Last Sunday’s 60 Minutes had a segment which asked “What is Brain Hacking?”. Reporters talked with Silicon Valley insiders who have left jobs at big tech firms to expose the industry’s methods of keeping users engaged. In the current, smartphone dominated world which seems to regularly value social networks above real world goods (like an international, sustainably sourced grocery store), it’s no surprise that the methods to keep users engaged can be cutthroat. This story lives alongside the ever running discussion of Russian “hacking” during the 2016 election, a process that is far closer to brain hacking than the darknet, evil programmer work that hacking formerly brought to my mind. The future felt more uncertain when we feared old school hacks that robbed our social security or bank account numbers, so it stands to reason that the psychological games being played by election meddlers and social networks, games that we can reasonably ignore, aren’t as scary. The phenomenal part is that this world seems to be scarier, and the methods more effective.
The similarities between the election hacking and the methods used by social networks and other digital companies are glaring. As stated in the 60 Minutes piece, the focus of many companies ultimately leads to dopamine, the molecule released in our brains that helps create pleasure and desire. We can boost dopamine through classic, satisfying actions like learning new things and exercising, or we can slowly boost it with small wins at a slot machine or various doses of nicotine. And the effect is gigantic, as the mere possibility of this chemical release can lead to outrageous, less than commendable acts. Take tobacco, for instance, a lethal combination of the hyper-addictive nicotine with tar, fiberglass, and about 45 other chemicals that will kill you. No one questions how awful cigarettes are, yet billions of people still crave them every day of their lives. If that’s not a testament to the intense power of dopamine, what is? Sure, nicotine targets more than just dopamine, but it plays a big role. So thinking back to technology, the tricks and methods that apps use to give us pleasure, can we be sure we’re getting something better than tar and fiberglass?
As I walk through an airport terminal in London, I’m amazed at the forced shopping I have to endure on the way to the gate. Good old JFK doesn’t spit me out into a maze of chocolate, alcohol, makeup, and perfume. Most people welcome the setup, an easy excuse to see the latest fashions and stock up on oversized candy bags for the kids. But this time I can’t stop thinking about the dopamine. I’d managed to push through the security line with my head in a book, yet I’m still drawn to the hope of a purchase completely void of duty. I didn’t even know about duty until I flew internationally and quite honestly, I’m still oblivious outside airports. But saving a buck still feels good and they know it.
I’m not naive to the situation. The brands that want us to need their goods and apps are in a “race to the bottom of the brain stem”, as was so eloquently stated in Sunday’s program, thanks to an obligation to increase sales. The world is driven by money, both in America and abroad. There once existed nations and cultures that were above capitalism, or maybe just to the side of it, within their own bubble of communism, socialism, or monarchy. But those days are long past, as anyone who has experienced the hyper materialism of modern day China knows. People are driven more than ever to accumulate stuff, from cars and clothes to vacations and summer homes. Objects and experiences are compared. Shouldn’t a shirt be appreciated for it’s warmth and softness without being graded against someone else’s?
In the same way we’re constantly striving for more and better, companies are as well. Public companies are motivated to increase sales and exhibit growth. Our success as a society is not judged by the health of our citizens or even the size of our economy, but its growth. Enough isn’t enough, it’s a benchmark for next year. This all makes sense in ways. There are gigantic groups within society that lack the essential goods and services to maintain happy, healthy lives. If the economy can grow by 3%, we should be able to help a few more unfortunate people. From my personal observation, this seems to make sense. Take Microsoft, for example. The 1990’s was characterized by rapid growth in America and the proliferation of the personal computer. Business people began to rely on Windows for their livelihood and it translated into billions of dollars in shareholder growth, largely accumulated by Bill Gates. In the last decade and a half, this wealth has been redistributed throughout the world, nearly eradicating malaria and polio. I hope Mark Zuckerberg and Evan Spiegel make similar strides in improving the world, but even if they do the redistribution of wealth isn’t as efficient as one would hope.
Is it crazy to believe sales don’t always need to grow? Population will increase, but if costs go down we should be able to make the same goods for less. Eventually, and this day is probably in the rearview now, most of us will have all we need. I personally favor a universal basic income, not to pay for the accountants and truck drivers whose jobs may be at risk from automation, but for all of us. Work provides happiness and growth, and the world would be worse without it. We’ll need to find work that satisfies, uniquely human endeavors like art and music, or things we’d prefer to do like building our homes and growing our food. But what happens when we’re rich enough to provide everything we need? Do we keep pushing for more? Because…..why not?
The political addiction that became so evident over the past year somehow feels more reasonable. We, as people, have the power to change the world without permission from the president, but he can surely tip the scales. Luckily, material and emotional satisfaction doesn’t change hands every four years.
Cigarettes feel like a better comparison, an addiction we don’t actually need and whose absence is definitely positive. Smokers live shorter lives, smell like smoke, and pay outrageous prices to do so. More than that, they have their mind on an upcoming dopamine fix all the time and take frequent breaks from their lives to satisfy it. What is so different about an addiction to technology and the leverage these companies are using to maintain growth? Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of amazing things that technology provides, even Facebook and Snapchat. I’ll share a good album when the time is right. Hell, even cigars have a proper place in society. But more for the sake of more isn’t the way forward. Quick dopamine fixes are short-lived and weak. Happiness, I think, is best experienced after an investment of time and a period of growth. So I wonder, will we ever protect ourselves from technology and quick fixes the way we protect ourselves from cigarettes? While social networks don’t cause cancer, isn’t there an opportunity cost to spending our lives hoping we’re more Liked than the next guy?
“A love of nature keeps no factories busy.”
~ Aldous Huxley Brave New World