What a writer, an engineer and a bomber have in common, and why we can’t rely on science

(10 Minute read)

1: The Writer

In 1949, George Orwell wrote a book called 1984.  It’s the story of a totalitarian government, which is always watching - Big Brother.  You’re not allowed to have close friends, be in love, to have sex. You have to save all your emotional intelligence for the government.  You have to watch the government news, complete government exercises, go to rallies. It’s hard to have the time for your own thoughts because they are constantly filling your head with propaganda. It’s the story of a rebell, his illicit love affair and what the government did to then break him.

The story has a moral tale: that a human being can be broken down until they will believe anything you tell them.  But what’s more powerful is that pre the invention even of the internet, Orwell was able to predict we would be living in a world of connectivity, constant surveillance and information curation, which would become powerful tools for shaping society.

Orwell warned us about surveillance and information curation that would substitute independent thinking.  

2. The Engineer

It’s now 30 years, since Sir Tim Berners Lee submitted original proposals for the internet. His intention was to build a web that led to global connectivity, information sharing and communication.  

Like Orwell, his concerns were, and in fact still are, around surveillance, data management and the curation of information.  That the internet wouldn’t enable openness the way he first intended. As co-founder of the Open Data Institute, and most recently of Solid, he continues to fight for control of personal data ownership, caution around the spread of misinformation and transparency for political advertising.  

3.  The Unabomber

Controversial maybe, but the Unabomber has become headline news of late, due to the Netflix documentary telling the tale of his capture.  Between 1978 and 1995, Theodore Kaczynski sent out mail bombs across the US injuring 23 people and killing 3. His targets were organised - a message to the world of the pitfalls of the industrial society.  

In 1995 he threatened a number of newspapers, forcing them to publish his 35,000 word manifesto - Industrial Society and it’s future.  

Whilst his acts were criminal, leaving a painful wake of destruction, much of his manifesto was insightful, particularly with regards to how technology would go on to shape our lives.

“To those who think that all this sounds like science fiction, we point out that yesterday's science fiction is today's fact. The Industrial Revolution has radically altered man's environment and way of life, and it is only to be expected that as technology is increasingly applied to the human body and mind, man himself will be altered as radically as his environment and way of life have been.”

These three people, like many other philosophers of the time were consistent in their high level concern that surveillance, control, the curation of information and the collection of data; would shape the way that society operated.  

But none of these philosophers predicted something else which has been fundamental to the way in which technology has impacted both the individual and society at large.  

None of them predicted that our phones and the content that they deliver, would be designed to be addictive.

The Hooked Loop

The fact is that the apps we use on our phone today have been programmed to keep us hooked. How do they do that?  Well it’s very simple.  

  1. They provide us with the information which we are naturally hungry for.  Humans have a natural instinct to be curious.  We want to consume information, entertainment, to understand.  Connectivity at our fingertips plays into this natural desire.

  2. Secondly, we want to feel connected, loved, part of something - part of a community. Communicating and networking tools in our palms help with this.  

  3. Finally, and perhaps most crucially,  the apps we use have been designed to keep us coming back.

A few years ago now, Nir Eyal wrote a book, entitled Hooked.  Along with others, like Tristan Harris from the ‘Time Well Spent’ movement (later rebranded the Centre for Human Tech), they were the early whistleblowers on the way that technology was being developed to engaged.    

The hooked loop is simple.  Firstly, there will be an internal or external trigger inviting us to engage with a product.  For example, an email asking us to view a recent photo on facebook or our friends.

Following that comes the action - the behaviour done in anticipation of a reward.  In this case, let’s say our friend Sue - she clicks on the photo, thinking about the happy memories that it brings back.  

The next step is key.  By initiating this action, Sue moves into a place where she will experience variable reward.  She will be taken to a facebook page with the photo, other photos from the album, options to like comment, feedback, as well as a whole raft of unrelated content and interaction waiting just for him.  Now she’s spending more time on Facebook, hunting for the next wonderful think to peak her interest, make her feel more informed, loved and connected.

Investment is the last stage of the process where the user does a bit of work.  Once someone is invested they are much more likely to come back. Sue comments on the photo, and likes it, and then is inspired to upload her own recent shot to see if she will get the same reaction.  Feedback on her content becomes a new trigger, and hence the cycle is reborn.

This cycle is addictive because of the variable reward.    As Nir sums it up:

“ It is this exciting juxtaposition of relevant and irrelevant, tantalizing and plain, beautiful and common, which sets her brain’s dopamine system aflutter with the promise of reward”.  

Welcome to Dopamine

The promise of reward releases Dopamine.   Dopamine makes us happy - and it keeps us hooked.

It also has a numbing effect.  That’s why, at the end of a long day, when you’re tired.  Or when you’re having a lonely moment, or a moment feeling a bit down about something at work or at home, our phones provide an easy comfort.  Where scrolling sooths and helps us to block out reality.

What’s so bad about Dopamine anyway?

You might say that so far dopamine sounds all good - it makes us happy, it numbs our uncomfortable feelings.  But that’s not the complete picture.

The prefrontal cortex is the area at the front of your brain just behind your forehead.   It is responsible for decision making, emotional response, and regulating our behavior. It’s the part of the brain that does all the hard stuff.  All the non-compulsive stuff, everything that requires conscious and applied thought.

It can be trained and developed, by exercising self-control, and providing it with the things it needs to function well like oxygen and sleep.    But more easily it can be damaged.

Our phone habits are damaging it in two ways.  

Firstly, we are not exercising self-control.  Instead we are training our brains to be constantly distracted.  You will hear about the crisis of attention and it’s effect on productivity.  We are not ‘flexing the muscle’ of the prefrontal cortex to make it stronger, to work harder.  Instead, we are being trained for distraction.

Secondly, too much dopamine reduces the ability for this part of our brain to function. Without getting into deep science, this is because the enzymes required to break down dopamine - including monoamine - when available at high levels, impair the ability of the prefrontal cortex to function.  

Isn’t this all a bit dramatic?

You may argue this is all just scaremongering.  And you may be right - there are mixed reports on just how much dopamine it takes to change our brains behaviour.  Although we do know though that children are more susceptible.

The fact is that it is too early for there to be robust scientific evidence on the extent and impacts of phone addiction - because it takes about 5 years to complete a PHD, and the situation in 2013 was very different to what it was today.

Ten years ago we weren’t even using apps.  5 years ago, when most current scientific research might have been started, there were  only 800,000 apps in the Google play store, and around the same number on iOS. 4 years later, there were 2.8 million on play, and over 2 million on iOS.

That means that:

  1. More tasks are now being managed by our smartphones

  2. Apps have to compete to hold audience attention

  3. There is greater need to innovate to make sure your users are Hooked more than ever.

Scientific research is trying to happen in an environment where the technology is changing at an exponential rate - it’s no wonder that is is struggling to keep up.

Add to that the fact that the impact of phones on our lives is multidisciplinary.  Whilst neuroscientists may be focused on dopamine, psychologists and sociologists are researching loneliness, the impact of social media, teenage depression, biologists are researching spinal evolution, policy makers are understanding road safety...and so it goes on.  Like climate change research, it’s hard to organise and condense all this research into a single handbook underpinned by science.

And finally, our experiences with our phones are personal.  How we relate to them and how they affect us will vary by user.  

By the time we get to an objective picture of the impact of phones on our life, smartphones will be redundant.  

It doesn’t take a genius to see that individuals and their society are already being severely impacted by the way we use technology. Just like the great philosophers of years gone passed, we have a responsibility to speak up.

All we can do is take things into our own hands, right now.

It’s time to lead the change.  Help yourself. Help others. Find your phone/life balance.