What could be more awesome than Jack Kilby’s 1958 integrated circuit, which led to the microprocessors in our desktop computers and smartphones?
Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked says that our Silicon Age is not, in fact, awesome for humans:
Addictive behaviors have existed for a long time, but in recent decades they’ve become more common, harder to resist, and more mainstream.
Millions of recovering alcoholics manage to avoid bars altogether, but recovering Internet addicts are forced to use email. You can’t apply for a travel visa or a job, or begin working, without an email address. Fewer and fewer modern jobs allow you to avoid using computers and smartphones. Addictive tech is part of the mainstream in a way that addictive substances never will be.
Smartphones rob us of time, but even their mere presence is damaging. In 2013, two psychologists invited pairs of strangers into a small room and asked them to engage in conversation. To smooth the process, the psychologists suggested a topic: why not discuss an interesting event that happened to you over the past month? Some of the pairs talked while a smartphone sat idle nearby, while for others the phone was replaced by a paper notebook. Every pair bonded to some extent, but those who grew acquainted in the presence of the smartphone struggled to connect. They described the relationships that formed as lower in quality, and their partners as less empathetic and trustworthy. Phones are disruptive by their mere existence, even when they aren’t in active use. They’re distracting because they remind us of the world beyond the immediate conversation, and the only solution, the researchers wrote, is to remove them completely.
In 2000, Microsoft Canada reported that the average human had an attention span of twelve seconds; by 2013 that number had fallen to eight seconds. (According to Microsoft, a goldfish, by comparison, has an average attention span of nine seconds.) “Human attention is dwindling,” the report declared. Seventy-seven percent of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds claimed that they reached for their phones before doing anything else when nothing is happening. Eighty-seven percent said they often zoned out, watching TV episodes back-to-back. More worrying, still, Microsoft asked two thousand young adults to focus their attention on a string of numbers and letters that appeared on a computer screen. Those who spent less time on social media were far better at the task.
What are we doing with our short attention spans?
How long do you think the average office email goes unread? I guessed ten minutes. The truth is just six seconds. In reality, 70 percent of office emails are read within six seconds of arriving. Six seconds is less time than it’s taken you to read this paragraph so far, but it’s long enough for the average worker to disrupt whatever he’s doing to open his email program and click on the incoming email. This is hugely disruptive: by one estimate, it takes up to twenty-five minutes to become re-immersed in an interrupted task. If you open just twenty-five emails a day, evenly spaced across the day, you’ll spend literally no time in the zone of maximum productivity.
… the average schoolchild aged between eight and eighteen years spends a third of her life sleeping, a third at school, and a third engrossed in new media, from smartphones and tablets to TVs and laptops. She spends more time communicating through screens than she does with other people directly, face-to-face. Since the turn of the new millennium, the rate of non-screen playtime fell 20 percent, while the rate of screen playtime increased by a similar amount.
Children are especially vulnerable to addiction, because they lack the self-control that prevents many adults from developing addictive habits. Regulated societies respond by refusing to sell alcohol and cigarettes to children—but very few societies regulate behavioral addictions. Kids can still play with interactive tech for hours at a time, and they can still play video games as long as their parents will allow. (Korea and China have flirted with so-called Cinderella laws, which prohibit children from playing games between midnight and six in the morning.)
What is addiction anyway?
Addiction originally meant a different kind of strong connection: in ancient Rome, being addicted meant you had just been sentenced to slavery. If you owed someone money and couldn’t repay the debt, a judge would sentence you to addiction. You’d be forced to work as a slave until you’d repaid your debt [see some of the material within Post-Divorce Litigation for the modern equivalent!]. This was the first use of the word addiction, but it evolved to describe any bond that was difficult to break. If you liked to drink wine, you were a wine addict; if you liked to read books, you were a book addict. There was nothing fundamentally wrong with being an addict; many addicts were just people who really liked eating or drinking or playing cards or reading. To be an addict was to be passionate about something, and the word addiction became diluted over the centuries.
Inbox Zero also explains why workers spend a quarter of their days dealing with emails, and why they check their accounts, on average, thirty-six times every hour. In one study, researchers found that 45 percent of respondents associated email with “a loss of control.” This from a mode of communication that barely existed until the twenty-first century.
Fortunately America is packed with psychologists who can treat us, right? Hilarie Cash, a PhD clinical psychologist, started a treatment center for game-addicted young people and then was surprised at their behavior:
“Our guys get sidetracked, and they develop intimacy disorders. They don’t have the skills to bring sexuality and intimacy together. Many of them turn to pornography instead of forming real relationships, and they never seem to understand true intimacy.” Cash referred to “our guys” because the center no longer admits women. “For four years we admitted women, but we had to revise our policy after a number of patients ignored the ‘no physical intimacy’ rule. We had many more male applicants in those days, so we decided to stop taking women. Now, with the rise of non-violent casual and social gaming, there are almost as many female applicants. We may have to reconsider our policy.”
What can a parent do?
It’s far easier to prevent people from developing addictions in the first place than it is to correct existing bad habits, so these changes should begin not with adults, but with young kids. Parents have always taught their children how to eat, when to sleep, and how to interact with other people, but parenting today is incomplete without lessons on how to interact with technology, and for how long each day.
How about a company?
[Daimler]’s one hundred thousand employees can set incoming emails to delete automatically when they’re on vacation. A so-called mail on holiday assistant automatically emails the sender to explain that the email wasn’t delivered, and suggests another Daimler employee who will step in if the email is urgent. Workers come back from their vacations to an inbox that looks exactly as it did when they left several weeks ago.
More: read Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked
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