On the Rise of Digital Addiction Activism

The First Stirrings of a New Activism

The investment funds run by Jana Partners and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System hold a combined $ 2 billion in Apple stock. This ensured the business community took notice when earlier this week, these investors sent a letter to Apple expressing concern about the impact of the tech giant’s products on young people.

To quote the letter:

“More than 10 years after the iPhone’s release, it is a cliché to point out the ubiquity of Apple’s devices among children and teenagers, as well as the attendant growth in social media use by this group. What is less well known is that there is a growing body of evidence that, for at least some of the most frequent young users, this may be having unintentional negative consequences.”

The investors go on to make several recommendations, including the convening of a committee of experts to study the issue, the introduction of better parental controls, and the funding of more research.

This letter received significant coverage this week so I don’t want to belabor its points or overhype its significance ($ 2 billion doesn’t provide that much leverage against a $ 900 billion Apple market cap).

But I’ve been asked about it quite a bit, so I thought I would share a few initial reactions…

Apple is the wrong target.

The iPhone was not designed to be addictive. Indeed, as part of my research for the book I’m writing on digital minimalism, I spoke with one of the original iPhone team members, who told me that Steve Jobs never envisioned this device to be something that you checked constantly. The original vision for the iPhone was built around two surprisingly quaint goals: (1) it would be a much better mobile phone than anything else on the market; (2) it would prevent the need to carry a separate iPod along with your phone.

The  addiction ensnaring children is not some master plan secretly hatched at Apple, but is instead the spawn of attention economy conglomerates like Facebook, who, unlike Apple, directly profit from compulsive use, and leverage the iPhone merely as a convenient platform.

I predict a large shift in how our culture thinks about children and smartphones.

The investor letter to Apple explains: “To be clear, we are not advocating an all or nothing approach [when it comes to children and smartphones].” I think they’re being too cautious. My techno-skeptic spider sense is telling me that we might soon see a shift in our culture where it becomes normal for kids to receive their first smartphone at the age of 18. The algorithmically-enchanced addictiveness delivered through these mobile platforms, like the chemically-enhanced nicotine in tobacco products, increasingly seems too potent for developing minds.

I hope to see alternatives to the attention economy business model.

At the core of almost everything negative about the smartphone era is the attention economy business model, which depends on getting a massive number of people to use free products for as many minutes as possible. This model, of course, dates back to the beginning of mass media, but the combination of big data and machine learning techniques, along with careful attention engineering, has made many modern apps too good at their objective of hijacking your mind — leaving users feeling exhausted and unnerved at their perceived loss of autonomy.

I think there’s an interesting opportunity here for start-ups to explore alternative business models that reward value more than raw usage (think: paid subscription). This opportunity is especially ripe in the context of social media, where the great Web 2.0 promise of digitally-enabled expression and connection was tragically diluted by the aggressive brain hacking tactics that now define so much of the user experience in this space.

It might be hard to create a publicly traded unicorn with one of these alternative models (due to network effects, a disruptive startup of this type would probably have to focus on smaller, niche communities), but you could still create something quite lucrative for those involved while remaining more ethical (c.f., Matthew Crawford for more on the ethics of attention).

Blog – Cal Newport

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