Here’s the hard truth: any business whose revenue model is built on a direct correlation between “engagement” and revenue has every incentive to find new, faster, and more efficient ways to make their products addicting.
This is true for cigarette makers and alcohol companies. It’s true for junk food brands. It’s true for slot machine manufacturers and the casinos who buy from them.
It’s true for opioid manufacturers and street-level meth and heroin dealers.
And it’s equally true for the founders, executives, and employees of “free-to-play” games that monetize with in-app micro-transactions and online social networks that monetize with advertising.
Likewise, people hooked on addicting games like Clash Of Clans or addicting social apps like Facebook and Instragram don’t tend to suddenly explode in weight or lose half their teeth in one go.
Sure, you’ll hear occasional stories of new parents literally letting their babies starve to death while they raised a virtual child in a game, but those are the wild and crazy exceptions.
The damage experienced by mobile gaming and social networking addicts tends to be much more subtle.
As for the long term consequences of creating dopamine-fueled filter bubbles, backed by business models that generate billions of dollars a year in profit on the back of emotionally-gratifying clickbait?
It’s too soon to tell, but it ain’t looking so pretty from here.
We all wish to believe that we are good people, doing the best we can with the circumstances we’ve got.
Indeed, the human propensity and desire to believe in one’s own innate decency is so strong that:
- Tobacco companies have no problem staffing themselves with employees who spend their days figuring out how to grow demand for carcinogenic tobacco products and fight anti-tobacco regulations in developing countries around the world…
- Dozens of competent people with high degrees of self-regard can spend months working to undermine taxes on sugary drinks around the world, despite abundant evidence of sugar’s toxic effects…
- Technology entrepreneurs, software developers, product managers, marketers, and executives at multi-billion dollar technology companies can devote tremendous resources to finding new and better ways to hook new users and keep their existing users addicted and engaged, despite increasing amounts of evidence of the political polarization and mental health downsides that result…
And still wake up every day and tell themselves they are doing nothing wrong.
…when it comes to people and companies who profit from turning their users into addicts, there is no morality of manipulation.
There is only a spectrum of immorality, and it goes from “Highly Immoral” to “Absolutely, Relentlessly Evil.”