Designed for Addiction

It seems almost everyone agrees that what is being produced now is manipulative and wasteful, and our time could be put to better use.

We can try to discourage the hustlers and the shysters (and we should) but the risk is that there will always be more manipulative people pushing products. Without manipulation most companies might be much smaller (fail to grow) or not be in business at all. To some degree manipulation exists in every product and service that we use. So I suggest that we can not stop manipulation because it is ever prevalent.

However what makes technology products a bit different is that they are often designed to be addictive. Most things we consume in life are not addictive. There are a few famous cases of addictive products such as the tobacco, sugar and alcohol, and all of these have been regulated to some degree. I would think anything that is proven to be addictive could be restrained in some way.

How can we expose addictive tech services, and how can we fight back against them?


That’s a good point @Free. I think The Ledger of Harms project that the CHT is engaging in, would be a good start here. Just like with the tobacco industry we should prove the harmful effects of these tech products that are targeted to us in unethical, harmful ways. Once there is a body of work, and we can prove addictive effects and how they are intentionally designed thay way, it will be much easier to raise political pressure, and call the companies that make these products out publicly.


The Ledger of Harms is an excellent idea and I’m really looking forward to it.

There are just too many problems with technology today:

  • addiction
  • distraction
  • surveillance (privacy)
  • scams / malware
  • propoganda

It is possible for the Center for Humane Technology to tackle all of these issues, but doing that would be confusing and also a lack of focus. That is where the organisation seems to be now, as it’s trying to address many issues at the same time.

If you look at the list of 5 categories I’ve mentioned here, I think that focussing on addiction would be the more effective than the rest. For comparison it’s hard to focus on distraction, after all we’re distracted offline as well. Privacy, scams / malware and propaganda are areas of huge concern, but are being addressed by other groups.

So that leaves addiction. In many East Asian countries governments and local communities actively work to fight tech addiction, through education, counselling, advertising and some restrictions.

But the fight against tech addition seems completely missing in the West. Who in the West has even heard of tech addiction? In many countries almost everybody knows what it is, but in Europe or in the US its an almost unknown concept and it seems very few people are talking about it at all. Yet according to the usage numbers, there must be tens if not hundreds of millions of tech addicts in the West and almost nothing is being done about it.


The forum reorganization that @Mamie is focusing on takes a divide and conquer approach to the topics in the sub-categories. Each of the categories will get its own facilitator who drives initiatives forward on the topics.

I agree that until recently tech addiction was a much overlooked subject in the West, but since a short while there has been a big change here, and the media has been flooded with articles on the negative effects that our tech has on our life and lifestyle (a good example is The Guardian).

I am of the opinion that the most important sub-category is Civics - the threat for civic breakdown and erosion of democracy worldwide, that follows from our unbridled tech use.

But all categories are really inter-related with each other, and a holistic approach to address them properly is what is really needed. The CHT can find great partnerships with other existing communities and organizations that are active in more specialized fields, help connect them, find each other. And promote solutions to the wider public, both in design and application.

Note that the top category ‘Awareness’ stands for one of the four strategic pillars of the CHT: Cultural Awakening. This broad term reflects the holistic approach to humane technology that the CHT stands for.

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It’s funny, when I first read this sentence I assumed that you were talking about the negative effects that tech such as the Guardian has on or lives. After all, the Guardian is a tech company since they exist purely online, and the threat is that we are getting our news from journalists which are now as much tech companies as they are media.

Some examples of this threat are that we have heard very little about the dangers of overconsumption of news media (a very real and common type of tech addiction), we hear very little about malware and scams found in online ads, and worst of all we hear very little about the completely invasive tracking that journalists such as the Guardian use to track or interests for purposes of advertising. These journalists are putting multiple trackers (in the dozens) on every page view to try to identify you and spy on what you are reading, and then send all of this information to literally dozens of companies.

Why don’t we hear about these abuses? The journalists will never be able to point the finger at themselves, because they themselves are the guilty party. All of them. And so the world simply does not hear about these things.

Oh, I fully agree with you @Free. I am not saying that the news media are saints, On the contrary, they indeed have the characteristics you describe, and with their business models being eroded by big tech companies, they are heavily invested in online advertising and the tracking that comes with it.

But when talking about informing the public on topics of tech addiction and other humane tech problems, we still need to rely in large part on news media, and there has been a change in their reporting on these subjects. The Guardian some time ago (I believe in an op-ed) was also bringing attention to the negative news cycles that are being promoted by companies like themselves.

Just like tech companies should improve their ways, media companies should do as well. And we - the people - should apply the pressure to make them want to change. It is a big problem that mainstream media are in the hands of so little people, and that good investigative journalism has become a dying profession almost. An independent press and good, objective journalism are requirements for democracy to function properly.

As with all humane tech topics the CHT needs to be ‘full-spectrum’: improve what we have, and find plus promote alternative, better ways.


In terms of fighting back, what about using something like this? Of course this is only relevant for kids, but given digital immersion at school and the seeming disregard for health and well being, could it be a starting point? It states parties must act in the best interests of the child. I just noticed the states didn’t sign it but many countries with the same issues have, I wonder if the US has similar legislature…


I’d argue that technology products are not that different. Global obesity is a problem because Big Food has committed scientists to optimizing edibles for crunchiness, salt, and fat content - to the extent that meals have become 24x7 cycles of endless snacking. To claim that this isn’t intentional addiction by design would be more than a little naïve.

Or even take health care - especially pharmaceuticals. Addiction equates to profitability. Cures do not. Hence the preponderance of managed chronic conditions from high blood pressure to diabetes to high cholesterol. Businesses have been incentivized to ensure consumer subscriptions of their products with no end in sight. And once they have optimized for that environment, the next place to turn is always, “How do we get our subscribers to deepen their engagement” – either through consuming more of it or consuming new, more profitable alternatives or complements.

And let’s not fool ourselves: the opioid addiction problem in America, for example, has as much to do about the profit of addiction as it does socioeconomic standing, declining futures for underserved populations, and overlooked mental health and social meaning.

The first step is admitting we have a problem. The second is recognizing that the incentives are currently cyclically destructive and unsustainable. Unless we address the root economics of the attention economy, I am concerned that we will merely be chasing ghosts. Regulation is more of a stop-gap, and one that could be very necessary. But until we look at holistic approaches that account for the economic costs of both the benefits and harmful side-effects, the equations we use for incentives for everyone - providers, consumers, investors, entrepreneurs, etc. - will be imbalanced and ultimately destructive.


Exactly and very well said! I’m glad that we can connect here and collectively share our understanding.

There is relatively little in this forum about the economic and entrepreneurial side of humane tech. Yet it most of the problems of humane tech are caused by the system, call it aggressive capitalism, libertarian entrepreneurship, etc.

Let’s also consider that perhaps the problem is caused or accelerated because the attention economy is dominated by the Facebook and Google oligarchies. These seemingly illegal monopolies often hold 7 of the top 8 app spots and a disproportionate share of attention. In my observations of strangers’ phone use, it seems most people are spending almost all of their time in apps run by these companies. Would we still have the same problem if people owned the information they created on social media (FB, YouTube, Instagram…) instead of them donating it to monopolies?

This definitely touches on what @willmattei wrote here:

In #2, it’s the idea of “When tech services which are essential to live and work are needlessly designed to be addictive”. Now I am old enough to be around when the Web was first invented (and even worked on the first Web site in the U.S.), and back then there was this utopian belief that the openness of web protocols would provide a means of bypassing media power that was concentrated in so few hands.

Well, guess what? The Internet, like every other technology and human tool, is a reflection of us. And we humans always seem drawn to concentrate power in fewer hands. In hindsight I think this was a natural outcome (and is also a reason I am skeptical of the latest round of blockchain social utopianism: we cannot escape our humanness with the tools we humans make).

When the concentrated powers become akin to oligarchies and monopolies, we humans need to do what we humans have always done under those regimes: demand change and create a healthier playing field for all. At least until the next round of humans games the system to aggregate power.