. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Gary Lundquist</a>

    Colleagues, Addicitve elements abound. For millenia, preachers and equivalents have sought to create additions to a particular god and practice of worship. We have had wars over such addictions. Killed millions in the name of god. >> Power is an addictive element. Once in war, killing can become addictive. Once in porn, people get lost forever. >> Now you suggest without saying so that our new favorit god is being connected. Given human history... so what. The only worry is that humanity will lose sight of the future and find out that technology is alredy there. Already in control. Already managing our resources. A past we missed telling us what to do, when, how today. We become the robots and the robots become the innovators. >> Only god can stop them now, and it seems she/he/it/them are not watching out for our best interestes. Suggestion: Write instead of reading. Innovate instead of buying technologies. Create instead of settling for the norm. I'm doing that. Old fashioned way. My productgs will probably will never see the light because the "technology" depends on brainstorming. ONdeas from the brains of biological beings. I focus on innovation, and the issue there is to bring to market something that is new to a market or to a world. Humans are still the best resource for innovation. Innovators are in the business of creating products that cannot be ignored. >> We can take back our lives. A simple matter of using our brain instead of letting the brain fry on electronic stimuli. Silly me. THAT WILL NOT HAPPEN. Best to all Gary
  3. Dr. Mark LaPorta

    Gary's inference of the nature of addiction is somewhat closer to my personal, professional, family, social, and even scholarly observation, experience, and assessment. The big clue can be found in the original etymology of the word ad-diction, from which derives our present connotation: I DECLARE what I AM. In other words, it's ultimately my choice. But unfortunately, as the choice becomes habit and the habit becomes craving and suffering, we appear to lose choice. Note: we APPEAR. Keep in mind that the addiction itself may not appear to be just to one thing; to paraphrase Depak Chopra at a lecture on Divine Science in Fort Lauderdale 2004: Addiction is the biggest problem in our society; we are addicted to outcomes, perfection, and MORE. We wnat what we want when we want it, and we promote that same behavior in others; race memory knows very few citizens who are enlightened enough to be "in the world not of the world" and to have had their consciousness stabilized by what are ultimately very simple disciplines. So WE DECLARE that WE ARE ILL. And then claim to enjoy it.
  4. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Rich Geisel</a>

    It's interesting reading about technological addiction and how for me it's akin to slipping our hands into a box with golden handcuffs. They look and feel great, they give our senses what they crave and they are wired directly to ego and mind. Our technological breakthroughs and our gravitation to every new release of sensory expansion can lead I suppose to the loss of empty space, of zen and the Tao reference to "Stillness". Toll writes: "It is the stillness that will save and transform the world." If he's right we may very well be heading into the fast lane of "sameness" only believing we are changing because we can see the same phenomenon repeat again and again only faster and faster. For what has this addiction really changed? Are there less impoverished human beings? Is peace closer at hand? Are we becoming more compassionate? Or are we instead golden handcuffed to the soullessness of mind.
  5. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>John S Wren</a>

    "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." Tom, I couldn't disagree with you more. You are joking, right? To put a point on the discussion, you really believe the leading wine producers target alcoholics? That they are just in it for the money? There may be a few rot gut producers that think this way, but do you really believe that they ALL just want to find people with no control and help them drink themselves to death? You can't be serious. John
  6. Lisa Talcott

    In the Vail Valley earlier this fall there was a teenage death due to texting while walking across the street. The girl was struck by a vehicle that was in compliance with traffic laws and the driver had no time to react. Tragic, and yet it won't be the last time that happens.
  7. Charlie Leckenby

    It seems to me the real addiction (if it's that at all) is to communication. We are extremely social creatures, and throughout our history have sought out better ways to communicate with each other. The tools we use to do this are merely that, tools. Perhaps the ultimate outcome of all this striving to connect with each other will be some form of mind meld, ala Spock; which leads us back to the best (and most satisfying)way to communicate of all: face to face.
  8. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Kevin Weller</a>

    Interesting. I've noticed the same addictive qualities of modern technology, especially web and mobile (my specialties), in my own life. So I've made some deliberate choices to increase focus and productivity at the expense of always-on consumption. Even the iPad/iPhone apps I've written encourage this...get in, do what you need to do according to your own priorities, and get out, with opportunities for distraction reduced to few or none. This is akin to the "slow web" movement that's appeared before on this blog, but for mobile apps.
  9. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Alexander Bagg</a>

    Hi Tom, You've absolutely nailed it!!! How gutsy and true to state that "Success is often determined by which company creates the most addictive product." With a media/tech focused background and as a person who didn't own a television for some 15 years+ ('cause everybody else had one), I've been saying for many years that technology would become the greatest distraction ever created; that it would fulfill the last bastion of self serving artifacts which man has been working tirelessly toward his entire existence - the ability to control that which is before him! And like the moths you refer to, we have all become so very distracted even though we think we are connected. Even though we think we are still a community. There are now so many causes worth fighting for that to make a choice, of which one or ones to support, is almost impossible. Heck, how many people out of the billions which exist, can afford much more than a token gesture, or has the time to do anything for more than a few moments, let alone remain focused for several days? There are now countless charities worth giving to and yet we are so distracted - consumed by information and the creating of information, that much of what is truly important, truly meaningful is now unfortunately fleeting. An out-of-sight, out-of-mind, here today, gone tomorrow reality, where things we thought of as meaningful quickly vanish before our eyes and slip from our memories, as fast as they had arrived (think Joseph Kony). Technology, and in particular, personal digital devices (mobiles, PC's, Tablets etc) have accelerated our interaction with and consumption of information to the degree where we may be missing out on what is truly important - our passions for life, humanity, nature and even art and music. Personally, I think Alvin Toffler was right when he pointed out in his seminal work Future Shock, that 'the more choices a person has, the slower the reaction time they will have in making a decision'. From where I sit and what I know, I'm not afraid to publicly state that the 'Emperor does in fact have new clothes', and that our Emperor - Technology - is no more than another shiny object, like a colorful seashell washed ashore for anyone to pick up and take home and put on display. I'd like to think, or hope, that in time people will come to realize that a 'real bird' is far more interesting to watch than a digital one. Or that a real sunset has far more emotional power to it than any representation one could conjure on the big screen! What I think we need to re-discover is our hands and the power of the human touch and how we, as a species, are capable of working together to heal that which has been so badly neglected and so badly damaged - the planet we all inhabit! Much of the rest of our reality is purely just a distraction!
  10. Teppo Nieminen

    I think it was Warren Buffett who once explained his tobacco investment like this: "They [cigarettes] cost a penny to make, and you can sell them for a dollar. They are extremely addictive. And there's tremendous brand loyalty." Scale the prices, and you have just described an iPhone. Part of what we do with them is just a new kind of idleness, which we have abhorred since earliest cultures. And part of it is connected idleness, which can be seen as "cognitive surplus" that can be put into various uses.
  11. Seann Hamilton

    Throughout all history, when technology has changed, so have our behaviors. No doubt about it, we are absolutely building a new series of habitual behavior with smartphones. Pings, notifications, and all matter of the noises our smartphones make eventually compel our behavior without thinking. We hear the noise and we crave the email. It's entirely Pavlovian. But, it's also not "out of our control." We can train ourselves to respond however we choose. We don't need to follow the default path. While modern society has many addictions, it also offers many valuables as well. How we walk this path between the two will begin to play a larger role in our ability to use our tools for greater purposes. Taking control of our tools, and our behaviors, is within the power of each person in our society. And the more that we do this for ourselves, the better off we will be. I don't see how we can "blame" the providers in this case, because what they give us is actually very valuable when it's under control. As an example, LinkedIn. Heavy usage of LinkedIn can confer all sorts of benefits on it's users, including new connections, contacting friends and associates, new business deals... all because of the addictive network effects that exist on LinkedIn. This is not "entertainment", this is real quantitative value. Dollars we can spend! I saw an example in the comments, about people waiting in line at an airport - "people can't handle being bored anymore." But there's another interpretation here too: Why the heck should we sit in line and do NOTHING? Seriously, nothing. This example was referenced in a recent NYTimes article too, where the author complained that people in a similar situation will no longer "reach out" and start talking to their neighbors in line. But that's a false comparison: in the past, people hardly ever reached out to start talking to their random neighbors! The supposed old school benefit just didn't exist. In truth, back in the dark ages (mid 90's? ;), when people stood in line, they really did just stand in line! Sat there, doing nothing, for 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 60 minutes... Absolutely nothing. Sometimes they were smart enough to bring a newspaper, but most of us sat there doing nothing. Now, the newspaper (and everything else we might need) is in our phones... All that old wasted time, is regained, available to be used however we see fit. In some sense, we are addicted to the phone... but in another sense, we are liberating our time and adding new possibilities to our days. It's all a matter of how we use things. We are still mammals, and while we have gained additional control over the years, it's not perfect yet. It's not a simple path, but training ourselves to better use our tools, teaching and impress about people the value of self control, and the addictive elements of these tools can be used for ACTION, not wasting time. ~ Seann
  12. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Angelita Warwick</a>

    It is really amazing how addictive we humans can be. Can it be said that EVERYONE is addicted to something?

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