Tech addiction explained with one simple analogy

And an even simpler solution.

The previous article outlined why technology has become so accidentally addictive and persuasive, but I since wish I explained it with an analogy instead of a technical description. So here it is:

Imagine in one hand you had a printed photograph of a sand dune somewhere in Egypt. In case you need a visual:

Photo of sand dune

Photo by Fernando Paredes Murillo on Unsplash

In the other hand is a portal to this same exact scene from the same exact angle. Let’s make it fair and say the portal and the photograph are the same size, and it’s a perfectly still day over in Egypt so nothing’s moving around on the dune (things don’t move in photographs). Two questions:

  1. Do you think you could tell which one was the portal and which was the photograph?
  2. How?

(If you feel stumped, consider what would happen if you [a] took both into a dark room or [b] tried to cast a shadow over them.)

Here’s the clincher now: Which one of these is more like your smartphone? Your television? How about your computer monitor?

As I discussed in the last article, the real trouble with technology is that screens are built to so convincingly look like portals to other worlds that we subconsciously believe them. Even the Internet, the most un-lifelike of all inventions, feels like a place to the young people who grew up with it. Research reveals that this place-ness is what makes almost all screen-based content fun yet addictive, unsurprising considering they’re places we can only voyeurize yet have god-like power over. Psychologists speculated this was the case. Unfortunately, this quality applies to almost everything we have built for screens and certainly everything we will build for them, so I think it’s unlikely our addictions will end without a different intervention.

Here’s more questions to drive the point: what makes a channel as ludicrously boring as HGTV somehow able to entertain millions of Americans? Would any of us choose to spend our free time watching strangers house-hunt in real life? If a screen can transform something inherently irrelevant or uninteresting into pure entertainment, what chance did we ever have to control ourselves with Netflix or social media or Internet porn on the same exact device? And why wouldn’t the experience also apply to something “healthy” or “productive”? If all this content came to us via a pill instead of a rectangle, if we could pop a psychedelic drug to hallucinate screen-like content and control it as we now do with mice/keyboards/touchscreens, how much would we care about the content of our trips if addiction became a problem? Wouldn’t we know intuitively to blame the drug itself, and not to try to fix the addiction through designing better trips?

We live in an age where we think:

are all distinct addictions that coincidentally happen on screens. It’s as if we lived in an age, if there ever was one, where we declared “beer and liquor are addictive substances”. That statement isn’t untrue, but it’s so patently ignorant—considering our modern understanding of alcohol itself—that it almost sounds misleading. Individual differences apply even among people with the same underlying addiction, and in time I think we’ll come to see screens themselves as the alcohol and the content we prioritize as the drink of choice. A psychiatrist specializing in screen disorders proposed such an addiction way back in 2012. I think she was years ahead of her time.

Our current attempts to fix technology are well-intentioned and commendable but they completely miss this underlying reward. Technologists spend countless hours trying to build less addictive “places” or lobbying for Facebook to fix theirs without realizing it’s the place-ness quality that drives addictions. Apple and Google gave us imaginary locks to put on our portals without recognizing it’s the portal illusion itself that keeps us coming back to even depressing apps. The screen is the literally invisible force that transforms Big Tech’s engagement tactics into life-altering, addiction-fueling manipulations. Until we address it, we’ll be playing an indefinite cat-and-mouse game with software. And we’ll unquestionably never escape the persuasive and other potentially destructive psychological effects that accompany our screen use (also covered in the previous article).

We would be far more effective if we addressed this illusion at the source. That source is hardware, and fortunately the solution is simple and even healthier: screens that don’t light up. (Hopefully the difference makes sense given your answers to the “sand dune” experiment.) These screens are currently rare, but we can make them with existing LCD manufacturing processes. On a personal note, this type of screen profoundly changed my own relationship to technology and triggered a true withdrawal period while allowing me to still use the computer. The difference was so drastic that I’ve since spent hundreds of hours researching conventional screens and created this site to advocate for alternatives. As an interface designer who’s tried to fix tech for years through software, I now think these alternative screens are our best shot at a brighter technological future. I’d love to talk more about them if you’re interested, and I’ll be writing more on the topic going forward. Thanks for reading!

— Max