The Internet Is Heroin and Your Smartphone, the Needle
The advent of portable technology has exploited our reptilian addiction switch like never before.
Adam Alter is an Associate Professor of Marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, with an affiliated appointment in the New York University Psychology Department.
Adam is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave, which examines how features of the world shape our thoughts and feelings beyond our control. He has also written for the New York Times, New Yorker, Atlantic, WIRED, Slate, Huffington Post, and Popular Science, among other publications. Adam has shared his ideas at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, and with dozens of companies, including Google, Microsoft, Anheuser Busch, Prudential, and Fidelity, and with several design and ad agencies around the world. He is working on his second book, which asks why so many people today are addicted to so many behaviors, from incessant smart phone and internet usage to video game playing and online shopping.
Adam’s academic research focuses on judgment and decision-making and social psychology, with a particular interest in the sometimes surprising effects of subtle cues in the environment on human cognition and behavior. His research has been published widely in academic journals, and featured in dozens of TV, radio and print outlets around the world.
He received his Bachelor of Science (Honors Class 1, University Medal) in Psychology from the University of New South Wales and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Psychology from Princeton University, where he held the Charlotte Elizabeth Procter Honorific Dissertation Fellowship and a Fellowship in the Woodrow Wilson Society of Scholars.
Adam Alter: Behavioral addiction is a lot like substance addiction in a lot of ways, but it's much newer. So substance addiction obviously involves the ingestion of a substance, and in the short-term that feels good, and in the long-term it harms your well being in some respects. It can be physiological, it can be psychological, it can harm your social life, it can cause you to spend too much money, it can have a lot of negative effects on your life. Behavioral addiction is similar; the big difference though is that behavioral addiction does not involve the ingestion of a substance, and it's much newer, it's a much more recent phenomenon.
So substance addiction has been around for a very long time, by some accounts for many thousands of years, but there weren't behaviors around that were compelling enough to rise to the level of addiction until quite recently. And the reason is that, for them to be addictive, basically what has to happen is there's a behavior that you enjoy doing in the short-term that you do compulsively. So you keep returning to it over and over again, but then in the long-term it harms your well-being. And it can, again, harm your well-being in lots of different respects, social, financial, physical, psychological.
And I think the reason why we've got these new forms of addiction, there are two main reasons: The first one is that technology is much more sophisticated and advanced than it was even 20 years ago. You're able to deliver the kinds of rewards that you need for a system to be addictive. So basically what people are looking for is unpredictability and rapid feedback of either rewards (or if it's negative then negative experiences), and you actually need that mix of positive and negative feedback.
Just as, for example, when you post something online, sometimes you're going to get a lot of hits, sometimes you aren’t, and it's that unpredictability that we find so compelling. You need to be able to deliver those rewards really rapidly, and for that you need the Internet with the right kind of bandwidth to be able to deliver those rewards.
The other thing that I think is happened is that companies are much savvier about this. There are employee behavioral experts to tell them how to design their media, how to design the vehicles that deliver those media, smart phones, iPads, smart watches, things like that. And for that reason I think they are delivering products to us that are harder for us to resist. They've got enough features built in that we find to be pretty hard to resist, and then we end up developing addictions to them, and by some counts that applies to about half of the population of the developed world.
So when you're addicted to a screen it's not that the screen itself is something that you can't get enough of, it's what it's providing. I think one of the reasons while we're so addicted to screens or to the content they provide is that they go with us wherever we go. And that's relatively new. And so if you played video games in the '80s or '90s or even the early 2000's they didn't really go wherever you went as much as they do now, especially those games that were tied into the Internet. Those were tied into your PC, you'd play where you were and you didn't really leave with them as much. You had some portable devices, but those were much more primitive.
Today with iPhones you can connect to other people on the go, you always have access to games, you always have access to email, you always have access to the Internet, and you always have access to social media, and so they are great vehicles for providing the hits that you need when you need them.
Basically we tend to develop addictions when we have a psychological need. And we get those whenever we're bored, whenever we're feeling a little bit lonely, whenever we're not really sure what to do with ourselves next, whenever we don't feel particularly efficacious (like we're having an effect on the world that we'd like to be having), those are the moments when you're looking for what some people call the “adult pacifier”. And smart phones tend to be a great adult pacifier because after those moments you turn on your screen, you swipe and you feel relaxed again. That's how people describe the experience.
So they tend to be excellent devices for delivering these small hits that we look for, and social media is a great example. So social media obviously now travels with us. It used to be confined to home computers to a large extent, but that's no longer the case. And people spend about three hours a day on average using their smart phones, which is pretty staggering. That's a huge chunk of the day of the waking hours that we spend when we're not at work. What that means is they're spending a lot of their time returning over and over again to check Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and so on, and they're checking for a number of things. One thing is that these media are bottomless, which means that you're constantly checking for new information; there's always something new to be kept up on. The other thing is if you happen to be a poster of content, you're very curious about getting rapid feedback as to whether people approve of that or they're not particularly interested in it. So a lot of the time what we do is we return over and over again compulsively to see whether we're getting the positive feedback that we seek when we post content.
A lot of what we're doing when we post content is basically testing the social waters, getting a sense of whether people see the world the same way we do, which is very important to us as humans, and also getting a sense of whether they approve of us.
And social approval is really important, but we're even willing to risk negative feedback, because the worst thing that can happen to a human is to be ignored. It's actually far worse to be ostracized or ignored than it is to get negative feedback. So when you put all of that together the idea now that we have access to theoretically billions of people in the world at all times wherever we are makes smart phones addictive. We can always get that feedback that we desire.
It's not your screen you're addicted to — it's just the conduit for your high. NYU professor Adam Alter explains that behavioral addiction is similar to substance addiction: it feels good in the short term, but over time can negatively impact your mental state, social life, financial stability, and physiological wellbeing. There's been a steep takeoff of digital addiction in recent years, with approximately half the developed world now exhibiting addictive tendencies when it comes to the internet. It comes down to portability. The more wireless our devices become, the more our addiction follows us around, and the more we turn to our phones as "adult pacifiers" — just a swipe of your screen is enough to feel relaxed again. Adam Alter is the author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.
What would happen if you tripled the US population? Matthew Yglesias and moderator Charles Duhigg explore the idea on Big Think Live.
Is immigration key to bolstering the American economy? Could having one billion Americans secure the US's position as the global superpower?
Researchers detect a large lake and several ponds deep under the ice of the Martian South Pole.
- Italian scientists release findings of a large underground lake and three ponds below the South Pole of Mars.
- The lake might contain water, with salt preventing them from freezing.
- The presence of water may indicate the existence of microbial and other life forms on the planet.
Mars colony: Humanity's greatest quest | Michio Kaku, Bill Nye, & more | Big Think<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="aa931ba0f8c1152a7c32c5e09c55d138"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KfKr5Jll88o?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
"Nothing but naked people: fat ones, thin ones, old, young…"
"The Yellow Sands", 1888, John Reinhard Weguelin; source: Wikimedia Commons<h3>Naked revolution</h3><p>Yet long before anyone knew about beach fashion, naturism was trendy. Bathing naked in the sea was going on in England as early as 1840. However, during the reign of Queen Victoria, this pleasure was outlawed. But it popped up again among the conservative Germans. In 1898, the first Naturist Club was founded in Essen and in 1900 the Wandering Birds group (<em>Wandervögel</em>) was scouring the country for uninhabited places and naked sunbathing. In the same year, Heinrich Pudor wrote <em>The C</em><em>ult of </em><em>the </em><em>Nud</em><em>e</em>, winning the hearts of contemporary supporters of naturism.</p><p>In the 1920s, on the back of this, members of the Movement for Natural Healing (<em>Naturheilbewegung</em>) organized naked sunbathing for the improvement of health. Persuaded by Pudor's theory of the healing properties of the sun and wind, which could be absorbed through the skin, they launched the naked revolution.</p><p>Pudor's book became the naturists' manifesto and soon after, not far from Hamburg, the Free Body Culture (<em>Freikörperkultur</em>, or FKK) movement was founded. This spread through other German centres and brought together thousands of people. The FKK still operates under the same name today.</p><p>The cult of the naked body even wrote itself into the ideology of fascist Germany, which advocated a pure, Aryan race. But in 1933, Hermann Göring issued an order that defined nudity as "the greatest threat to the German soul" and, with that, criminalized naturist organizations. But this wasn't the end of the movement. The naturists went underground, continuing their activities under the guise of improving physical fitness.</p><p>In 1936, the idea was even floated of having a naturist display to open the Berlin Olympic Games. It was quickly dropped. Despite this, in 1939 the naturists managed to organize their own Games in the Swiss village of Thielle.</p>
A strange weakness in the Earth's protective magnetic field is growing and possibly splitting, shows data.
- "The South Atlantic Anomaly" in the Earth's magnetic field is growing and possibly splitting, shows data.
- The information was gathered by the ESA's Swarm Constellation mission satellites.
- The changes may indicate the coming reversal of the North and South Poles.
Is the Magnetic Field Reversing?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e3e0b16dac3b05dab808a4ddf04d198b"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/51usJ74pPP8?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Techshot's 3D BioFabrication Facility successfully printed human heart tissue aboard the International Space Station.
All that's fit to bioprint<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0MTc4OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjUyMTkxN30.c02tUlYJLxdekTGR5ExOagL2Sh-5rmWN6pYkqger920/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C210%2C0%2C2&height=700" id="c20c0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="681571f2317ce5f65b105b6fb5aabd51" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Dr. Eugene Boland" />
Dr. Eugene Boland, Techshot's chief scientist, presents the 3D BioFabrication Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida
A heart from your new BFF<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1fa24e6ada521bcdac46de275c37f2da"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/p_hauPqouH8?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>In partnership with <a href="https://www.nscrypt.com/about-us/" target="_blank">nScrypt</a>, Techshot developed the BFF to manufacture human tissue in space. In July 2019, they launched the bioprinter aboard the SpaceX CRS-18 cargo mission to be delivered to the International Space Station. There, it was loaded up with nerve, muscle, and vascular bioinks. As the BFF pinned the cells together in a culturing cassette, generating layers several times thinner than a human hair, the microgravity environment ensured the low-viscosity structure kept together. That's courtesy of the same surface tension property that allows for those <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_qPWZbxFl8" target="_blank">moving water spheres astronauts love to play with</a>.</p><p>"So, now you can have a vascular cell where you want a blood vessel to be, the nerve cell where you want the nerve to pass through, and muscle cells where you need a muscle bundle to be," Boland said. "All of those will stay where you put them in three-dimensions and then grow and mature where you want them."</p><p>A non-cellular ink was added to the mix to provide a bit of framework and prevent cells from sliding around during the printing process. But because Earth's gravity had less pull, this framework didn't need to be as ridged as terrestrial scaffolding. This non-cellular ink was water-soluble, meaning it could be washed away after the printing was complete. The end result, a more natural fabrication of human tissue.</p><p>Once 25 percent of the cells needed for the mature tissue were in place, the cell-culturing cassette was moved to another payload, the Advanced Space Experiment Processor (ADSEP). There, the cells lived and grew as they would naturally. Fully differentiated cells signaled to the adult stems cells that they should be heart cells. The stem cells grew and multiplied, supported by the nutrients provided in the ink. A few weeks later and the cassette was home to human heart tissue.</p><p>This January, <a href="https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/success-3d-bioprinter-in-space-prints-with-human-heart-cells-300982759.html" target="_blank">Techshot announced</a> the BFF had cultured successful test prints aboard the ISS. These heart prints measured 30 mm long by 20 mm wide by 12.6mm high. In a follow-up experiment, the BFF also manufactured <a href="https://techshot.com/techshot-successfully-completes-knee-cartilage-test-prints-in-space/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">test prints of a partial human knee meniscus</a>, the soft cartilage that acts as a shock absorber between your shinbone and thighbone.</p>
The future of medicine is in space?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0MTc5MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MjQwODUxOH0.VAg1FIZkGz_IOCaGUAHxylX1h44qA2-tk-9odXPoLT0/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C118%2C0%2C94&height=700" id="2176b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="932d3caca0897797883d941a6255885e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
NASA Astronaut Jessica Meir prepares Techshot's cell-culturing cassettes for their return trip to Earth.
Credit: NASA Johnson/Flickr<p>For its next run, Techshot wants to improve the cell-culturing cassette, refining conditions and more effectively flushing out trapped air. Its researchers are also looking into making cells in orbit. Then there is the process of scaling up from test prints to functioning tissue pieces (say, heart patches) to fully operational organs. Then there are the challenges of space flight and <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/3d-printing-body-parts" target="_self">the long road of regulation</a>.</p><p>"We're dedicated to the long haul here," Boiling said during our interview. "We have agreements with NASA that permit us to iterate and fly-and-try to continue and improve. We brought the BFF and ADSEP back from the space station late summer to make those improvements based on what we have learned so we can send it back up."</p><p>Yet, the windfall goes well beyond shoring up our stock of donor organs. Bioprinting has the potential to dramatically advance the field of personalized medicine. For example, one danger of transplants is rejection by the host body. This happens when a recipient's immune system views the life-saving tissue as a foreign invader and attacks it. <a href="https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2010/09/researchers-find-faster-less-intrusive-way-to-identify-transplant-recipients-organ-rejection.html#:~:text=If%20organ%20function%20drops%2C%20doctors,the%20first%20year%20after%20transplant." target="_blank">About 40 percent of heart recipients</a> experience acute rejection in the first year, requiring doctors to prescribe immunosuppressant drugs.</p><p>Crafting an organ from a patient's personal stem-cell stock has the potential to reduce this risk. Replacement parts, such as heart patches, could also be patient-specific. Test prints could be constructed to analyze how a patient's system responds to specific drugs and treatments, taking <em>in vitro</em> experiments out of the Petri dish and into a microenvironment more representative of the natural human body.</p><p>"Instead of the trial-and-error medicine of the 20th century, you'll have the personalized medicine that has always been just around the corner. [This technology] may be an answer to that," Boland said.</p><p>And we could take bioprinting farther into space. Boiling foresees a future where the technology could <a href="https://www.nasa.gov/artemisprogram" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">travel with us to the Moon</a> or beyond. There it could serve personalized pharmaceutical needs for stationed astronauts, or if paired with a Cell Factory, it could print meats made from bovine or pig cells. Ethical, yet potentially indistinguishable from its farm-raised counterpart.</p><p>We've come a long way since the 1950s. Many people are alive today thanks to what that first kidney transplant showed medical science. True, Techshot's test prints are small compared to an entire human organ, with its complex and interconnected network of epithelial, connective, muscle, and nervous tissue. But if printing an organ is equivalent to urban planning a cellular city, then Techshot's accomplishment is certainly the first of many skyscrapers toward that goal. That goal could be the proof on concept that saves many more.</p>