In the Age of Technology Addiction, We Need Compassionate Design

It’s not a surprise that technology is an unprecedented addition to our daily lives--especially as technology became mobile. As a tool, it can help us transition to more earth-friendly, paperless experiences, such as reading on a kindle or using your smartphone for your boarding pass. Especially now, many of us can appreciate the ways in which technology helps us stay connected to one another. I personally wouldn’t be able to keep in touch with my very elderly grandfather and grandaunt without technology (although, I still sent them letters because I’m old school like that). For some of us, technology helps motivate us towards our goals of, say, being more active by reminding us to move around, sometimes helping us to set fitness goals and--inasmuch as it can, holding us accountable. One is hard-pressed to try to argue that technology is not worth its benefits.

But Adam Alter, marketing author and professor at New York University Stern School of Business, offers us poignant words of caution in his book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked (which I highly suggest you read). I dove into this text with my own personal caveat that technology is useful and necessary in my life in many ways, and Alter himself acknowledges (necessarily so) that technology isn’t inherently good or bad. Yet, it is hard to ignore the rise of issues surrounding technology, most notably that we generally tend to struggle to be apart from our phones, even during times when it’s clearly in poor form. But far from placing the blame of addiction on the user (Alter focuses on behavioral addictions connected to technology), Alter guides our gaze to technology’s creators.

Shockingly, and in many ways quite sinisterly, most tech giants do not allow their children to use the technology they create. Steve Jobs is one of these tech giants. Alter points out how this comes in opposition to a typical marketing strategy called “dogfooding”--if it’s good enough for my dog, it’s good enough for yours! In a chapter aptly entitled “Never Get High On Your Own Supply”  we dive down the rabbit hole of why tech giants try to convince us that we need their product--our kids need their product--while refusing to use it themselves. This should be alarming to us, and we are shown how what’s being created may not truly be designed with our best interests in mind.

I am a firm believer that a major flaw in our own social and political systems is that our bottom line has become profit. Cash. Wealth. Much of tech and game design centers on how to get your attention, how to hook your interest, and how to keep you engaged. This last part is where we begin to walk the line of addiction, of misuse by overuse. This design is driven by the idea that the more you use a product, the more profit it brings in, especially in ad revenue. What I’m getting at, and what Alter makes a point to drive home, is that many games, apps, social media sites, fitness tracking tools--even email--are designed to be as addictive as possible. If that feels extreme, let us pause for some considerations.

Consider your relationship with email. Do you check it compulsively, even if you didn’t receive an email alert? How soon after you wake up do you check your email? How many times in a day on average? Alter highlights Inbox Zero as a devastatingly shackling experience of email--we’re too afraid to leave our email unattended because the threat of returning to a tsunami of emails to sort and respond to is far too overwhelming. I know that this applies to me. I despise notification bubbles, I’m never quite satisfied unless I’ve sorted any unread mail, it is among the first things I check in the morning (although I’m getting better at it). If I replace “email” with physical mail, it then becomes absurd that I would devote so much time and attention to it. With physical mail, we only receive it at certain times due to a mail delivery system, which means we better compartmentalize the way we engage with mail. Why should I give any attention to a Banana Republic email with their latest sale when it’s after business hours? Email’s immediacy is part of what forces our work life and our accessibility to the outside world into our personal time and personal space.

If email isn’t your weakness, then I’ll ask if you recall Flappy Bird, the smartphone game that the creator eventually shut down because it was--and I’m being completely serious--ruining lives. It had the perfect balance of feedback, escalating difficulty, no access barrier (anyone could play and learn how to play through trial and error), and otherwise simplicity to keep individuals hooked beyond their own control. If you can recall the frenzy that unleashed when the game was taken down, you may be able to gather a sense of just how intense that pull--that behavioral addiction--was.

Have you ever been affected emotionally by the number of likes you did or didn’t get on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc.? How much time do you put into your posts, into finding the right picture, the right caption, striking the right tone to appeal to your audience? Social media uses metrics and the endless feed to keep you engaged, prey on our tendency to compare ourselves to others and be competitive, and give you little reason to leave the site once you’ve logged on.

It falls to something as basic and regular as our phone use. Do you ever have your phone out when you’re eating with others, whether at a restaurant or at home? Do you ever feel compelled to check your phone, even if you didn’t receive a notification? Do you tend to stay up later than you intended because you were on your phone late at night? (Which is no coincidence; the blue tint of the screen--and in some cases, blue color scheme of apps [looking at you, Facebook]--is intended to trick your brain into thinking it’s daytime and thus time to be awake.) These are all evaluative questions worth asking yourself.

Again, technology isn’t inherently bad. Email makes my work and school life easier by allowing for expedited communication with a digital record of communication that I can refer to later. Without Zoom, I wouldn’t be able to attend my classes which have moved online due to COVID. Yes, I’m using technology a ton lately, but it’s at an adaptive level. That is, I’m using it more at a level of needing to use it more. I use screens a lot for my work (remote database organization), academics (Zoom, Canvas, research, communicating with professors and peers), and side projects (creative writing projects, apartment hunting, learning how to make a new dinner). Much of the technology usage in my day-to-day is out of ease or necessity, with the rest being for entertainment.

But there’s also a reason I deleted Instagram and Reddit from my iPhone; the muscle memory compulsion of grabbing my phone, unlocking it, scrolling to, and selecting the app prevented me from even having the moment to decide if I actually want to scroll through those endless apps. Even if I had just closed Instagram because I was bored, I sometimes found that within five minutes, I would have opened it up again just to scroll with boredom. There’s been an argument that part of the issue with marijuana is that it makes us okay with being bored, which begins, over time, to interfere with our creativity; out of boredom strikes inspiration and innovation. I would argue that in many ways, this compulsive action and easy default to dealing with our boredom does a similar thing.

If you want a more in-depth comprehension of the role of technology in behavioral addiction, then I once again recommend reading Alter’s book.

This is not an article on how you should educate yourself on this topic (although in general, educating yourself is rarely a bad idea). But in the world of moderating our technology use, I want to make a case for something beyond intentional use: compassionate design.

Imagine this: when the workday is over, your emails will all be redirected so that you aren’t disturbed outside of the working day. Or how about a game that doesn’t use the tricks of the trade to keep you hooked for hours on end. An exercise tracker that integrates breaks and days of rest. Think of how different your social media experience would be if instead of “13 people liked this” you saw “people liked this.” Compassionate design is the term I use for design that marks people as the bottom line. (I would like to note that this can actually be more economically beneficial to companies in the long run because customers appreciate and lean towards companies that care about them.) It is design that integrates stopping cues, that informs you of how much time you’ve spent on the device/game/app, that encourages taking breaks, and that operates on our laziness to our benefit, not detriment. (The slight difference between deciding to stop and deciding to continue makes all the difference in the world. Think of how bingeing on Netflix changed once you had to actively stop episodes from playing instead of actively deciding to continue watching.)

I came across a fun example of compassionate design on a small scale as I scrolled through Reddit a few days ago. On my feed, there was a post under r/wholesomememes that reminded people to pause, and if it was between 10 PM and 7 AM to consider stopping completely and going to bed. It is a suggestion and an integrated stopping cue that forces users to choose to continue (in some respects). Granted, this was one post by one person on one subreddit--only one social media site out of many. But it still captures beautifully the way we can improve our technological design to be truly user-friendly.

In the meantime, we are too immersed in this experiment of technology and its quotidian integration to really know the long-term impacts on us individually and socially. While we can’t truly know any of the potential harm that will result from technology--let alone the way we over-indulge in it--it would behoove us to critically evaluate ourselves and to proceed with caution.