Book review: Irresistible: Why we can't stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching, by Adam Alter

The Scotsman's monthly review of a book about health, promoted by Wellcome

Author Adam Alter. Picture: Karsten Moran

Steve Jobs, a former editor of Wired and a founder of Twitter – each of them, while designing, disseminating or delivering new technologies, placed very strict limits on how much technology their own kids could use at home. Game designers who avoid gaming, addiction experts who wouldn’t touch the newest smartphone with a barge-pole. These are the startling facts which open Adam Alter’s book, Irresistible. So what do they know that we don’t?

Alter, an Associate Professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, argues that we struggle to manage our use of technology – just a quick look at my likes on Instagram, or my retweets on Twitter, or whether I’ve been tagged in a photo – not because we’re lacking in willpower but because it is designed with the express aim of making us addicted. In the words of a “design ethicist” whom Alter interviewed: “there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have”.

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Alter uses psychological studies, interviews and scientific research to explore the ways new technologies get us hooked. And he’s very good on the how – the techniques by which social media, gaming and apps push the right neurological and emotional buttons to lure us in and keep us clicking – using this to build a case for a new understanding of addiction. “We’re all,” he states, “one product or experience away from developing our own addictions.” Overall, though, I yearned for more on the why. “Tech isn’t morally good or bad until it’s wielded by the corporations that fashion it for mass consumption,” he writes. “Today, unfortunately, many tech developments do promote addiction.” Indeed. Alter’s focus, though, is on revealing the manner in which they do this in order that we might learn to better manage our appetite for online stimulation.

And let’s be in no doubt as to the scale of our habit. In the UK, 47 percent of adults use social media every day. Across the world, 2 billion people use smartphones, 1.5 billion people use Facebook alone and 60 million new photos are posted to Instagram every day. According to the most recent GlobalWebIndex report, we spend a global average of almost two hours a day on social and messaging networks. And while we do so, we are messing with our social interactions, our sleep and our problem solving abilities (why remember anything when Google always has the answer?). And if, as Alter contends, addiction is produced largely by environment and circumstance, we are at a point in human history when both are more conducive to addiction than anything we’ve experienced before.

Click, refresh, click, refresh. Our susceptibility to goal-setting and feedback – numbers of steps taken as tracked by our fitness gadgets, number of “friends” – these achievements give us a high we strive to emulate or improve. As Alter writes: “where substance addictions are nakedly destructive, many behavioural addictions are quietly destructive acts wrapped in cloaks of creation. The illusion of progress will sustain you as you achieve high scores or acquire more followers or spend more time at work, and so you’ll struggle ever harder to shake the need to continue.”

The argument here is that substance addictions and behavioural addictions are very similar, and whereas we know a lot about the havoc wreaked by the former, we’re much less clear about the latter. And there’s an additional problem, because when it comes to engagement with the online world abstinence is no longer a realistic option for most of us, since technology is omnipresent. Perhaps even more worryingly, these developments are still in their infancy and we have little idea of what their long-term impacts might be.

That’s not to say that Alter struggles to provide salutary warnings about what we’re risking. From the Japanese workers who, unable to switch off omnipresent technologies, succumb to karoshi – “death from overworking” – to the young people who flunk out to satisfy obsessions with online games such as World of Warcraft, to the less extreme but still insidious damage done to our ability to connect with each other socially and intimately, we are flirting with real dangers and they’re only increasing.

In the final section of the book, Alter turns his attention to potential solutions and attempts to strike a relatively positive tone. He espouses a prevention model – we must educate children in how to use these technologies safely rather than waiting until problematic behaviour is entrenched and then attempting to change it. And we must understand that technological advances need not be addictive but can be used for more benign purposes. “Our attitude to addictive experiences is largely cultural, and if our culture makes space for work-free, game-free, screen-free downtimes, we and our children will find it easier to resist the lure of behavioural addiction.” Sounds great, I just wish I knew how we might get there.

Claire Black is a Gestalt therapist, based in Edinburgh

Irresistible is published by The Bodley Head, £18.99