The Acceleration of Anti-Addictiveness

This essay is a response to Paul Grahams “The Acceleration of Addictiveness”1. I very strongly advice you to read the original essay if you haven’t already done so. Also keep in mind that I am writing this more than four years after he published his essay, so while I have the benefit of hindsight, he was tasked with predicting the future.

If you didn’t read the essay here is a quick summary, in my own words:

Things that are addictive tend to become more so (or get replaced by things that are), this evolution of addictiveness is a result of general technological progress and can’t really be turned of separately from the general technological development – if you don’t want games that are even more addictive than WoW then you can’t have better treatments for cancer; as it is controlled by the rate of technological development addictability is increasing faster and faster.

Unless we, as individuals, choose to go a separate route then we risk going so far of the road, as a society, that somebody else (probably the government) will have to do something about it, which will likely involve force.

Since the essay was written things have indeed become (even more) addictive: the average internet connection is now much faster; videos on youtube are, to a large degree, in HD; porn sites have a larger selection; there are more sub-reddits, more people are posting more content on twitter and facebook and there are more wikipedia articles than ever. I assume there are more content posted on tv-tropes too, but I don’t dare look. If you are looking for something to waste your time on, you will find more than you could ever need or have time to see.

So far this is exactly what Paul Graham predicted, however he assumed that anti-addictive tools would come from social norms, which seems to develops at a constant rate, and addicting things would come from technology, which has a long-term growth rate that is at least exponential. Under this assumption it is therefore a mathematical certainty that the addictive things would win.

This predicting overlooks a third option, whose effect has only become visible in the past year or so: use software (which can grow at hyper-exponential rates) to help enforce/support social or personal goals.

There are plenty of examples of this kind of software, but the interesting thing is that you can trace the complexity of their features much like you can look at the fossil-record. Another interesting is that almost all of these tools, with the exception of Freedom, can trivially be turned of or bypassed by the user.

Initially, you have the crude but reasonably-effective Freedom2, which blocks your internet connection completely (and can only be circumvented with a reboot) for which I can find a LifeHacker reference back from 20083.

Freedom is double-edge blade though: you can’t access distracting online places, but you are also cut of from your email and Google.

Next stage is Chrome Nanny, which shows up around 2010 4. Much more sophisticated than Freedom, it allows you to block self-selected sites, only at specific times and days (such as when you should be working).

Eventually I found StayFocused which allows me to choose how for how long I am allowed to browse certain websites and which websites I want to limit access to. In my case I use it to block and Hacker news since they are my personal time-wasters, but leave access to Twitter and Facebook unblocked because I go to them often but don’t spend much time when I am there.

These tools are useful, but their domain is limited because they only stop us from not being productive on computers – they do nothing for all the other parts of life.

And boy do we need help here. If the assumptions about how many people will develop type 2 diabetes2 (the type where people become insensitive to insulin, which used to be associated with old people) are accurate the price for the care of all of these people will be so high that it alone will be able to ruin any health system the US can come up with, short of sending everybody to fat camp. Also since most of the diabetes cases will be in obese individuals we can assume that hearth attacks, strokes, etc will also go up.

Food is basically the new inner city crack, with the added bonus that unlike crack you can’t just stop eating.

Oh and big companies are constantly trying to make new, more addictive fast foods.

Fortunately you can get help from technology here as well: MyFitnessPal allows you to relatively simply add up how much you eat each day by entering it on your smartphone, and enables you to stay under whatever calorie goal you have.

The technology for tracking exercise is even better – both the Apple Watch and the Android wearables have builtin step counters, but you can also buy a FitBit which can be put around your wrist, tracking the steps you make each day. I have one and they are surprisingly addictive, there are plenty of days where I have gone on a little walk in the evening just to get the damn thing to stop flashing the last led (the FitBit Flex has 5 leds and when you have reached 1/5 of your step goals the first one will stop flashing and stay solid) and do its happy vibration dance.

But while those trackers help, they only work if people are actually going to use them. Fortunately we have started to see some technological help here as well: websites that motivate you by taking some of your money if you don’t reach your goal: Pact will take your money if you don’t go to the gym (and verify by GPS), Beeminder will take your money if you don’t make enough progress toward your goal and stickk will take your money if you don’t achieve your goal. There are other similar companies too: Beeminder conveniently has a list of their competitors available.

An interesting idea deserves to be mentioned too: HabitRPG, a gamified to do system where you earn XP and gold for doing good habits, while taking damage for doing bad habits or not achieving your daily goals. Earn enough XP and you level up, getting access to quests, cooler mounts and items. Basically like any old 8-bit RPG and hopefully as addictive (if only to a certain segment of the population). Since I have only used it for a day or so and it therefore still have that shiny-new stuff feel to it, but if it could be made half as addictive as WoW it could do so much good in the world it would almost be a crime not to try.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether these various measure and motivate tools can bridge the gap between the goals we really want to achieve and achieving those goals (the interesting thing is that if you solve this problem then you may solve nearly all the problems humans face, or will face) but to me it seems clear that whether they ultimately success the future isn’t going to be as dark as the one Paul Graham presented; if HabitRPG succeeds then the future may even turn out to be pretty fun. 

These were the numbers a quick google search could find, but I have read other predictions that are significantly worse