This month marks one year since I stopped using a smartphone. It’s been a revitalising experience. Picture a dried out sponge thrown back into the cool waters of reality. To a good degree it feels like that.
So to mark the anniversary I wanted to cherry pick a recent article on the topic.
In late August, the Guardian posted an edited exerpt from Richard Seymour’s book, The Twittering Machine in which he describes parallel mechanisms between gambling and drug abuse to socia media.
There are some very clear and straight forward connections that all of us who use social media can understand - just like any addict. And just like any addict we are also very good at ignoring the negative consequences of our addiction. This is something Seymour outlines quite well.
(Something that should be remembered when considering this topic, is that there are varying degrees of addiction. The question is whether you consider your level of addiction/reliance on social media as having more of a negative effect on you than a positive one).
For me, the most critical point of the whole excerpt is what in the drug research world is called the “subject-effect”.
As pointed out by Rik Loose, the author of The Subject of Addiction, similar quantities of the same drug administered to different individuals have widely varying effects. The real experience of the drug — the subject-effect, as it is called — partly depends on something other than the drug itself, namely something in the user. The happy pills have no more magic than magic beans. They have a blunt somatic force, but there has to be something else to act on. And if “psychosocial dislocation” was a sufficient cause, then there would be far more addicts. Beyond a certain point, addiction must act on, and be caused by, the psychic world of the user.
We’ve all heard someone say they have an “addictive personality”, and in essence we all do. Risk and reward behaviour has been part of our lives from the beginning and helps us understand our capabilities as an individual1. Having a goal in mind and taking steps to achieve it is risk and reward behaviour and almost everything we do is at least mildly goal orientated, including posting our personal lives and opinions online and assessing the consequential reactions to it. A new profile picture with many likes will stimulate a dopamine rush and make you feel good, no matter how much importance you place on social media. It’s simply a physiological reaction. Receiving no likes will leave you feeling contrary to that.
I would then argue that what we see now in social media is the most spectacular exploitation ever of our risk and reward behaviours.
The analogy between the gambler and the social-media junkie is hard to avoid. Tristan Harris, Google’s former design ethicist, calls your smartphone “the slot machine in your pocket”. Most smartphone apps use “intermittent variable rewards” to keep users hooked. Because rewards are variable, they are uncertain: you have to pull the lever to see what you are going to get.
Widespread knowledge of the dangers of addiction does not stop it from happening. We alway belive we can control our temptation. Many can and many cannot. Addiction definitely has a very wide spectrum of severity. But 2.5 Billion people use Facebook alone and it’s had some pretty detrimental effects on society. Do the benefits outway the negatives for you?
We know by now that if social media platforms get us addicted, they are working well. The more they wreck our lives, the better they are functioning. Yet we persist! Because we are all addicts at some level and like any addict, we’re very good at ignoring the negative consequences of of our addiction.
Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules For Life (Canada: Allen Lane, 2018), Chapter 11↩