There is a strategy in the marketing world called "dogfooding". Rumour has it, that the CEO of a large publically traded pet food company, went on stage at the annual shareholders meeting, opened a can of dog food and started eating it in front of his audience; the message of course, if this can of dog food is good enough for me than it is good enough for your dog. The term "dogfooding" was born to reference company owners and executives that build confidence in their products by making sure that they are seen using them.
Dr. Adam Alter, is an associate professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University who researches psychology and marketing. He became fascinated with the "dogfooding" strategy and has written a book called Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked when he discovered one industry that avoids "dogfooding".
Alder was dumfounded to learn that the one glaring exception to dogfooding can be found in the screen-based tech industry. At an exclusive private school near Silicon Valley called the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, Alder discovered the Waldorf School does not introduce any type of screen usage until the eighth grade. Why this is interesting, is that 75 percent of the kids who are enrolled at Waldorf have parents who are high-level Silicon Valley tech execs. Think about that, the very companies that sell tablets, laptops and smart phones, send their kids to a school where such devices are not allowed until the student body reaches teenage years.
Vanity Fair tech writer Nick Bilton, found himself on the receiving end of an irate Steve Jobs in 2010. Jobs felt Bilton had got it all wrong in his write-up on the new iPad. To deflect the conversation, Bilton who saw Jobs on stage calling the iPad "the best browsing experience you'll ever have, way better than a laptop, way better than a smartphone. It's an incredible experience" casually threw out to Jobs "that his kids must love the iPad". The response from Jobs was; "they haven't used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home."
So what do tech executives know about screen time that we do not? If you agree with Professor Alder, what they know is that screens and apps are designed to be purposefully addictive. Professor Alder believes that this is accomplished by designing a product that eliminates what he calls stopping cues, while boosting rewards.
A stopping cue is a signal to tell us it is time to move on and do something new. If you read a book you come to the end of a chapter or the last page. Prior to streaming video services, if you were to watch your favorite TV show it would last an hour and you would wait a week for the next installment. We had stopping cues everywhere. "But the way we consume media today" says Alder "is that there are no stopping cues. The news feed just rolls on and everything is bottomless: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, email, text messaging, are designed so you just keep scrolling with no end in sight".
Technology has gratuitously ripped of the playbook of the casino. Who hasn't posted a photo to Instagram and then gone back to check multiple times a day to see how many "likes" we have received (reward). Instagram will now tell you in your feed that your last post is performing 80% better than your other posts and you could get more likes by boosting the picture for $20.00 (chips). And then there are the notifications telling you how well you are doing (gratification). Post a photo wait for likes, share a meme wait for hearts.
The definition of addiction that Alder uses is that it has to be something you enjoy doing in the short term, that undermines your wellbeing in the long term - but that you do compulsively anyway. His studies conclude that 50% of adults have at least one tech addiction.
We are absolutely blessed with access to technology, we use our phones for communication, exploration, entertainment, education and so on, but that doesn't mean our phones need to rule our lives with addictive chronic checking and always on notifications. Let's start a movement where we don't tolerate any phone checking at a dinner table or any other place where the people in front of you should be your only attention.
As always many thanks for reading.