The brain’s craving for novelty, constant stimulation and immediate gratification creates something called a “compulsion loop.” Like lab rats and drug addicts, we need more and more to get the same effect. ... Endless access to new information also easily overloads our working memory. When we reach cognitive overload, our ability to transfer learning to long-term memory significantly deteriorates. ... we humans have a very limited reservoir of will and discipline. We’re far more likely to succeed by trying to change one behavior at a time, ideally at the same time each day, so that it becomes a habit, requiring less and less energy to sustain.
Q-tips are one of the most perplexing things for sale in America. Plenty of consumer products are widely used in ways other than their core function — books for leveling tables, newspapers for keeping fires aflame, seltzer for removing stains, coffee tables for resting legs — but these cotton swabs are distinct. Q-tips are one of the only, if not the only, major consumer products whose main purpose is precisely the one the manufacturer explicitly warns against. ... The little padded sticks have long been marketed as household staples, pitched for various kinds of beauty upkeep, arts and crafts, home-cleaning, and baby care. And, for years, they have carried an explicit caution — every box of Q-tips comes with this caveat: "Do not insert inside the ear canal." But everyone — especially those who look into people's ears for a living — know that many, if not most, flat out ignore the warning.
To get to ReSTART you can either ruin your life by playing video games 20 hours a day or you can take Route 202 15 minutes south from downtown Redmond. The road runs between stands of pine trees so tall that they register as dark green canyon walls. The whole landscape, once you get clear of the strip malls and self-storage facilities, feels damp, forested, vaguely Jurassic. ... has treated something like 200 people. A typical stay lasts between 45 and 90 days, and costs $26,000 (expensive-sounding, but typical for live-in rehab of any type). Upon arrival patients must surrender all digital devices. Nearly every ReSTART patient is a male between the ages of 18 and 28. ... video games are the meth of the digitally addicted world: wildly popular and horribly destructive. It isn't that video games are so different from other online fixations, the founders of ReSTART believe, it's just that they're more extreme. The devout social-media user might worry what people think of the witty “character” he plays on Twitter; Callum cared so much about the fate of his World of Warcraft alter ego—a tall blue-haired elf he named Voga—that he adopted the schedule of a Navy SEAL.
These are the thoughts that plague the medicated, the adults in their twenties who take prescription stimulants for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and have done so since childhood. By some accounts, the number of 26- to 34-year-olds taking ADHD medication rose roughly 84 percent between 2008 and 2012 alone. ... Prescription stimulants like Ritalin were considered a godsend when they first started being used to help hyperactive, unfocused kids succeed in school. So many children were on ADHD drugs in the ’90s that lines would form outside the school nurse’s office, where students went to take their midday doses. But almost 20 years have passed since Diller predicted that the tidal wave of prescriptions written in the ’90s would come to shape an entire generation. Now, those children are all grown up and living on their own. As adults, many find themselves unable to get off the drugs. Some fear losing their jobs, while others fear losing the only self they have come to know — a self with a prescription drug dependency that’s difficult to kick.
For a decade and a half, I’d been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week, and ultimately corralling a team that curated the web every 20 minutes during peak hours. Each morning began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes. Throughout the day, I’d cough up an insight or an argument or a joke about what had just occurred or what was happening right now. And at times, as events took over, I’d spend weeks manically grabbing every tiny scrap of a developing story in order to fuse them into a narrative in real time. I was in an unending dialogue with readers who were caviling, praising, booing, correcting. My brain had never been so occupied so insistently by so many different subjects and in so public a way for so long. ... I was, in other words, a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web. And as the years went by, I realized I was no longer alone. Facebook soon gave everyone the equivalent of their own blog and their own audience. More and more people got a smartphone — connecting them instantly to a deluge of febrile content, forcing them to cull and absorb and assimilate the online torrent as relentlessly as I had once. ... Then the apps descended, like the rain, to inundate what was left of our free time. It was ubiquitous now, this virtual living, this never-stopping, this always-updating. ... the insanity was now banality ... e almost forget that ten years ago, there were no smartphones, and as recently as 2011, only a third of Americans owned one. Now nearly two-thirds do. That figure reaches 85 percent when you’re only counting young adults. And 46 percent of Americans told Pew surveyors last year a simple but remarkable thing: They could not live without one. ... By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of this interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact.
Harris is the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience. As the co‑founder of Time Well Spent, an advocacy group, he is trying to bring moral integrity to software design: essentially, to persuade the tech world to help us disengage more easily from its devices. ... While some blame our collective tech addiction on personal failings, like weak willpower, Harris points a finger at the software itself. That itch to glance at our phone is a natural reaction to apps and websites engineered to get us scrolling as frequently as possible. The attention economy, which showers profits on companies that seize our focus, has kicked off what Harris calls a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” ... we’ve lost control of our relationship with technology because technology has become better at controlling us. ... He studied computer science at Stanford while interning at Apple, then embarked on a master’s degree at Stanford, where he joined the Persuasive Technology Lab. Run by the experimental psychologist B. J. Fogg, the lab has earned a cultlike following among entrepreneurs hoping to master Fogg’s principles of “behavior design”—a euphemism for what sometimes amounts to building software that nudges us toward the habits a company seeks to instill. ... Sites foster a sort of distracted lingering partly by lumping multiple services together.
In 1997, during his final year as a doctoral student, Fogg spoke at a conference in Atlanta on the topic of how computers might be used to influence the behaviour of their users. He noted that “interactive technologies” were no longer just tools for work, but had become part of people’s everyday lives: used to manage finances, study and stay healthy. Yet technologists were still focused on the machines they were making rather than on the humans using those machines. ... Fogg called for a new field, sitting at the intersection of computer science and psychology, and proposed a name for it: “captology” (Computers as Persuasive Technologies). Captology later became behaviour design, which is now embedded into the invisible operating system of our everyday lives. The emails that induce you to buy right away, the apps and games that rivet your attention, the online forms that nudge you towards one decision over another: all are designed to hack the human brain and capitalise on its instincts, quirks and flaws. The techniques they use are often crude and blatantly manipulative, but they are getting steadily more refined, and, as they do so, less noticeable. ... The human brain releases pleasurable, habit-forming chemicals in response to social interactions, even to mere simulacra of them, and the hottest triggers are other people: you and your friends or followers are constantly prompting each other to use the service for longer. ... the internet’s potential to inform and enlighten was at loggerheads with the commercial imperative to seize and hold the attention of users by any means possible.
When I returned to addiction, it was as a scientist studying the addicted brain. The data were indisputable: brains change with addiction. I wanted to understand how – and why. I wanted to understand addiction with fastidious objectivity, but I didn’t want to lose touch with its subjectivity – how it feels, how hard it is – in the process. ... One explanation is that addiction is a brain disease. The United States National Institute on Drug Abuse, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, and the American Medical Association ubiquitously define addiction as a ‘chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry’ ... If only the disease model worked. Yet, more and more, we find that it doesn’t. First of all, brain change alone isn’t evidence for brain disease. Brains are designed to change. ... we now know that drugs don’t cause addiction. ... One idea is that addicts voluntarily choose to remain addicted: if they don’t quit, it’s because they don’t want to. ... The view that addiction arises through learning, in the context of environmental forces, appears to be gathering momentum.
The first-person-shooter game pits terrorists against counterterrorists and was played by an average of 342,000 people at once in 2016. Its biggest tournaments, such as the ELeague Major scheduled for Jan. 22-29 in Atlanta, can have million-dollar prize pools and as many as 27 million streaming viewers. An estimated 26 million copies of the $15 game have been downloaded since its debut four years ago, helping make its manufacturer, Valve, the world's leading distributor of PC titles. ... While other titles such as Call of Duty offer similar gameplay, one distinctive feature has helped fuel Counter-Strike's growth: collectible items in the game called "skins." Although they don't improve anyone's chances of winning, the skins cover weapons in distinctive patterns that make players more identifiable when they stream on services like Twitch. Users can buy, sell and trade the skins, and those used by pros become hotly demanded. Some can fetch thousands of dollars in online marketplaces. ... Valve controls the skins market. Every few months, it releases an update to Counter-Strike with new designs. It decides how many of each skin get produced and pockets a 15 percent fee every time one gets bought or sold on its official marketplace, called Steam. Valve even offers stock tickers that monitor the skins' constantly shifting values. ... Some $5 billion was wagered in skins in 2016 ... roughly $3 billion worth flows to a darker corner of the internet -- one populated by fly-by-night websites that accept skins for casino-style gaming.