Taking a Cue from Big Tobacco: Big Tech Introduces the iFilter!

“I’m addicted to the Internet because it’s more interesting than people.”  ~ Dilbert

The headline in the Wall Street Journal jumped out at me: “Step Away From the Phone”—as in “step away from the weapon” or “step away from the edge of the cliff.” And here’s the article’s sub-title: “To help screen addicts break the habit, Big Tech companies are finding new ways to warn of overuse.”

Note that there’s no question regarding the fact of screen addiction—that’s a given. It’s assumed. The article’s author, Rachel Jacoby Zoldan, wastes not a single column half-inch defending the notion that people get hooked on their gizmos and iDevices. Why bother? Everybody knows that folks are struggling these days to manage their screen dependencies—and some aren’t even struggling. They’ve thrown in the towel and given in to compulsive web-surfing and binge-watching with nary a scruple or regret.

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This sounds bad—unless you’re profiting from it. The social media industry and its associated web of Internet businesses were built on the premise that they could grab our eyes (and ears and minds) and hold on to them for indefinite periods of time—primarily to expose us to constant pitches and flashy, animated content from advertisers. And, boy, are they good at it now. Enter a search for, say, “saxophone,” and suddenly you’ll start seeing all kinds of wind instruments and music retailers in your sidebar.

But we tune out the ads (or at least we think we do), and keep scrolling, because there’s always one more photo, one more tweet or text, one more this or that or the other thing to look at, listen to, or absorb. It’s the application of longstanding videogame design principles to the Internet in general. “Videogames are engineered specifically to keep people playing,” says researcher Douglas Gentile. “They’re designed to hit the pleasure centers of the brain in some of the same ways that gambling can.”

And that’s the point: we stay tuned in to our screens like gamblers stay tuned in to their slot machines, and Big Tech makes bank. Yet there’s a cost: we tune out the world and we tune out each other. “The short-term dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” says Chamath Palihapitiya, formerly of Facebook. “It literally is [at] a point now where I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”

Sure, sure, whatever. For every hyperbolic, hyperventilating screed about tech addiction there’s an equal and opposite take that advises that we chill and wait a bit longer for rigorous inquiry into the matter to run its course. After all, our Internet-driven screen culture has only been around a few decades. That’s a blip on the timeline of technological innovation.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of signs that Internet insiders are worried, and we should take notice. For one thing, it’s telling that those at the top are inclined to restrict screen access at home. And, now, WSJ’s Zoldan reveals, “Big Tech brands like Apple, Google, and Facebook—heretofore devoted to feeding our device-based vices—are now suddenly attempting to help curb bad habits in a balanced manner dubbed ‘digital well-being.’”

Think about that for a minute. The very people who spent gazillions tailoring the way we access and use the Internet in order to keep us online as long as possible—24/7, if they could figure out a way to do it—are now deigning to give us a way of mitigating that reliance and its adverse effects.

Sound familiar?

I don’t know about you, but just the title and sub-title of Zoldan’s piece made me think of the tobacco industry. To be sure, there are significant differences—not the least being that cigarettes and other forms of combustible tobacco have been around for ages. Plus, nobody is arguing that staring at your iThingy all day will kill you the way smoking will.

Even so, there’s an eerie parallel between what Big Tech is attempting with their built-in brakes and self-monitoring apps, and Big Tobacco’s efforts to dissemble and dance in the face of evidence that its products had a deadly downside.

For example, as the science started catching up to anecdotal evidence of smoking’s dangers, Big Tobacco came out with—ta-dah!—filters! It was a three-card Monty sleight of hand that duped smokers into thinking that they could do less damage to their longevity if they simply inhaled the toxic fumes through a cellulose acetate tube.

And, yes, filters do cut down a bit on the tar that a smoker layers on his bronchial passages, but there’s simply no evidence that they make cigarettes any safer. The same goes for the later trend of marketing “light” cigarettes—smokes made with porous paper and a perforated filter to reduce the payload of tar and nicotine, creating the illusion that they were somehow healthier. The illusion was even buttressed by subtle packaging changes—lighter colors, slimmer fonts—and the advertising that went along with it.

But it was all a sham. Turns out, light cigarettes and filtered cigarettes are just as dangerous as the unaltered variety—if not more so. Just maybe, Big Tobacco was likely in on the joke all along. Regardless, they certainly knew they were still marketing a product that was both deadly and addictive, and they did everything they could to keep us hooked anyway—including giving us false hope that we could use their product in a healthy way.

It seems like Big Tech is pulling a similar fast one here, more or less, and in a startlingly compressed timeframe. We didn’t have computers in our homes until the 1980s, and we didn’t have the Internet until the 1990s, and we didn’t have portable computers and Wi-Fi access until the 2000s. And now? They’re ubiquitous, and entire generations are growing up attached to their gizmos as if they were vitally important body parts. We can’t imagine life without them, and we’re apparently indulging in them to such an extent that the guys who gave them to us—like, what, yesterday?—already feel the need to give us temporary off-ramps.

Those off-ramps, in my reading of Zoldan’s overview, sound a lot like filters and light brands. My guess is that the Big Tech bosses who came up with the apps to stall our screen overuse (note that they’re pushing apps to help us cut down on our use of apps—much like the methadone offered to heroin addicts in the ’70s) aren’t all that concerned about screen addiction. They and their stockholders are thrilled that we’re all totally wed to their stuff. It’s a sign of their success—and it was all part of the plan! So forgive me for being a bit skeptical of their so-called solutions.

On the other hand, I’m encouraged by the prospect that Big Tech might be nudged into slapping tobacco-style warning labels on their products voluntarily. But I’m not holding my breath.


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