Book Review: Irresistible

The opening hook of Irresistible is a telling anecdote about Steve Jobs, relating that a year after he introduced the iPad to the world, he conceded to a journalist that he still hadn’t let his own children touch the device. This unsettling admission was recogition of the fact that tech titans such as Jobs understand that these devices are, in a sense, distracting and addictive. In a analogy to the world of drug addiction, you never want to get high on your own supply.

There are some chilling facts to consider about the rise of society’s addiction to mobile phones and tablets. In the year 2008, adults in the U.S. spent an average of 18 minutes per day on their mobile phones. By 2015, they were spending 2 hours and 48 minutes per day. Further, most people don’t realize they’re using their phone that much. Plus, people aren’t sitting down and watching a 3 hour movie on their devices. They’re checking their phones at least 3 times per hour. As such, the phone has become a constant distraction in our daily lives.

Adam Alter spends considerable time in the book to convince the reader that the internet and the use of devices is truly an addiction. He points out that it is often difficult to recognize addictive behavior in oneself. Thus, Sigmund Freud was somewhat blind to his own personal addiction to cocaine. It was only in 2013 when the American Psychiatric Association recognized that addiction applies to more than just substance abuse, and added behavior addiction to its list of official diagnoses. Interestingly, a correlation to smartphone addiction is a corresponding rise in chronic sleep deprivation. In our persistent over-engagement with phones, sixty percent of adults keep their phones within reach while they sleep.

After presenting a cogent overview of the problems of behavior addiction, the author delves into specific techniques that are used to keep users hooked. For Facebook, the introduction of the “like” button was key. Part of the thrill of using Facebook is the unpredictability of not knowing how many people are going to do a “like” on your posts. The gamble for a successful post tends to be an addictive experience for the Facebook user. When it comes to computer games, it’s noted that there are three critical elements to make them addictive: total immersion, the possibility of achievement, and most importantly, a social element.

Irresistible is a stimulating read that will perhaps allow you to understand your own urges to engage with these world-changing devices, and understand the dilemmas they create for society. And, while reading the book, if you should receive an audible cue from your phone that you’ve just received an email, you might even be induced to hesitate for a moment before glancing at the screen.

Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked
by Adam Alter
Penguin Press, March 2017
354 pages, $27.00

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