The 21st century cupcake is a thing of wonder: a modest base of sponge groaning under an indulgently thick layer of frosted sugar or buttercream. It’s made to look like a miniature children’s birthday cake – and, indeed, birthdays are the perfect excuse to scurry down to the local boutique bakery for a big box of them. The retro charm of cupcakes helps suppress any anxieties you might have about sugar and fat. Your mother made them! Or so the advertising suggests. Perhaps your own mother didn’t actually bake cupcakes, but the cutesy pastel-colored icing implies that one bite will take you back to your childhood. This can’t possibly be junk food, can it?
Now let’s consider another ubiquitous presence in modern life: The iPhone, which started out as a self-conscious statement of coolness but which, thanks to Apple’s marketing genius, has now become as commonplace as a set of car keys. Millions of people own iPhones, making use of hundreds of thousands of apps, whose functions range from GPS-assisted mapping to compulsively time-wasting computer games. Your iPhone does everything you could require of a mobile phone and more, so you really don’t need the upgraded model that Apple has just released … do you?
A cupcake and a smartphone. These objects are so innocent-looking that you could leave them on your desk at work and no one would comment (though the cake might disappear). You can easily consume them simultaneously: checking your text messages and picking at that yummy frosted topping.
On the other hand, each of these mundane items can get us into trouble. They are objects of desire that can reinforce addictive behavior – the sort that creeps up on you when your defenses are down. That’s my subject: a social environment in which more and more of us are being pulled towards some form of addiction, even though we may be unaware of the fact and never become full-blown addicts.
It’s not obvious to us now, but the most far-reaching social development of the early 21st century is our increasingly insistent habit of rewarding ourselves whenever we feel the need to lift our moods.
When our hand creeps out towards yet another square of organic chocolate, or when we play just one more game of Angry Birds before setting off for work, or when we check a secretly bookmarked porn site for new arrivals, we’re behaving like addicts. The activity in question can be innocent or shameful. Either way, it reinforces the addictive streak in human nature.
That streak is there because our brains have evolved to seek out immediate, short-term rewards. Our ancestors needed to stuff themselves with energy-rich berries and to respond quickly to sexual stimulation; we wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t.
Our problem is that we’ve built an environment that bombards us with rewards that our bodies don’t need and that do nothing to ensure our survival as a species. Yet, because they are rewards – that is, because they provoke specific feelings of anticipation and pleasure in the brain – we grab them anyway.
To put it another way, we reach out for a fix.
That’s a word we associate with helpless addicts. They talk about their “fix” because it feels as if they’ve temporarily fixed themselves when they take their drug of choice. There’s no mystery about this. As a result of heavy exposure to the drug, they have become dependent on frequent chemical rewards. Their brains are in a state of hyper-vigilance, waiting for the blessed relief of a chemical that, once tolerance develops, merely allows the addict to feel normal, as opposed to anxious and ill.
That much is not in dispute. Many addiction specialists go further, however. They say that the brains of addicts are fundamentally different from those of non-addicts. They are forced to chase these rewards because they have “the disease of addiction.”
I’d challenge that theory: If you keep eating chocolate biscuits until you feel sick, you’re indulging in a milder version of the addictive behavior that leads heroin addicts to overdose. I’m not equating the two situations, of course. I’m suggesting that they lie at different points on a spectrum of addictive behavior on which everyone can be located.
Also, and more importantly, many of us are being pulled toward the dangerous end of the spectrum, thanks to technological and social changes that stimulate the most fundamental of all our instincts – desire.
Never before have we had access to so many desirable things and experiences that we hope will change our moods. I know “things and experiences” sounds vague, but that’s really the point. Addiction has never been confined to substance abuse, and with each passing week technology unveils a new object, process or relationship we can obsess over.
For example, these days our fixes are often delivered to us through social networking tools such as Facebook or Twitter that enable us to manipulate our circle of friends. Installing and deleting people as if they were iPhone apps offers a quick and dirty method of changing our feelings (though, needless to say, we are furious when someone deletes us). It’s a consumer experience.
In any discussion of addiction, whether of the trivial or life-threatening variety, the concept of desire is just as important as that of pleasure. Usually, it’s more important. That’s because the anticipation of the fix is more powerful than the moment of consumption, which often fails to live up to expectations. Sometimes we throw internal tantrums when this happens. The fix infantilises us so that, like children, we are constantly and annoyingly hungry for more.
Believe me, I speak from experience.
I spent many years as an addict. I was pathetically addicted to alcohol between the ages of 18 and 32. It took me a long time to acknowledge the fact, though — to realise that the act of getting drunk delighted and obsessed me to a degree that set me apart from most of my friends and colleagues. My doctor tells me I’m still an addict. I’m not exactly happy to wear that label after spending such a long time avoiding so much as a sip of alcohol, but the evidence is compelling. Since giving up drinking, my addictive desires have attached themselves to one thing, person or experience after another. I can’t swallow a Nurofen Plus for a headache without hoping that I’ll enjoy a little codeine buzz. I can obsess for 10 minutes in front of a display of confectionery in a newsagent’s. And my CD-buying habit has nearly bankrupted me. Trivial stuff compared with my drinking, but my over-reactions to these stimulations don’t feel normal, exactly.
Perhaps the crucial feature of addiction is the progressive replacement of people by things. That deceptively simple statement is a brilliant insight, though I can’t claim credit for it. It comes from Craig Nakken, author of a bestselling book called “The Addictive Personality,” who argues that addicts form primary relationships with objects and events, not with people.
He writes: “Normally, we manipulate objects for our own pleasure, to make life easier. Addicts slowly transfer this style of relating to objects to their interactions with people, treating them as one-dimensional objects to manipulate as well.”
What begins as an attempt to find emotional fulfilment ends up turning in on itself. Why? Because the addict comes to judge other people simply in terms of how useful they are in delivering a fix. And, at some stage, everybody lets you down. Therefore the addict concludes that objects are more dependable than people. Objects have no wants or needs. “In a relationship with an object the addict can always come first,” says Nakken.
I felt a shiver of recognition when I first read those words. But it wasn’t just my own behavior that came to mind, or that of people whom society can conveniently label “addicts.” This may come across as a presumptuous thing to say, but over the last decade I’ve been struck by the way friends and colleagues, most of them psychologically far healthier than me, have begun to display aspects of the process Nakken describes. Lifestyle accessories exert an ever greater power over them, disrupting relationships, nurturing obsessions and — as I’ve noticed in the office — dominating conversation.
Does that mean that the people around me are turning into addicts? That’s never an easy question to answer, because “addict” is such a loaded term. It’s a good word to describe people whose problems are obviously out of control, as mine were, but it has to be used carefully. Not only does it carry misleading overtones of disease, but it also implies that there’s a clear dividing line between “addicts” and “non-addicts.” That’s not true. In my experience, addiction is something that people do — to themselves and other people — rather than something that just happens to them; it’s not like developing cancer.
Addiction is easier to understand as a concept if we focus on clearly observable behavior — that is, the search for a fix and its consequences. Almost anyone can indulge in addictive behavior, but some of us are more prone to it than others, for reasons that scientists don’t fully understand.
In fact, let’s get this point out of the way. In the past couple of decades, countless scientific studies have attempted to pinpoint what it is about either the brains or the upbringings of addicts that leads them to adopt self-destructive lifestyles. They have failed to do so.
No one is immune from developing addictive behavior. If there’s a history of addiction in your family, you’re more at risk. Likewise, if you have an impulsive personality — that is, score highly for “impulsivity” in psychological tests — you’re more likely to do something impulsive, such as try a new drug or drink that fatal last glass of whisky before jumping into your car. Indeed, a fashionable term for various addictions is “impulse control disorders.”
For me these findings fall into the “No shit, Sherlock” category of scientific discoveries. They tell us nothing very surprising. The consensus at the moment is that addiction seems to be the product of genetic inheritance and environment. In other words, the nature versus nurture question is no closer to being settled in this area of human biology than it is in any other. To repeat: We’re all at risk. That’s why this applies to everyone, not just coke-snorting hedge fund managers, bulimic receptionists and absent fathers glued to World of Warcraft.
Psychologists talk about addictive behaviors in the plural, recognizing the many different impulses that tempt people. What these behaviors tend to have in common is the replacement of people by things and events. We all develop these habits to a certain degree; the people we call addicts are those people who can’t or won’t give them up even when they cause harm to themselves and others. Again, that’s a loose definition, fuzzy at the edges. Never mind; addiction isn’t an easy phenomenon to pin down.
This isn’t to deny that addictive behavior has important consequences for the brain. It does. Indeed, it can partly be explained by the overstimulation of the brain’s fearsomely complex reward circuitry.
Different parts of the human brain govern what some scientists call the Stop and Go impulses. More primitive sections of the brain — parts that we share with other animals — tell us to consume as much as possible in order to increase our chances of survival. They say: Go. More highly developed parts of the brain, capable of reasoning and not found in other animals, hold up a Stop sign when we’re consuming too much of something for our own good. Classic addicts keep ignoring the Stop instruction, despite the high cost to themselves and others. They require instant gratification, whatever the consequences. Indeed, they’ll often seize any opportunity to indulge in addictive behavior even when there’s no real gratification to be extracted from it. We’ll discuss this puzzling paradox later.
The Stop and Go imagery helps us understand the growing appeal of the fix. As technologies develop and converge, the speed of delivery increases. So does the speed of our expectations. We now live in a world filled with life-enhancing objects and substances that promise ever faster and more effective gratification. It’s as if everything that tumbles off a production line is stamped with the word Go.
Temptation peeks out at us from the strangest places. Who would have guessed, 40 years ago, that a piece of electronic office equipment — the personal computer — would morph into something so desirable that people would sacrifice huge chunks of their spare time (and income) in order to play with it? Or that modifications to a telephone would generate global excitement?
Changes to our appetites don’t come about by accident. The manager of your local Starbucks didn’t wake up one morning and think: “I know what would brighten up my customers’ afternoons — an ice-blended cappuccino!” The Frappuccino was invented when Starbucks employed food technology to solve a specific business challenge. As a result, hundreds of thousands of their customers (including me) developed a near-obsessive relationship with something they had previously lived happily without.
The pace of technological change means we need to revise our concept of addiction. Our cultural history provides us with images of stereotypical addicts, some of them dating back centuries: the grinning harridan dropping her baby down a staircase in Hogarth’s Gin Lane; the American Indians crazed with “firewater”; the hollow-eyed Chinese sailor propped against the wall of an opium den; the junkie shivering in an alleyway surrounded by needles. Also, anyone who lives in a city is used to the sight of spectacular drunks and morbidly obese people whose addictions are so grotesquely out of control that we avert our eyes.
These are powerful images, but if we pay too much attention to them then we can end up with a dangerous sense of immunity. We overlook our own eagerness to self-administer fixes, those sensory experiences that temporarily lift the mood while subtly detaching us from traditional human relationships. The fix can take any number of forms. Some toy very obviously with the chemistry of the brain.
Anyone with a rolled banknote up their nose knows that — so long as their dealer hasn’t ripped them off — they’re about to experience the effects of a mind-altering substance. The same goes for the guy swigging from a whisky bottle. In contrast, the tubby young man who demolishes a packet of chocolate digestives while watching the football doesn’t suspect that his eating habits have left his brain unusually sensitive to stimulation by sugar; he just knows that, once the packet’s opened, the biscuits disappear. His habit of stuffing his face with refined sugar and vegetable fat doesn’t place him very far along the addictive spectrum — but, then again, it may be enough to put him in intensive care when he has a heart attack at 50.
The most puzzling addictions are those that don’t involve the consumption of any substance. Gambling is the obvious example — we’ve known for hundreds of years that it can tear apart families as ruthlessly as hard liquor. In academic circles, these non-substance addictions are known as “process addictions.” It’s now clear that things you don’t eat, drink, smoke or inject can nevertheless disturb your brain in much the same way as drugs. And, in an age when so much digital entertainment — notably video games and online pornography — is designed to be as addictive as possible, their potential to do this is accelerating rapidly.
The global marketplace offers a bewildering selection of consumer experiences, simultaneously delightful and dangerous. It’s constantly modifying products and experiences that were never previously considered to be addictive — or simply didn’t exist until recently.
Also, as we’ll see, corporations have learned how to supercharge old-established intoxicants by popularising new patterns of consuming them. One vivid example is the phenomenon of recreational binge drinking, particularly by women. People have always got drunk, and a minority have always enjoyed going on binges with their friends. What no one predicted was the emergence of the binge as everyday behavior. Ordinary drinkers, with no history of a problem with alcohol, now plan evenings to end in a messy and helpless surrender to the drug. And this is seen as normal.
It would be silly to pretend that everyone is equally threatened by this changing style of consumption. But the prospect of whole populations learning new ways of tampering with the flow of pleasure-giving chemicals in their brains is one that should make us feel very uneasy.
With that in mind, let’s take another look at the cake and the phone.
In 1996 a tiny corner shop called the Magnolia Bakery opened in Manhattan’s West Village. Its old-fashioned cakes and pies quickly became the objects of guilty fantasy for women who liked to pretend that nothing more fattening than tuna carpaccio ever passed their lips. Then, in 2000, the bakery featured in an episode of “Sex and the City.” This was the moment America’s cupcake craze began in earnest.
In the episode, Carrie and Miranda were filmed sitting outside the Magnolia. Carrie, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, told her friend that there was a new obsession in her life. This turned out to be a new boyfriend called Aidan — but viewers could have been forgiven for thinking it was icing sugar, judging by the way Parker was pushing the rose-colored cupcake into her face. Viewed in slow motion, it’s a faintly disgusting spectacle. The truth is, there’s no elegant way to eat a Magnolia cupcake, which is why customers adopt self-mocking smiles as the fluorescent globules of frosting tumble down their chins.
“When Carrie took her first bite, she left teeth marks in my neighborhood,” wrote Emma Forrest, a journalist living opposite the bakery. “Not long after the episode was broadcast, the tourists started to arrive and the bakery started charging them if they wanted to take photographs of Carrie and co’s favourite haunt. With the influx of tourists came the rats, as half-eaten cupcakes were dumped into overflowing bins outside my apartment … Riding on this extraordinary upturn in its fortunes, Magnolia changed its hours, and stayed open to midnight throughout the summer. I was kept awake each night by the hoots and hollers coming from the queue that now snakes all the way around the block.”
In 2006 and 2007 I spent quite a lot of time in the West Village visiting my friend Harry Mount, then New York correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. By this time, “Sex and the City” was off the air and the cupcake craze had gone mainstream: Magnolia-style bakeries were opening all over America. Yet, on chilly autumn evenings, there was still a queue outside the original store, and it didn’t seem to consist of tourists. “Our local stick-thin fashion victims can’t get enough of the things,” explained Harry. In which case, how come they were stick-thin? Was there a parking lot at the back where they threw them up?
That was a bad-taste private joke between Harry and me, but when I recently did a word search on “cupcakes” and “bulimia” I discovered a blog by a bulimic mother of two entitled “Eating Cupcakes in the Parking Lot.” Its posts appear to have been deleted, but cupcakes feature prominently in many other blogs devoted to eating disorders. After a row with her boyfriend, one bulimic girl baked cupcakes decorated with the words “I am sorry.” She added mournfully: “And now where are those cupcakes? Floating along a sewage pipe.”
This sort of incident isn’t unusual. Abigail Natenshon, a psychotherapist who treats eating disorders, tells another horror story involving cupcakes: “One young woman with bulimia found herself, at a time of great stress, compelled to drive into a 7–Eleven convenience store where she purchased three cupcakes; she then proceeded to stuff them down her throat whole in an emotional frenzy in the dark and deserted alley behind the store. As far as she was concerned, her binge had begun at the moment when she drove her car up to the front door and did not finish until she had purged the cupcakes.”
The disturbing subculture of “pro-ana” (pro-anorexia) websites actually encourages girls to starve themselves, or “b/p” (binge and purge). A recurring question on these sites is: Are cupcakes easy to throw up? Answer: not as easy as ice cream, but eating them with diet soda can help.
“It doesn’t surprise me that cupcakes are favourites with bulimics,” the food writer Xanthe Clay told me.
They’re the ultimate eye-candy, primped and styled like a teen pop star, the food incarnation of many girls’ fantasies. In the gossip magazine world, where shopping is the only serious rival to celebrity in terms of aspiration, cupcakes are consumer-desirable in a way a Victoria sponge isn’t.
If having an eating disorder is about a desperate attempt to take control, then eating these artificial, too-perfect creations may be particularly satisfying. More likely, the huge sugar rush will feed the craving, and provide a quivering kick of hypoglycaemia. The texture – smooth, aerated, oily – may, like ice cream, be especially suitable for regurgitation.
And – just my prejudice this – but perhaps the ultimate emptiness of cupcakes, those empty calories, the way they never deliver on flavour what they promise in looks, is a metaphor for the hopelessness of the woman, or man, with bulimia.
Although a high proportion of bulimics have “issues” with cupcakes, clearly the overwhelming majority of people who eat them don’t throw them up. They do, however, seem obsessed with them. A chain called Crumbs sells 1.5 million cupcakes every month in 35 U.S. stores; in June 2011, it started trading on the Nasdaq, with an opening valuation of $59 million. And market analysts predict robust growth if Crumbs moves into emerging markets such as China.
The Facebook group for Sprinkles Cupcakes had, at the time of writing, been “liked” by 325,000 people and was spreading the cupcake gospel with near-hysterical enthusiasm. For Valentine’s Day: “It’s back! The first 50 people to whisper ‘love at first bite’ at each Sprinkles receive a free raspberry chocolate chip!” For Superbowl Sunday: “Whether you’re rooting for the New York Giants or New England Patriots or just tuning in for the commercials, Sprinkles Super Sunday boxes will score a touchdown at any viewing party. Each box contains 6 Red Velvet and 6 Vanilla cupcakes, adorned with football sugar decorations and your favourite team’s name. Just don’t get tackled reaching for the last one!” There were even signs that cupcakes were trying to infiltrate the military-industrial complex: “Sprinkles is excited to bring freshly baked cupcakes to the Pentagon! Pentagon employees can find us in the Main Concourse …”
This is a resilient craze, as Dana Cowin, Food & Wine magazine’s editor-in-chief told Reuters in 2011. “I have predicted the demise of the cupcake so many times that I’m actually going to go to the dark side now and say the cupcake trend is not going to abate,” she said. When an earthquake struck Washington D.C., in August 2011, someone tweeted that you could tell it had happened because there was suddenly no line outside Georgetown Cupcakes.
Could the “emptiness” of the cupcakes to which Xanthe Clay refers be part of their appeal? Their overwhelming sugar hit fills the consumer with what nutritionists call “empty calories,” because they have no nutritional value. But that’s not to say they have no mood-altering value. Sugar triggers production of the brain’s natural opioids, according to Princeton neuroscientist Bart Hobel, who led a study into sugar dependence. He found that rats which binged on sugar went into withdrawal when the supply was cut off. “We think that is a key to the addiction process,” he said. “The brain is getting addicted to its own opioids as it would to morphine or heroin. Drugs give a bigger effect, but it is essentially the same process.”
Opioids are also implicated in bulimia, irrespective of whether sugar is involved. Have you ever experienced that feeling of glorious relief after you’ve just thrown up a dodgy curry? It’s not just getting rid of the food that makes you feel good; it’s a natural elation produced by chemicals in the brain. Bulimics get off on it, to put it crudely.
As Abigail Natenshon explains: “The bulimic cycle releases endorphins, [opioid] brain chemicals that infuse a person with a sense of numbness or euphoria. Ironically, the relief passes in short order, only to be replaced by anxiety and guilt for the bulimic behaviors.” Again, we need to state the obvious fact that most people don’t throw up their food. But the sort of food associated with purging is also the sort of food that many of us have difficulty resisting, because its heavy concentrations of sugar, fat or salt can magnify euphoria and neediness.
It’s easy for urban sophisticates to mock American rednecks or British “chavs” who stuff themselves with fast food, and easy to recognize that they’re in the grip of some sort of addiction. Just look at their waistlines. But the marketing executive who orders a cranberry muffin to go with her morning cup of coffee really ought to ask herself: Why am I eating cake for breakfast?
So what about the iPhone? Isn’t it a bit much to call our love affair with this shiny gadget an “addiction”? Researchers at Stanford University aren’t so sure: In a survey of 200 Stanford students in 2010, 44 percent of respondents said they were either very or completely addicted to their smartphones. Nine per cent admitted to “patting” their iPhone. Eight percent recalled thinking that their iPods were “jealous” of their iPhones. These are strange things for students at one of America’s top universities to say about their phones, even in jest. They also reveal something about how completely the iPhone has become part of these students’ identities and social frameworks. They’re not just tools that allow us to connect instantaneously and prolifically with others; they’re also being afforded identities of their own – “patted,” protected and cherished.
Perhaps it has something to do with how these devices are engineered. They practically force you to perform repetitive rituals of the sort associated with obsessive-compulsive behavior: from the initial activation of the iPhone to the weekly “syncing” and nightly charging, your relationship to the phone is structured for you. And because the iPhone’s battery life isn’t quite enough to last a full day’s use – and certainly not long enough to withstand hours of constant fiddling and gaming – “pit stop” charges become a regular feature of the day. iPhone users can often be seen checking for power sockets in coffee shops so that, while they get their own fix of caffeine, their phones can get juiced up as well.
“iPhone owners live in a constant state of anxiety about their battery levels,” says Milo Yiannopoulos, editor of The Kernel, an online culture magazine. “To some extent, the phone ends up structuring their day. For example, they tend not to plan to be out of the office for more than six hours at a time, in case they run out of battery and have to start knocking on doors, USB cable in hand, begging for a few minutes’ worth of charge to get them through the afternoon.”
Talk about the replacement of people by things. The 4S version of the iPhone, released in October 2011, includes a virtual assistant called Siri that responds to spoken instructions and speaks back to the user. This infant technology is already so complex that you can have entire conversations with Siri. She will then execute commands, in some cases fetching very specific data from the Internet. “Intelligent personalized assistant software is going mainstream,” says Yiannopoulos. “Never in the history of mass-market consumer electronics has the line between man and machine been so blurred.”
It’s significant that a quarter of respondents in the survey above said they found iPhones “dangerously alluring.” They are supposed to be. Absolutely nothing is left to chance in the design of these devices. If Apple customers have an embarrassing tendency to anthropomorphise their gadgets, that is because Apple has explored the possibilities of the human mind and body more thoroughly than any of its competitors.
For example, one of the most appealing features of the MacBook laptop line has been the status light, which pulsates gently when the computer is sleeping. Early reviewers cooed over the calming effect of the light, but couldn’t put their finger on why it felt so good to watch. Later, it was revealed that Apple had filed for a patent for a sleep-mode indicator that “mimics the rhythm of breathing” and was therefore “psychologically appealing.” As the tech blogger Jesse Young noted, while Apple’s sleep light matched the pace of breathing while we sleep, Dell’s was closer to breathing during strenuous exercise. “It’s interesting how a lot of companies try to copy Apple but never seem to get it right. This is yet another example of Apple’s obsessive attention to detail,” he wrote.
Former Apple executives – who frequently brief American technology blogs off the record about the internal culture at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California – describe the lengths the organization goes to in order to create coveted products. There’s a design-dominated power structure that results in hushed reverence when Jonathan Ive, senior vice president of industrial design, walks into the boardroom. “Marketing and design have been fused into a single discipline at Apple,” says Yiannopoulos. “Everything, from product strategy to research and development, is subordinate to making the products as beautiful and compulsive – that is, as addictive – as possible.”
It works. To quote an extreme example, in 2010 a schoolboy in Taiwan was diagnosed with IAD – iPhone Addiction Disorder. According to Dr Tsung-tsai Yang of the Cardinal Tien Hospital, his eyes were glued to his phone screen all day and all night. Eventually, “the boy had to be hospitalised in a mental ward after his daily life was thrown into complete disarray by his iPhone addiction.”
Two days after it opened in 2010, I visited the Apple Store in Covent Garden – a magnificently restored Palladian building dominated by a glass-covered courtyard. The heady aroma of addiction was unmistakable. The misery in the queue for the Genius Bar, where broken computers are diagnosed, was painful to behold. Legs were crossed and uncrossed and eyebrows twitched every time a Genius read out a name. I couldn’t help thinking that these customers looked like addicts waiting for their daily dose of methadone.
I wanted to ask a Genius what it was like dealing with people who weren’t just asking what was wrong with their laptops but pleading for (literal) fixes. But finding someone who would talk was easier said than done.
First I went down the route of asking an Apple Store manager – a friend of a friend – whether he could chat off the record about the way the company seemed to encourage addiction to its products, or put me in touch with someone who would. His first response was encouraging, but then he changed his mind. He would be in big trouble if his bosses suspected he’d put me in touch with an indiscreet ex-employee, and he’d be fired on the spot if he got caught blabbing himself.
So I tried a different route. A start-up CEO friend of mine put out a message to one of his networks. Shortly afterwards, a young man called Ben Jackson, a social media entrepreneur, emailed to say he could meet me for coffee in Soho, London, a few streets from the Apple Store where he had spent two years as a Genius.
Ben, like many former Apple employees, inhabited the cooler end of the geek spectrum, with glasses offset by a gym-honed body. He didn’t need any prompting to talk about addiction to technology: The experience of seeing the addiction every day – deliberately stimulated by the company – was one of the reasons he left the store.
I saw a whole range of addictive behaviors. It’s one of the things that made the Apple Store such a surreal place to work. At one end of the scale you have the total Apple obsessives who exhibit a sort of religious fanaticism that the company does nothing to discourage – it encourages it, in fact. They’re the people who will book the same tutorial again and again, being shown how to do stuff they already know.
When a new product is launched, it’s the same faces at the front of the line every time. They treat the staff almost like celebrities, trying to ingratiate themselves. At the Genius Bar, they’ll show you Apple products from years ago, and you’ll have to pretend you haven’t seen them before, because they need their egos massaged. It’s kind of sad. Well, it is sad.
But it’s not only the true obsessives who are touched by addiction, according to Ben.
There’s a general perception that Apple is awesome in a way that other companies aren’t – a perception that’s quite at odds with the way it operates behind the scenes. Even the products are considered awesome, which is why otherwise normal people would get quite disproportionately angry and upset if anything went wrong with them. And it’s also why there’s such unease if people think they’ve fallen behind, that their stuff is out of date. But the point is that you can’t keep up to date without spending a lot of money on things you don’t need, because the products are just coming out too fast.
I’ve seen people burst into tears because a credit check wouldn’t allow them to stretch to the latest upgrade. That’s when I started thinking: I need to get the hell out of here.
Admittedly, many psychiatrists don’t believe in “Internet addiction” as a medical condition, let alone addiction to a specific model of smartphone. They argue that obsessive users aren’t addicted to the Internet so much as to the experiences it provides, such as digital porn and computer games. But few experts would deny that gadgets such as iPhones can produce behavior that bears the hallmarks of addiction. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that the ability of manufacturers to stimulate this behavior is racing far ahead of our ability to cope with the psychological and social problems that are created as a result.
The science of pleasure is playing a greater role in the marketing strategies of all sorts of companies: the people who waft the smell of freshly baked doughnuts at you in the shopping mall have fine-tuned their recipes in the laboratory, not the kitchen. But Apple is in a class of its own. No other company has managed to mix such a finely balanced cocktail of desire, in which the crude flavour of compulsion is disguised by a deliciously minimalist aesthetic.
“More than any other product, the iPhone has encouraged the tech industry to concentrate on getting people hooked on things,” says Yiannopoulos. “Apple’s marketing genius, and the incredible attention to detail paid to the design of their devices, filters down into the iPhone developer ecosystem.”
He cites the example of Angry Birds, a simple computer game app that, by May 2011, had been downloaded 200 million times. The premise of Angry Birds is simple: Players launch birds across the screen with a slingshot, judging the trajectory of flight and altering the force and initial direction accordingly. It sounds harmless enough. But type “Angry Birds addiction” into Google and you’re presented with 3.24 million results. So many people complain about being addicted to the game that it has spawned self-help pages all over the Internet. Some of these pages ask whether Angry Birds addictions are changing people’s brains. Self-described addicts say they don’t know why they can’t put the game down, and talk about compulsively tracing their fingers on tables as they subconsciously recall the catapult action of the game. These sound suspiciously like the little rituals associated with alcoholism and drug abuse.
Again, perhaps a degree of scepticism is called for: It can only be a matter of time before some opportunistic researcher diagnoses ABAD – Angry Birds Addiction Disorder (which would presumably be a particular strain of IAD, since the game is played mostly on iPhones). No doubt the Angry Birds craze will fade, as these crazes always do. But it may well leave behind a residue, in the form of the compulsive instinct to perform repetitive actions.
It’s not a conspiracy theory to suggest that the primary task of iPhone game developers is learning how to manipulate our brains’ reward circuits. They cheerfully admit as much. At the 2010 Virtual Goods Summit in London, Peter Vesterbacka, lead developer for Rovio, the company behind Angry Birds, described how they make the game so addictive. “We use simple A/B testing to work out what keeps people coming back,” he said. “We don’t have to guess any more. With so many users, we can just run the numbers.”
We can just run the numbers. Remember those words. Where previously advertising and marketing were more creative disciplines that involved a huge element of risk, a new generation of manufacturers doesn’t need to guess what will keep us coming back for our fix: they already know.
Excerpted from “The Fix: How Addiction Is Taking Over Your World” by Damian Thompson. Published by HarperCollins. Copyright 2013. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.