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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Book review: Tech addiction tempts us all

It takes us just six seconds to read a new office email. So, why is that and how can we change the modern dependency on technology?
Adam Alter's Irresistible tells us that "There isn’t a bright line between addicts and the rest of us. We’re all one product or experience away from developing our own addiction."
Adam Alter's Irresistible tells us that "There isn’t a bright line between addicts and the rest of us. We’re all one product or experience away from developing our own addiction."

How long do you think the average office email goes unread? Ten minutes, maybe? Wrong. The average time is six seconds, according to Adam Alter, whose book, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, was published last month.

In the past two decades, huge leaps in technology – especially the invention of the smartphones and tablets that are almost always with us – have changed how many of us work, relax, exercise and shop. While this is not inherently bad, many of us struggle to moderate our behaviour and have developed behavioural addictions that are detrimental to our well-being. Constantly interrupting our work to check emails diminishes our focus and makes us less productive; wearing devices while we exercise won’t necessarily make us any fitter, only more obsessive and inclined to push ourselves through injuries to reach arbitrary fitness goals.

Irresistible analyses the rise of addictive behaviours and explores the psychological tricks technology designers use to make their products so compelling. The book also identifies ways to control behavioural addiction and even suggests how the same science can be used to reach more positive ends (gamifying learning or saving more for retirement, for example).

Alter draws on his own research and interviews as well as numerous other illuminating research studies as the basis for his book which is enjoyably informative and a salutary tale.

Perhaps most interesting for business readers is the dissection of the techniques start-ups use to get us hooked: the little “ding” shopping site Gilt uses to announce a new flash sale; Facebook’s “like” button, which is catnip for humans; the set-up of Netflix, which means the next episode of a gripping series starts automatically when the previous one ends,making viewers more likely to “binge-watch”.

While interesting for business readers, this book is perhaps even more urgent reading for parents.

Alter notes early on that the tech giants carefully limit their children’s use of technology; Steve Jobs’s kids didn’t have iPads, for example.

Perhaps the major takeaway from this book is this: “There isn’t a bright line between addicts and the rest of us. We’re all one product or experience away from developing our own addictions.”

q&a how to wean yourself off it

Lianne Gutcher reveals tips from Adam Alter’s Irresistible on how to reduce our reliance on technology:

Are we really so addicted to technology?

Half the people in the developed world are addicted to something, which for most of us is a behaviour, according to Alter. And addiction to tech is tricky because we often need emails to do our jobs. Alter advocates learning to use the internet “sustainably” rather than avoiding it altogether.

How are employers helping?

Alter refers to the Dutch design firm Heldergroen, whose office furniture automatically lifts to the ceiling by cables at 6pm. The empty floor space then becomes used for yoga practice or dance classes. During their holidays, staff working for the German car maker Daimler can opt to have their incoming emails deleted automatically. The sender is informed that the mail wasn’t delivered and is provided with the name of another member of staff to contact.

Any other tips?

Well, there’s aversion therapy – pairing an action you want to change with an unpleasant sensation. The book describes a device called the Pavlok that delivers a moderate electric shock if the wearer engages in bad behaviour.

Tell me more about the author.

Adam Alter is an associate professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business. His previous book, Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave was published in 2013.

business@thenational.ae

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