Your Brain on Tech: Reflections on Irresistible by Adam Alter

I should start by saying that I am aware of the immense irony that I read Adam Alter’s new book, Irresistible, on tech addictions on my Kindle Fire. While I, however, am pretty proud of my minimum tech usage (given both of my jobs require time on the computer, I have to use tech to write and post blogs, and I own over 500 kindle books), I am increasingly concerned for future generations about the increasing immersion in the digital world. Stories of young children frustratedly attempting to swipe through magazines, due to significant and unbalanced exposure to screens over books, seem to be nearly ubiquitous among youngish parents. This is especially concerning as tech giants are doing what they can to limit exposure to their own children. Alter begins his book with the startling note:

In late 2010, Jobs told New York Times journalist Nick Bilton that his children had never used the iPad. “We limit how much technology our kids use in the home.” Bilton discovered that other tech giants imposed similar restrictions. Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired, enforced strict time limits on every device in his home, “because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand.” His five children were never allowed to use screens in their bedrooms. Evan Williams, a founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium, bought hundreds of books for his two young sons, but refused to give them an iPad. And Lesley Gold, the founder of an analytics company, imposed a strict no-screen-time-during-the-week rule on her kids. She softened her stance only when they needed computers for schoolwork. Walter Isaacson, who ate dinner with the Jobs family while researching his biography of Steve Jobs, told Bilton that, “No one ever pulled out an iPad or computer. The kids did not seem addicted at all to devices.” It seemed as if the people producing tech products were following the cardinal rule of drug dealing: never get high on your own supply.

— Alter, Irresistible, 2.

Alter goes on to ask, “Why are the world’s greatest public technocrats also its greatest private technophobes? Can you imagine the outcry if religious leaders refused to let their children practice religion?” It is a good question that we need to answer. In a day where many parents grab a breather from their toddlers by handing them an iPad or iPhone and high schoolers discuss video games with increasing frequency while active hobbies dramatically decline, the proper use of technology is a bourgeoning ethical concern. Decisions must be made. It is in this light that I offer a review of Adam Alter’s new book and some reflections on it. 

Review and Reflection

Alter’s book is well-written and engaging. There are few points to quibble with about his style, language, and flow. Having spent much time reading popular level Christian books by the current trendy pastors, I take this as an important point. Much of Christian publishing is either lacking in originality of idea (prompting the question ‘why bother?’) or lacking in quality of writing (prompting many questions about calling and clarity). It is always troubling to me to see the secular world with better standards than its Christian counterparts, especially since they are usually in the arts (publishing, music, film) which I believe Christianity provides better resources for. That is a rant for another day though. The important thing to say is that Alter is clear, precise, and engaging. It took little effort for me to talk myself into one more chapter. He has a simple way of describing the issue and memorable one sentence tags that get at the heart of the discussion like, “Sluggishness is the enemy of addiction, because people respond more sharply to rapid links between action and outcome” (44). Simple, memorable, and applicable. How to avoid tech addictions, slow yourself down. 

Not only is the book well written, but it takes up a growing and ethically hazy arena. I think this topic is going to be one of the most important ethical issues of the next few years and potentially decades into the future. It is no secret that technology is constantly out pacing our ethical reasoning. Facebook existed before concerns about what was ethically acceptable to publish for all to see and/or read, or any legal questions about privacy had been asked. Internet pornography existed before any ethical (let alone neurological, psychological and sociological) discussions had taken place. It almost seems as if the social conversation begins with the development and utilization of new technologies, moves into the legal field, and only then arrives in the ethics classroom. Even if we were to set aside some of the troubling ethical questions raised by the content and usage of mobile devices (like pornography, cyber-bullying, or online gambling), there is the ethical question of the development of such technologies to begin with. Alter does not explicitly ask this question, but what ought we to think about tech developers who intentionally seek to make an addictive product in order to make a profit, especially when done with little to no concern for users/consumers? This question is implicit and unanswered throughout the text, but the introductory quote relating tech developers to drug dealers and anecdotes about unusual app/game designers who pulled their products after seeing their negative effects suggests that consciences are regularly discounted or dismissed in Silicon Valley. With this a particularly potent line that jumps off the page:

Life is more convenient than ever, but convenience has weaponized temptation.

— Alter, 19.

This is a critical topic, and it is only fixing to become more so. Personally, my wife and I are so concerned with the ethical and developmental issues raised by technology that we have become borderline monkish about technology when our young son is present. I find myself in agreement with a quote I heard attributed to Andy Crouch, author of Culture Making and Strong and Weak, that went something along the lines of “I am not saying you need to be Amish, but I am saying you need to be much more Amish than you are.”

When I consider books and my opinion of them, whether they are worth my time or not, I consider three issues: is the topic relevant, is the topic well covered, is the topic aesthetically covered. The answer to each of these is yes. Alter’s relevance, research, and writing are all top notch. If I had to classify this book, I would place it in the growing (volume and popularity) field of investigative journalism or investigative non-fiction. These types of books ought to be evaluated on their research. In a sense the primary marker and selling point behind such texts is the ability of the author to find a compelling balance between in the oscillation from story about research and thesis development and the logical structure and argument which is presumably the meat of the book. Alter does this well, I hesitate to say Malcom-Gladwell-well, but well enough.

As an ethicist, I nearly always walk away from these books slightly unsatisfied with the utter lack of ambition they have. They are smartly content for minor conclusions—for Alter, the addictive nature of technology is designed to have. Why is this conclusion minor? The word designed carries a freighter of ethical cargo. Given how aspects of these technologies have devastating consequences ranging from time-wasting on the latest game to marriage wrecking on Ashley Madison, the comparison to drug dealers seems completely legitimate, yet underplayed. Why are their no calls for greater legislation or restrictions or some other form of safety net? Why does Alter compare Steve Jobs to a heroin dealer, but not call the hypocritical pedaling of modern-day snake oil out for what it is? As I reflect on Irresistible, I can not help  but jump to ethical considerations about design and content.

Thanks for reading,