Digital addiction isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Can we opt out?

In 2009, after saying goodbye to a friend I knew I’d never see again, I turned to see her one last time. She sat alone at the table we’d just shared. She was already bent to her new iPhone, one person among nine or ten patrons of some sunlit bar on New York’s Lower East Side. Everyone was leaning into their phones.

This wasn’t the last image of her I wanted. But it stuck.

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This is how we live now.

What seemed alien then—the speed of my friend’s attentional shift; those other people at the bar, ignoring each other for fear of missing out on something else—now feels so commonplace that I’m kind of surprised when people hang out without their phones.

The digital is everywhere, yet as a species, we’re still learning how to live in it.

Our biological brains evolved to monotask, not multitask. Our digital systems (and those of us who design them) handily exploit human cognitive weaknesses as wide-open ecological opportunities. We’re actively designing the Internet and our apps to stimulate dopamine; they feed off impulsivity and reward-seeking behavior. fMRI brain scans describing the thoughts of people in love and people describing their phones are categorically alike.

Falling asleep in my phone’s blue light. Waking to curated content. Whole mornings gone on Instagram. Joking about my inability to concentrate or write, much less recall essential knowledge without help from Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon. Subsuming my personhood into consumerhood, into a fraction of a percentage of clicks, into food for corporations.

We're drowning in data.

In 2009, global data volume reached 800 exabytes, an infinitesimal percentage of which my friend in that bar contributed. In 2011, IBM published that “every day, we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data.” In 2017, speaking conservatively, we probably create close to 7.5 quintillion bytes every day.

In physical terms, every beach and desert on Earth combined contains roughly 7.5 quintillion grains of sand. If every byte was a grain of sand, then each day, we duplicate all the sand on Earth.

Digital addiction is a structural condition; to be literate means facing exponentially more complex demands today than even eight or nine years ago. Our individual brains can neither comprehend nor meaningfully engage with this flood of data—except as a flood.

How does this affect us, our relationships, or simply our ability to participate in the world? Is there a way to fully live in the digital world without becoming addicted to it?

1. Follow the money

Ask Who’s getting my money? What are they doing with it?

Sometimes, the question is Who’s getting my not-money? The conspicuous absence of a price tag on a product usually means I’m the product. Most free downloads, trial runs, email providers, apps, social media platforms, storage, games, services—anything ostensibly free—are built on a business model wherein data insights exceed the financial costs for development or distribution.

Under this model, many digital experiences are designed to trigger addictive behaviors. Who profits?

2. Follow fulfillment

Ask What fulfills me?

Then, equally important: Which engagements are fulfilling and which are empty calories?

As economists point out, costs are embedded in every relationship. But not all exchanges are equally weighed for both parties. It stung, seeing my friend fall into her phone so quickly after saying goodbye, because it meant she wasn’t ready or willing to pay the emotional price of that moment. (Or a third option: We weren’t paying the same emotional price.)

When digital consumption costs too much or stops being fulfilling, ask what fulfillment means.

Don't let a brand decide for you.

Then weigh which activities or products or services fulfill longer past the point of purchase or bring deeper happiness, and engage with those.

3. Follow physical experiences

Ask Will I remember this?

Shinrin yoku means forest bath in Japanese. It perfectly describes the total sensory experience of being in a forest. No digital expression can capture those smells and sounds and tastes and physical sensations. A colleague once spoke of prioritizing experience over consumerism as “the joy of being a body in the world.” I can’t put it better.

Lately I’m using shinrin yoku as a metaphor of fulfillment through being a body in the world. Digital abstractions can be compelling, expansive, useful, even fascinating to experience. But I’m never really happy in the digital.

Speed, replicability, and convenience are digital characteristics, not human characteristics. For me, real happiness includes anticipation, rarity, the salt of friction.

This kind of fulfillment requires moving from comfort through frustration, hunger, or exhaustion to attain something. Maybe this movement includes digital experiences, but fulfillment primarily requires moving my body through the world.

4. Stop pushing

Moving through the world, for me, means working in advertising to create digital environments of consumption. I get the irony and acknowledge culpability, and I think that we in digital advertising should start consciously removing addiction from our designs.

(If only to future-proof our own work. Addiction builds tolerance and requires ever-increasing doses of the drug.)

No designer, brand strategist, art director, or writer should expect consumers to consistently connect with their work. Not unless their work carries a value that fundamentally distinguishes it from the data flood.

If we in advertising can actually shut up and listen to our audience, we can hear what people want instead of drowning them in what we think they want. With greater access to richer data than at any other moment in history, we can design for relevance, not addiction, by giving people what they’re asking for.

Could experiential depth, not novelty, become an advertising principle?

Imagine how generous this data-inspired, human-centered marketing could look: Pushing relevancy over coercion. Bringing retention and lifetime customer value to performance metrics. Turning a million shallow engagements into long-form experiences, into islands of substance. Understanding and reflecting what really matters to people. Giving them something tangible to hold onto against the flood.

Meanwhile, the triggers are becoming subtler, more sophisticated, as the boundaries between digital and physical experiences disappear. When, in a year or two, mixed reality permeates everyday life, all our consumer addictions will be primed for those irresistible triggers.

When that time comes, I’ll need true, meaningful, lasting fulfillment to brace against the flood of shallow microengagements. I hope I won’t need my phone to remember how to find it.