I've worked in tech for 22 years -- and it's clear we're living in an 'addiction economy'

  • The attention economy has evolved into a new form: the “addiction economy.”
  • Tech juggernauts like Facebook and Google depend on people’s eyeballs staying glued to their devices.
  • We can’t abandon these devices, so it’s in our interest to find ways to strike a healthy balance.

Economist Herbert Simon is credited with coining the concept of the attention economy as early as the 1970s. It’s the idea that people’s attention is a resource just like time or money, and companies will market their products to compete for that resource.

Though this concept feels obvious now, its growth took many decades from the creatively-driven approaches of the first Mad Men to the algorithmic attention-grabbers that Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter have become. Despite Simon’s insight, I doubt he could have foreseen a world in which some of the largest and most successful businesses thrived on the arbitrage of the attention economy.

But I think this concept is somewhat outdated, and we need to see the world through a different prism: the addiction economy.

Kids on smartphonesTomohiro Ohsumi/Getty

Two decades in tech have revealed a lot

These new economy juggernauts, like Facebook and Google, aren’t merely in the business of selling ads to interested people based on compelling content they offer. They use content generated by others, layer that with engaging algorithms, and make their business about getting as much user time as they possibly can.

In this way, companies like Facebook have created an addiction economy. If your product or service isn’t as compelling as Facebook, it eats your lunch – regardless of what industry you’re in. And because user engagement metrics are the ones most carefully monitored by investors, if yours don’t match their user growth curves, you can expect to pay a price. Everyone wants user engagement and every company is desperate to get it. So they will turn to whatever mechanisms they have at their disposal – regardless of their social or moral value.

I know this intimately. For the last two decades I’ve been the chief proponent of a concept called gamification, which endeavours to use the best ideas from games to engage people. It was born out of my observation that games were capable of driving a lot of predictable behaviour in users without (usually) offering monetary incentives, plus the fact that I knew game mechanics – the building blocks of games – could be atomized and made available to all experience designers.

For the most part, my work did good. And many of the projects I worked on, including getting people to save more, exercise more, learn more, use public transit more and be more civically active, have had a positive social impact. However, I’ve also trained or worked for every one of those addiction-fuelling companies at one time or another. My work has helped open a Pandora’s Box, which probably would be open regardless, but I know we cannot put everything back together.

Pokemon GoNiantic Labs

Apps are the newest face of the addiction economy

This addiction economy has been a long time coming. The tobacco industry has long been known to have created addiction deliberately in its customers, playing to their weaknesses,. But no sector of the economy is immune.

For example, fast food companies often employ hundreds of food scientists whose job is to come up with new food items that are, in their parlance, “craveable.” Salt, sugar, fat- in the right proportions – work wonders. Make no mistake, these companies would like you to eat every meal in their restaurants, and perhaps a snack or two. If it were up to them, you’d be addicted to their burgers and fries. Maybe you already are.

But what’s different about the Taco Bell Doritos Taco and your Facebook news feed is the algorithms involved. The social media company uses extensive machine learning to methodically identify the things that will get you to spend as much time on their sites as possible, refreshing endlessly.

While you might be able to use willpower to resist the KFC Double Down, Facebook’s algorithm actually uses your willpower against you, running hundreds or thousands of tests against billions of users to identify what drives the most engagement.

Because they are so good at what they do, companies like Facebook and Google are the must-use advertising platforms of our era. But this is a Faustian bargain: They’re mostly only good at advertising because they are stealing mindshare from everyone else using these algorithms. If machines are finely tuned to extract attention from us, they will be uniquely powerful and have far-reaching impact. The world of the addiction economy is kill or be killed, and the biggest guns belong to Facebook and Google.

Much has been made of recent research that shows social media has a negative impact on people’s well being – specifically, that social media consumption often leads to greater unhappiness. The question remains, however, whether this is because of the platform showing us people’s perfectly-curated lives, or because the algorithms ultimately leave us feeling like heroin addicts, strung out, waiting for our next like or retweet.

What I’m doing about the addiction economy

It became abundantly clear to me a couple of years ago that things had gone too far, and so I founded a company called Onward to help restore this balance in the universe. We’ve had some early success at helping people get control of their tech overuse (89% of users reduced their usage in one of our trials). But there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Alongside screen time and social media in general, hundreds of millions worldwide now suffer from addictions to things like porn, gambling, video games, dating apps, and shopping. All of these problems can be directly linked back to the proliferation of the smartphone and engagement algorithms.

I don’t think we can, as a society, break our dependence on our smartphones and social tech. After all, they provide a great deal of happiness and satisfaction. But at the same time they make us unhappy and melancholy. The key is to have balance – to take your desired behavioural goals and have your own personal defensive algorithm to help you enforce your limits, boundaries and use criteria.

This will not happen by moral suasion of the tech industry or through legislation. This economic model is deeply tied to capitalism and our current global climate. But we can take control back and protect ourselves. If we do, we can have it all: great, fun tech and time away when we need it.

This is truly a vision of the economy I can get behind.

Gabe Zichermann is the cofounder and CEO of Onward, a mobile app that uses machine learning to help people strike a balance in how often they use technology.

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