THE BLOG

Addicted: An Industry Matures

06/01/2015 11:05 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

Perhaps nothing better defines our current age than to say it is one of rapid technological change. Technological improvements will continue to provide more to individuals and society, but also to demand more: demand (and leak) more of our data, more time, more attention and more anxieties. While an increasingly vocal minority have begun to rail against certain of these demands, through calls to pull our heads away from our screens and for corporations and governments to stop mining user data, a great many in the tech industry see no reason to change course. User data and time are requisite in the new business ecosystem of the Internet; they are the fuel that feeds the furnace.

Among those advocating for more fuel is Nir Eyal and his recent work, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. The book -- and its accompanying talk -- has attracted a great deal of attention here in the Bay Area, and it's been overwhelmingly positive. Eyal outlines steps that readers -- primarily technology designers and product managers -- can follow to make 'habit-forming products.' Follow his prescribed steps, and rampant entrepreneurial success may soon be yours.

Since first seeing Eyal speak at Yelp's San Francisco headquarters last fall, I've heard three different clients in as many industries refer to his ideas as "amazing," and some have hosted reading groups to discuss them. His book has launched to Amazon's #1 bestseller spot in Product Management, and hovers near the same in Industrial & Product Design and Applied Psychology. It is poised to crack into the top 1000 sellers across the entire site, and reviewers have offered zealous praise: Eric Ries, a Very Important tech Person indeed, has declared the book "A must read for everyone who cares about driving customer engagement."

And yet, no one offering these reviews has pointed what should be obvious: that Eyal's model for "hooking" users is nearly identical to that used by casinos to "hook" their own; that such a model engenders behavioral addictions in users that can be incredibly difficult to overcome. Casinos may take our money, but these products can devour our time; and while we're all very aware of what the casino owners are up to, technology product development thus far has managed to maintain an air of innocence.

While it may be tempting to dismiss a book seemingly written only for, and read only by, a small niche of $12 cold pressed juice-drinking, hoodie and flip flop-wearing techies out on the west coast, one should consider the ways in which those techies are increasingly creating the worlds we all inhabit. Technology products are increasingly determining the news we read, the letters we send, the lovers we meet and the food we eat -- and their designers are reading this book, and taking note. I should know: I'm one of them.

'Addiction' by Any Other Name
Eyal's Hook Model consists of four steps -- Trigger, Action, Reward, Investment -- which begin and then repeat to get customers 'hooked' on a product. The heart of the model lies in the 'reward' step: Eyal emphasizes that it must consist of variable rewards, and goes on to tell how such a reward system causes the release of a small dose of dopamine, which then reinforces the original action.

The idea of 'variable rewards' (or a 'variable ratio schedule') may sound familiar: it's the primary driver of operant conditioning, a form of behavioral learning that has led to, among many other things, the wild success of slot machine gambling. Pioneers of the method, psychologists Olds and Milner, would variably stimulate mice in the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure center of the brain and see them forgo food and water in exchange for more stimulation. (Think Infinite Jest, with mice.)

The more one reads about this physiology of behavioral addiction, the more one realizes the incredible similarities between those who are 'hooked' and more traditionally 'addicted,' whether to gambling, sex, food, work or the Internet, a type of addiction that is steadily gaining recognition within the medical community. Further, researchers are finding ever-more similarities between the physiological underpinnings of substance and behavioral addictions. The line between them is blurring, and behavioral addiction is gaining wider acceptance as a result.

Eyal shies away from ever calling his process 'addiction-inducing,' instead opting to alternate between the euphemisms 'habit-forming' and 'hooking' to the extent that the reader becomes, indeed, habituated to them. Eyal is no longer peddling a how-to guide on fostering behavioral addictions, and is instead only advocating for just another category of product out in the world: 'mobile' products, 'responsive' products, 'habit-forming' products. 'Habit-forming' becomes just another category of thing; it becomes something worth aspiring to.

Why Not Hook?
Some with whom I've discussed Eyal's work have countered with a shrug, arguing that "marketing's been manipulating people for years." Even so, it's no excuse to do more of it; and I can't help but feel it's worse here. Silicon Valley, for those who haven't yet visited (or at least, seen the HBO show by the same name) is rife with a special blend of arrogance, rags-to-riches aspiration and tech utopianism that make the idea of 'hooking' users feel all the more duplicitous. It's one thing to convince people to spend money at your casino; it's quite another to tell them you're improving their lives while they're doing it.

When imagining why an individual might want to use email, Eyal posits that "she fears being out of the loop.... Fear is a powerful internal trigger and we can design our solution to help calm it." Facebook can help erase our feelings of loneliness, and Instagram "helps users dispel boredom by connecting them with others." Eyal states confidently that "the solution to these problems is right here," and holds up his phone. When he holds his device like this, it's a familiar gesture: it's reminiscent of a pope and his ferula, or of how Steve Jobs, that last high priest of product, wielded new iPhone releases before his own adoring congregation.

Many others in the tech industry -- Eyal is by no means the only one -- confuse real solutions with dependence-inducing (and profit-expanding) band-aids, often aiming to ameliorate problems created by technology itself. We should not be asking how email can help people who "fear being out of the loop", how Instagram can dispel our FOMO and boredom, how Facebook can put our loneliness on hold. Our use of these products only reinforces these feelings, and we should instead ask how we can stop feeling FOMO, stop worrying about constantly being in the loop, stop feeling bored or lonely whenever we spend a moment or two with our own thoughts. This isn't, and needn't be, our default state.

Some are starting to take action to change this. Michael Harris published a book on the idea last summer, saying in an interview "the idealistic side of me believes we're moving through a naive state and we will become more intelligent consumers of online media. I think it will eventually change." Similarly, Dr. David Levy at the University of Washington has for years taught "a class on Information and Contemplation," and will soon publish a book on his experiences, with exercises to help others be more mindful in their tech use. We'll likely prioritize breaking products' holds on our lives as we work to curb the fast-growing problem of phone use while driving as well: as reported in the New York Times, a recent study by AT&T found that "22 percent of the respondents who access social media while driving said that they did so because they felt addicted."

Eyal's ideas aren't new: Facebook, Google and many other technology companies have been following many of his principles for years, and Eyal has merely filtered down, formulated, packaged and then preached them for mass consumption. Many in the tech industry -- many who are likely friends and colleagues of mine -- may think it hopelessly starry-eyed or naïve to think this cycle might possibly ever end. But I think we should, and can, fight against it; I don't believe we have to stay this course. I don't even really believe this course is sustainable.

An Industry Matures
When I first saw Eyal speak, I had a sudden vision of the future of technology, and it was grim. I was struck with the realization that tech needs his model now: this is the ecosystem we inhabit today on the Internet.

The business model of consumer technology depends upon advertisements, and as tech startups continue to make IPOs and the demand for profits continues to spiral upward, companies will need to find innovative ways to squeeze more profits from it, through more users, increased use, and better-targeted advertisements. We should pay this joint threat -- posed by both increased surveillance of user data and a need for increased ad exposure time -- great heed.

Others of note have picked up on this theme. Ethan Zuckerman last fall discussed (and, perhaps with tongue in cheek, apologized for) his part in the development of the ad-based Internet business model, calling advertising "the original sin of the web." He points out that advertising allows for -- and, over time, makes us expect as given -- surveillance of our online activities.

Maciej Ceglowski discussed the same in his excellent talk at Beyond Tellerand 2014. "Advertising, or the promise of advertising, is the economic foundation of the world wide web," he begins, and continues:

"This ghost of a business model propels us to ever greater extremes of surveillance. If the algorithms don't work, that's a sign we need more data. If the algorithms do work, then imagine how much better they'll work with more data. There's only one outcome allowed: collect more data."

While Ceglowski and Zuckerman focus their complaints of the ad-based model at its requirement for increased surveillance, there's another way to ensure your ads get seen by users: hook them. Increased use of consumer products ensures both increased exposure to current advertisements, but also increased opportunities to gather user data.

Looking Ahead
Even amidst this gloom, we can find solace in hope. Zuckerman's essay finishes with desires for a future in a less ad-filled, more secure web, and Ceglowski finishes his talk with a list of excellent recommendations for policy improvements and other steps forward. I believe there's a way forward for the 'hooked' side of the equation too. David Levy, Michael Brooks and WNYC's ongoing "Bored and Brilliant" series are working to help us to regain a sense of quiet, peace and the ability to think slowly and deeply -- maybe to even be bored once in a while.

It's a mistake to think we have to stay the technological course on which we've found ourselves. While not discussing addictive technologies directly, Ian Bogost has written emphatically:

The algorithm has taken on a particularly mythical role in our technology-obsessed era, one that has allowed it wear the garb of divinity.... This attitude blinds [and] allows us to chalk up any kind of computational social change as pre-determined and inevitable. It gives us an excuse not to intervene in the social shifts wrought by big corporations like Google or Facebook or their kindred, to see their outcomes as beyond our influence.

The future of tech is not pre-determined; it is not scripture. The sooner we realize this -- the sooner we realize we don't have to become susceptible to our notifications, to the beck and call of our buzzes, bells and lights -- the sooner we can regain control in our own lives.

We can learn to walk away from the slot machine, to stop checking our phones. We can escape the hook if we're nimble.