Why tech addiction may soon need be on the CIO's radar

It's still possible for suppliers and developers to claim ignorance of tech addiction, but maybe not for much longer

In a memorable episode of the British 1990s space sitcom Red Dwarf, the crew find themselves trapped inside an addictive computer game. The novel of the TV series covers this in more detail: Better Than Life takes over its players' cognitive reward systems, to the extent that most of them die as a result of ignoring their real-world needs.

At first glance this wouldn't appear to be of any concern to IT leaders in 2018, but recent events may change that. Facebook recently defended itself against accusations that it negatively influences people's behavior, including through potentially addictive methods. Also, two major Apple investors have been calling for the tech giant to do more to curb addiction to its phones amongst young people.

This unusual discord might have passed without too much fuss were it not for the response of another Apple shareholder, Ross Gerber. “We invest in things that are addictive,” said the chief executive of Gerber Kawasaki Wealth and Investment Management, who also invests in casinos and alcohol stocks. “Addictive things are very profitable.”

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It's here that life becomes a little uncomfortable for purveyors of shiny, must-have, compelling new technology. One can picture Gerber's colleagues frantically hushing him while maintaining their fake smiles of reassurance for the cameras. "Yes, we all know that's true, but you're not supposed to actually say it!" The squeaky clean, socially responsible, wholesome image that technology firms strive to present doesn't sit comfortably alongside references to alcohol and other addictive products and services.

Unfortunately this is an association that's unlikely to disappear any time soon. Technology addiction in general terms may not be in the DSM-V, the guidebook for psychiatrists and psychologists, but that may change. People can and do die while over-using technology, though to date the numbers have been small. But for every fatality there may be dozens, hundreds or thousands for whom technology addiction has significantly damaged their lives. Some of these are high-profile, such as pop star Selena Gomez recently canceling her world tour in order to recover from technology addiction.

Where there's addiction leading to harm, there's the potential for blame – and therefore lawsuits. To date most of the legal action against technology firms for causing addiction has failed to gain traction, but that may soon change. Incidental addiction is one thing, and could be argued to be a personality disorder. Deliberately making a product psychologically addictive is a different matter. Class-action lawyers may even now be sharpening their pencils.

Until recently it wasn't practical to bake addiction into a technology product. Even if suppliers wanted to make their products or services addictive, there simply wasn't the required psychological knowledge to make it happen. Those that did find the magic key – the original Candy Crush games spring to mind, along with some MMORPGs – did so by largely by accident.

Increasingly, though, addiction is the aim. Psychology research is increasingly being used by marketing teams. Facebook and Apple both have sociologists and psychologists on their book, though not solely for marketing reasons. The vast amounts of personal data gathered by today's tech firms make it easier than ever to tailor products and services to users' individual foibles and vulnerabilities. Getting inside customers' heads and pulling their unconscious strings was always the metaphorical goal of marketing, but it's becoming the literal one. Once something makes it far enough into the public awareness to be lampooned by cartoonists, it's already an issue in the real world.

As an IT leader, do you have to worry about this? Probably not yet, but forewarned is forearmed. It's important to know which way the wind blows. Right now it's blowing in the direction of technology addiction becoming a recognized problem. This could escalate quickly in the public consciousness, particularly in the US, which is struggling with a serious opioid addiction crisis.

So the near future may bring a changed landscape. It's not too far-fetched to imagine mandatory warning labels on addictive apps, devices and services, and perhaps even enforced time limits on their use. Any such legislation would impact other services and products delivered to the same platforms, even those that weren't addictive themselves.

If this all seems unlikely, take a trip on public transport. It will quickly become apparent that the majority of people have a very close relationship with technology. For some it's undoubtedly an addiction in all but name. Better than life? Maybe not yet, but that's no longer in the realms of fantasy.