Is the internet a pipeline for digital junk food?

A director of a global internet services company writes: I like the internet. I use it a lot. In fact, I work at a senior level in the industry and from here the internet does not look like a fad that will pass any time soon.

Hundreds of millions think Facebook is fun, that Google is useful, and that iPlayer is essential. Each day people reach for their phones to see if their latest Instagram is a hit, if a new profile pic is liked, or if they have been retweeted.

We do this because it is addictive – literally addictive. Each time there’s a new email, our brains reward us with a hit – a dopamine high – which encourages repeat behaviour. Apparently, it’s one of the ways in which we learn. As one behavioural psychologist put it, the internet creates “a dopamine-induced loop”, giving us “almost instant gratification of our desire to seek“.

Computer game manufacturers have long known this, and so they make products, apps or games that are “sticky”, in the jargon. Society has long known it too: stories of gamers dying of exhaustion at their keyboards are more than five years old now, not to mention “crackberries“. What they want most is for their app to be the first thing to come to your mind when your brain is idle for a second and you think, “What shall I do now?”

But why has the internet industry not asked itself whether it should be taking responsibility for these products, for creating content that is actually designed to be addictive? Does it ask whether building the digital equivalent of a Skinner box or discussing how to manufacture desire is necessarily a good thing?

In other words, are we – the internet industry – the new tobacco? And, if we are, what stage of the marketing of this new industry are we at? Is this the equivalent of the 1930s? Are we at the stage of “More doctors smoke Camels”? [Continue reading…]

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