Should we treat addictive web apps like drugs?

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What if Facebookis nothing more than a digital drug dealer and we’re all just junkies? It’s a provocative stance, but it has merit. And as we head toward a future where technology is not just something we do, but a part of our biology, that question raises a whole slew of ethical concerns about what technology is and what it should be.

I’ve heard it proposed before, but never as eloquently as by artist and computer scientist Jonathan Harris at Wednesday’s Data Science Summit in Las Vegas. Harris’s latest project is a tool about which he didn’t give specifics, but about which he did share some of his thinking. Part of that is the idea that the present is “a staging ground for the future.” We need to figure out what we want our technology to be or risk becoming beholden to it.

Broadly speaking, he said, there are two types of web platforms — healers and dealers. Healers are marketplace-type platforms such as Etsy or Amazon, or presumably Quora, that solve problems for users (e.g., I need to buy something) and then let them leave and go about their day. Dealers are attention-demanding platforms such as Facebook and Twitter that want to keep users on as long as possible so they can place as many ads in front of them as possible.

If you think the characterization of the latter group as dealers is unfair, Harris will point you to phrases and words — including the all-too-common “addictive” — that permeate discussions about new Silicon Valley web startups. That’s drug dealer talk. Facebook, he pointed out, actually uses the word “serotonin” internally to assess whether users will form tight-enough bonds with new features. (For what it’s worth, though, I’m pretty sure I know a few Etsy addicts.)

Jonathan Harris

And while he acknowledged that heavy app usage might not seem like a big problem now — it’s just a way to kill time and we can always turn off our iPads or laptops — Harris said we need to keep an eye toward the future. A decade or two from now, when he have chips implanted in our skin and nanobots fighting disease in our bloodstream, technology won’t just be something we do, but will be a part of us. What we do now at an institutional level to keep from becoming slaves to web apps could affect how we regulate our relationships with these far more-serious types of technology down the road.

I think Harris is onto something — we are being manipulated to some degree by platform developers who spend their days thinking about how to scientifically control our behavior to their benefit — although I can’t imagine what the solution might be. Harris raised the idea of an FDA-like agency for regulating web applications, but that’s neither feasible nor desirable. Not only would trying to regulate the effects of software be nearly impossible, it would also kill innovation and border on being unconstitutional. A code of ethics could work to a degree, but self-regulation and money go together like (to quote a Saturday Night Live skit that I will never forget) Hi-C and turkey.

Maybe the answer is just good, old-fashioned self-control. Individuals need to consider the consequences of their behavior and act accordingly. That seems to have worked well for drug addiction and obesity rates in America, and voters always think about the big picture come election season. Oh, never mind. I’m out of ideas (and also a little afraid of the future). Do you have any, or is app addiction not even a problem at all?

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user Luis Luoro; Harris photo courtesy of Jonathan Harris.

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