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On the Rise of Digital Addiction Activism

January 13th, 2018 · 18 comments

The First Stirrings of a New Activism

The investment funds run by Jana Partners and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System hold a combined $2 billion in Apple stock. This ensured the business community took notice when earlier this week, these investors sent a letter to Apple expressing concern about the impact of the tech giant’s products on young people.

To quote the letter:

“More than 10 years after the iPhone’s release, it is a cliché to point out the ubiquity of Apple’s devices among children and teenagers, as well as the attendant growth in social media use by this group. What is less well known is that there is a growing body of evidence that, for at least some of the most frequent young users, this may be having unintentional negative consequences.”

The investors go on to make several recommendations, including the convening of a committee of experts to study the issue, the introduction of better parental controls, and the funding of more research.

This letter received significant coverage this week so I don’t want to belabor its points or overhype its significance ($2 billion doesn’t provide that much leverage against a $900 billion Apple market cap).

But I’ve been asked about it quite a bit, so I thought I would share a few initial reactions…

Apple is the wrong target.

The iPhone was not designed to be addictive. Indeed, as part of my research for the book I’m writing on digital minimalism, I spoke with one of the original iPhone team members, who told me that Steve Jobs never envisioned this device to be something that you checked constantly. The original vision for the iPhone was built around two surprisingly quaint goals: (1) it would be a much better mobile phone than anything else on the market; (2) it would prevent the need to carry a separate iPod along with your phone.

The  addiction ensnaring children is not some master plan secretly hatched at Apple, but is instead the spawn of attention economy conglomerates like Facebook, who, unlike Apple, directly profit from compulsive use, and leverage the iPhone merely as a convenient platform.

I predict a large shift in how our culture thinks about children and smartphones.

The investor letter to Apple explains: “To be clear, we are not advocating an all or nothing approach [when it comes to children and smartphones].” I think they’re being too cautious. My techno-skeptic spider sense is telling me that we might soon see a shift in our culture where it becomes normal for kids to receive their first smartphone at the age of 18. The algorithmically-enchanced addictiveness delivered through these mobile platforms, like the chemically-enhanced nicotine in tobacco products, increasingly seems too potent for developing minds.

I hope to see alternatives to the attention economy business model.

At the core of almost everything negative about the smartphone era is the attention economy business model, which depends on getting a massive number of people to use free products for as many minutes as possible. This model, of course, dates back to the beginning of mass media, but the combination of big data and machine learning techniques, along with careful attention engineering, has made many modern apps too good at their objective of hijacking your mind — leaving users feeling exhausted and unnerved at their perceived loss of autonomy.

I think there’s an interesting opportunity here for start-ups to explore alternative business models that reward value more than raw usage (think: paid subscription). This opportunity is especially ripe in the context of social media, where the great Web 2.0 promise of digitally-enabled expression and connection was tragically diluted by the aggressive brain hacking tactics that now define so much of the user experience in this space.

It might be hard to create a publicly traded unicorn with one of these alternative models (due to network effects, a disruptive startup of this type would probably have to focus on smaller, niche communities), but you could still create something quite lucrative for those involved while remaining more ethical (c.f., Matthew Crawford for more on the ethics of attention).

18 thoughts on “On the Rise of Digital Addiction Activism

  1. Rohit says:

    Totally agree with your point that Apple is the wrong target.

  2. Bob Lucore says:

    The problem goes back to the fact that everyone needs to “monetize” the web in order to finance it. A subscription-based model might work. But it might just create walled gardens where those more able to afford privacy could interact. In other words, it would deepen the digital divide.

    In my view, for the web to reach its true potential as a medium for participatory democracy and information accessibility, what we need is some sort of people’s platform. There is a lot of room here for creative ideas. If our political culture was not so allergic to the idea of taxes and public amenities, we could have a publicly funded platform–perhaps administered by a consortium of public libraries. Libraries have a culture of protecting patron privacy that is very strong, and they have always been about democratizing information accesss.

  3. Robert Craig says:

    I’m not sure I agree that Apple is the wrong target.

    They may not directly be generating the products (ie apps) which are causing these long term attention grabbing issues. But equally, they are not the poor platform provider just struggling to keep their business afloat. I’m not saying they are to blame, but they do have both significant leverage over the companies given permission to operate on the products & platform and the ‘clout’ to influence the thinking of decision makers (not least to say, the cash to also invest in the shareholders recommendations as a show of corporate social responsibility).

    They are exactly the right target therefore as they have the ability to make or influence change in this arena.

  4. Nicola says:

    I agree that we’ll hopefully see a shift in the cultural attitude towards smartphones. I’ve met 8-year-olds with newer and fancier smartphones than mine. And part of that, I think, is that the parents want their kids to have access to a phone when they’re walking home from school or whatnot.

    The other part of that, however, is that, unlike in the UK (where you can get a basic phone for £10 on a PAYG contract and stick £5-10 on it every few months), cheap phones are harder to come by here and prepaid plans are a total rip off.

    If there’s a broad cultural shift away from smartphones for kids, however, then the carriers might listen and bother offering alternatives (which in turn will encourage more parents to give them to their kids instead of smartphones).

    1. Vincent says:

      I agree, there seems to be an ubiquity of iPhones in the hands of the youths. It is becoming a prevalent issue as the children are mindlessly wandering the world without input from their surroundings – they are hooked by shiny digital tabs and flashy sonic games ingrained on Apple’s platform. This behaviour is popular in America’s culture. The shift from engaging leisure time to reading books and mindlessly wandering about the blue sky seems to be replaced with casino like digital devices. This shift is frightening as some teenagers mention their lack of ability to vision lack without smartphones.

  5. When will your book on digital minimalism be published? I’m looking forward to reading it.

  6. Andrew says:

    “reward value more than raw usage (think: paid subscription)”

    In other words, “If I had a nickle for every…”

    Micropayments are also a fascinating concept. Think about it. Perhaps as little as $0.05 coming directly from a user/consumer every time they read an article, watched a video, opened Facebook or Twitter—that consumer would rapidly become very conscious and deliberate in the type of content or tools they pursued.

    This would have a massive effect of course on areas such as digital-based journalism, where the news site would have to draw readers in through higher quality stories rather than clickbait, because spending money on clickbait isn’t in the consumers interest.

  7. Josh says:

    Fascinatingly enough, it appears in a recent news article Mark Zuckerberg himself is having a change of heart about his product. His new years resolution for 2018 is to fix many of Facebook’s flaws including “abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation states, or making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent.”

    The article ends by mentioning how Zuckerberg is thinking about his legacy and his children even to the point of cutting into his profits:

    “It’s important to me that when Max and August grow up that they feel like what their father built was good for the world.”

    Perhaps there is some hope left in the world for rationality to overcome our senseless attentional consumerism.

    http://money.cnn.com/2018/01/12/technology/facebook-news-feed-change/index.html

  8. George says:

    The problem did not originate with Apple, or even Facebook.

    Those of us old enough to remember and have used text-based forums know that it’s not the algorithm or software that causes the addictive reward. It is the presence of other humans and the chance to receive a reward in the form of information (or approval, or status, or monetary gain, or other such rewards).

    Even the comment sections of blogs engender such features.

    What solutions do we have? I’m not sure. As someone who has been struggling to control his internet use for around two decades, I don’t think it’s self-control, and I don’t think it’s walling off from parts of the internet. What has worked best has been to shut down for hours or days at a time, in quite a deliberate way.

    1. EA says:

      Cal – I think that George raises an important point. A great point, actually.
      I remember the times of Usenet, or even IRC which were text based. Many people – probably including myself – were addicted to those novel forms of communication, yet there was no addiction engineer behind their design.
      NYT writer J.C. Herz published an amazing novel in 1996 (21 years ago!) titled “Surfing the Internet” which discusses the problem, albeit in fictional form. From one of the user reviews on Amazon (written in 1999!!): “This book should be supplied to all users of the web. It gives one of the best views of an addicts use to the medium. From the first tentative steps, all the way through to over load! The author MUST be praised for her writing, and content.”
      I think no discussion on the issue would be complete without an analysis of the “early years”

      1. Study Hacks says:

        This is a good observation. You don’t even have to go back that far to find examples of addiction without engineering. Think about, for example, the compulsion to check email, which is a generic technology, not a service offered by a monopoly platform.

        They way I see it is that easy access to global digital networks offers many different ways to short-circuit our brain and create compulsive or addictive behavior. We’re simply not well-adapted for the digital ecosystem. Accordingly, the history of these technologies are riddled with accidental addiction.

        The attention economy conglomerates, in some sense, noted this potential, and nudged their services to create these behaviors at mass scale.

        1. EA says:

          Cal – “We’re simply not well-adapted for the digital ecosystem” is a very interesting observation.
          I wonder if we can spin it this way: we’re wired to give priority to long-distance communications, especially in written form. I wonder if it has something to do with the evolution of human society. I am pretty sure that for thousands of years when a communiqué was delivered from far away it meant that the information was somewhat vital (I highly doubt that citizens of the Roman empire informed someone in a different city about what they had for lunch). Even newer, faster messaging forms as the telegram were reserved for messages of some importance.
          As email, facebook, and similar tools are intrinsically long-distance communication forms our brain might simply be unable to prioritize the way it should.

  9. Nenad says:

    If we have evidence that smartphone usage causes addiction, we should proceed with regulation as with other addictive stuff. Limit it to 18/21 years old, and have organizations that help adults to cope with addiction.

    This is short term solution, that can help today.

    In the long term, I believe that out moral values should change. We should not look at gaining as much profit as possible as moral anymore, but condemn it. If someone wants to turn profit by helping make our children addicts then they should watch out. At this point, money grabbing seems to be having a pass and is taken as normal thing to do for a corporation. I believe it is not normal, not desirable and not moral.

  10. We’re all way more vulnerable than we would like to believe.

    I think a lot of solving issues involves hard choices upfront that lead to easier choices later. Some people go so far as to not have smart phones. For others it’s a more subtle choice like not installing certain apps, turning off notifications or having times when they are away from their phone or certain apps are blocked.

    I’ve really seen in my own life that limiting phone time increases time for deep, meaningful time doing things I truly enjoy or connecting with people who really know me.

    And for children, we have to help them. This is a hard enough battle for adults, we shouldn’t ask little kids to figure this out on their own.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth

  11. CHARLES says:

    Smartphone at 18? They are already have them at 10 years old with full data and text !

  12. Ryan F Smith says:

    I believe this will be a significant trend in K-12 education over the next 5-10 years as well. There will be a course-correction in the EdTech community where parents demand schools are more intentional about modeling healthy screen-time and attention management.

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