Smoking as a parable to tech addiction


When I talked about how people’s addiction to smartphones is akin to a public health crisis, I compared it to smoking.It’s not a particularly insightful analogy, of course. For example, Ian Bogost wrote about it as far as back in 2012. He compared the fall of BlackBerry to the slow burn of Lucky Strike with this note:

But calling Blackberry a failure is like calling Lucky Strike a failure. Not just for its brand recognition and eponymy, but even more so, for the fact that its products set up a chain reaction that has changed social behavior in a way we still don’t fully understand–just as our parents and grandparents didn’t fully understand the cigarette in the 1960s.

One of Bogost’s points is that our relationship with smartphones is so unique and so personal, that we may not fully understand or even predict what our society will look like when it bubbles up to the population level. For smoking, it turns out, that effect was widespread cancer. Not great.

One of my points was that the addictive nature of smartphones, and technology overall, was always visible to those who build them. Here is Bill Gates in 2007:

“She could spend two or three hours a day on this Viva Pinata, because it’s kind of engaging and fun.”

Gates said he and his wife Melinda decided to set a limit of 45 minutes a day of total screen time for games and an hour a day on weekends, plus what time she needs for homework.

I argued, while Apple focuses on physical health, it casually ignores the mental health implications of the addictive nature of its products, even though its designers already know it’s a problem. Here is Jony Ive, on stage of New Yorker Tech Fest in 2017:

REMNICK: How can — how can they be misused? What’s a misuse of an iPhone?

IVE: I think perhaps constant use.

Another point I passingly made is that smoking had huge interest groups backing it, with lots of public relations behind it showing it as a beneficial, progressive, useful activity. The dangers of smoking were not well known, but it wasn’t exactly hidden either.

Here is a quote from  article from 2015 by Richard Gunderman, a medial doctor. Gunderman talks about Edward Bernays, the father of modern public relations and how he wanted people to smoke, but not his wife.

In the 1930s, he promoted cigarettes as both soothing to the throat and slimming to the waistline. But at home, Bernays was attempting to persuade his wife to kick the habit. When would find a pack of her Parliaments in their home, he would snap every one of them in half and throw them in the toilet. While promoting cigarettes as soothing and slimming, Bernays, it seems, was aware of some of the early studies linking smoking to cancer.

Good times. The entire article is an excellent, if not a sobering read. I also “Like”d the part where Bernays channels a certain tech-executive prone to apologizing. They didn’t have Medium back then, so he couldn’t apologize there but he quipped in his autobiography:

They were using my books as the basis for a destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. This shocked me, but I knew any human activity can be used for social purposes or misused for antisocial ones.

I have mentioned that history repeats itself, and The Cyber is not an exception but it’s kind of unsettling how often Nazis make an appearance. I guess when you manage to manipulate millions at such scale to conduct such adversities, it scrambles all notions of rationality, ethics, morality, technology.

And a passing point here. There’s a general sensation that filling up coffers of tech companies with STEM majors may not be the best idea when those kids with little knowledge  of history end up shaping up the new public spaces. I agree with the overall sentiment, but I have some reservations.  The problem is less the people’s majors, but that those major’s general appreciation for history. In other words, we will always need STEM majors and probably more of them as time passes so curbing that supply is not an option. But maybe we could educate (or build?) more smarter ones.

I harp on America a lot on Twitter, as an expat-cum-immigrant. But one thing America has over Europe and/or Turkey is that almost no one smokes in US. It is uncanny. But it wasn’t always this way. And it took a lot of effort to get things to where we are. It’s doable, though.

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