Checking for What?

Adam Alter, Irresistible: Why We Can't Stop Checking, Scrolling, Clicking and Watching

Bodley Head, 368pp, £18.99, ISBN 9781847923578

reviewed by Samuel Gregory

What’s the deal with those couples you see in the pub staring at their phones in silence? Is it OK to find that odd, even sad, or does that make you a neo-Luddite, a reactionary old bore mourning the days when drinking dens were focal points of real-life face-to-face interaction? In Irresistible, Adam Alter argues that we are all that couple to one degree or another, each of us trapped in a loveless relationship with digital devices that are making us unhappier and unhealthier. It’s the backlash against the backlash against the ‘digital detox’ phenomenon, an examination of an ever-expanding global addiction that affects millions more people than any drug epidemic of the last century. I’m writing these words you’re reading right now from my phone, having put the book down as it occurred to me this’d be a good idea for an intro. It’s not that the book’s not engaging, and as Alter points out, it’s not a lack of willpower on my part – it’s just that there are hundreds of people on the other side of the screen whose full-time job is to chip away at that resolve. The end result, Alter argues, is a generation (you could probably identify them as ‘millennials’) whose attention span is completely spent.

Alter believes that behavioural addiction is just as powerful and should be treated with the same degree of seriousness as addiction to drugs or gambling. It’s a persuasive point and he writes well, drawing on technological and behavioural history for examples, visiting Nintendo under Shigeru Miyamoto and Vietnam vets who found they were able to kick their heroin habits when back in the US and away from the environment of the addiction. He peppers the book with genuinely startling statistics, revealing that the average smartphone user looks at their device for just under three hours a day. It’s pretty incredible that we spend roughly an eighth of our lives absorbed in an object that we could barely conceive of before 2007.

We visit reSTART, a residential rehab camp outside Seattle aimed at treating tech addiction in teenagers with a cold-turkey approach. The most interesting revelation is that the centre is currently only enrolling boys, as when they had mixed groups it caused major issues with harassment towards the girls. This links into research quoted in the book from MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle who has discovered that technology addiction depletes social skills in children, as text-based interaction neglects the verbal nuances and visual cues of spoken conversation. Between 2002 and 2009, when I was in secondary school, my primary form of communication as a shy kid was MSN Messenger, which I used for hours and hours each day. I’m pretty sure it stunted the development of my social skills, and even four years after leaving university I still prefer to email or instant message someone I don’t know particularly well instead of phoning them up or – gulp – meeting them in person.

At the start of the book Alter points out that Steve Jobs refused to let his kids use an iPad. Despite catching the Silicon Valley elite red-handed, he isn’t critical enough of the people responsible for the epidemic that he identifies. If what he’s saying holds up to scrutiny then the big technology companies, particularly those that make ultra-addictive so-called ‘casual’ games like FarmVille and Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, are as socially irresponsible as tobacco executives or owners of big casinos. Heavy regulation for addictive industries is now mainstream political orthodoxy, but Alter’s book doesn’t raise the question when it comes to tech.

Despite diagnosing pretty much all of us with some degree of digital dependency, Alter also curiously omits some of the quick-fix cures that could at least put a sticking plaster over the problem (a programme like reSTART is only available to those with plenty of cash and a few spare weeks to spend in summer camp). He talks about how the blue light emitted by screens ruins our ability to sleep properly if we look at our phones in the hour before bedtime, the imitation daylight tricking our brains into thinking it’s morning. There are free apps available such as f.lux on the PC and Twilight for Android that counter this effect by turning the screen a reddish hue in sync with dawn and dusk. I’ve used these apps for years and my sleep is now less broken as a result, so I can’t see why they weren’t worth a mention.

Another problem I have with Alter’s argument is that he focuses primarily on the quantity of time spent on digital devices rather than the quality of what’s being viewed. I’d hesitate to say that your time spent reading this review, for example, is time wasted. He talks to Isaac Vaisberg, a bright kid who got admitted to Worcester College followed by American University and then pissed it up the wall with a five week World of Warcraft session, living off food delivered to his dorm room by his concierge. Maybe the time Vaisberg spent at his computer was only part of the problem, the other issue being the vacuousness of a game like WoW, an endless war of attrition with little progression, character development or resolution.

To be fair to Alter, he is critical of the trend for games or digital experiences that are now designed to continue forever, rather than more traditional linear video games with their set end points and conclusions. As a model of a different way forward he cites responsible games developers who deliberately design their games to be non-addictive and actually conclusive, in a way that the infinitesimal narrative of The Sims never can be. Other developers do the opposite, deliberately making their games as addictive as World of Warcraft but to encourage behaviour seen as societally beneficial, such as exercise game  Fitocracy with its hierarchy of rewards and achievements.

Almost all of this review came out of a notes document on my phone that I kept adding to while reading the book, and I’d say I’m probably unable to read any book these days for more than about 20 pages without ‘checking’ my phone. Maybe that reflects badly on me. When asked about Zadie Smith thanking the Freedom and SelfControl time management programmes in the acknowledgements of her novel NW, Will Self said: ‘Get a grip, Zadie! I’m sorry, but that is just pathetic. Turn off the computer. Write by hand. I find that ludicrous.’ Maybe it is a bit pathetic that I feel so compelled to ‘check’ my phone every 20 minutes (and checking for what? What can have happened of any importance?). I’ve even had to stop taking my phone to the pub when I go there to read in an attempt to forcibly wrench back some degree of control over my own attention span. Perhaps Self is right. Instead of digital detox courses in the woods of Washington state, maybe we all just need to get a grip, and to a certain extent, get a life.