Silicon Valley Has a “Drug Problem”

18 Jul

“Crack on a handset!” He leaned forward and repeated what he obviously thought was a breathtaking achievement, “It’s crack on a handset.”.

The scene was an upscale London restaurant in early 2004. My lunch companion was a senior VP for an Asian mobile carrier. The “crack” he was referring to was a new service that had just been launched in a key European market: hard-core porn videos delivered to their branded cell phones. A pay to play service that had taken off and was reaping huge profits. Just like a new, fashionable drug that’s just hit the streets.

I shifted uneasily in my chair. Other diners were craning to see the moving images and to hear the loud groans and sighs. He put his phone away with a flourish as if anticipating recognition of his brilliant achievement. I decided to skip dessert.

Fast forward to this month’s issue of Fast Company. The cover article is titled, “I Have Left the Internet” and features the 25 day “digital detox” of Baratunde Thurston, he of “How to Be Black” fame. Sidebars ask, “Are You a Digital Addict?” and give you a questionnaire to determine just how hooked you are. There are also hints on how to take a break or to start a technology Shabbat. All very helpful.

However, later in the issue, we have the extraordinary story of Kevin Systrom, CEO of Instagram and his company’s integration into Facebook. Throughout the article, and in many similar pieces throughout the technology press these days, are references to the “stickiness” of the product or app. While comparing Instagram to other services such as Twitter, Tumblr and Flipboard, the article notes:

“But no one else has what Instagram offers – a singular focus on a narcotic flow of stylized imagery.”

And, enthusing about its spectacular early success, Steve Anderson of Baseline Ventures and Instagram’s first investor summed up his view of the app as, “Total dopamine!”

So by now we all know what the neuroscientists are telling us about the impact of digital stimulation on the brain. That for every text alert, Twitter update, email notification and phone vibration, we get a little shot of dopamine – a chemical reward that keeps us coming back for more. Addictive, in other words. Not unlike what happens when you use (or abuse) cocaine or amphetamines.

And then there’s the matter of the teenage brain. We now know that kids go through a re-wiring that begins around age 10 and doesn’t get fully re-connected until the age of 25. Or the age that car rental companies will begin hiring out their vehicles. So add the “addicting” nature of many apps, games and web experiences to an overhaul of a young person’s head and you have a recipe for all kinds of problems.

Of course, it’s hugely desirable to have extraordinary innovation that leads to compelling devices and wonderfully enjoyable online experiences. Just look at the joy of a two year old holding an iPad for the first time. The intuitive nature of the very best products. As Paul Simon once sung, “We live in the age of miracles and wonders”. The best technology is akin to a kind of magic. Elegant. Beautiful. Life enhancing.

But there is much we don’t know about our digital companions and the immersive environments they provide for us, uninterrupted, all day and all of the night. Will our children’s’ children ask us, “What were you thinking, granddad?” when reports begin to emerge in 10, 20 or 30 years time about the impact of this electronic tsunami is accurately measured? Will we regret this headlong rush to adoption of the latest gizmo, regardless of the potential dangers?

Or should we just take a chill pill and relax? No doubt there’s an app for that.

Photo: Shutterstock



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