Raise your hand if you're an addict. About 20 percent of you are smokers, so I should see all of your yellow-stained fingers in the air right now. About 10 percent use some other illicit drug, about 10 percent are admitted alcoholics ...
All right, now I want to talk to the rest of you -- the ones with your hands down. You're about to lose a game you don't even know you're playing.
Don't know what I mean? Well buckle up your shit, because ...
#7. We're Living in a World of Addicts
Those of you who insist you're not addicts because you've never bought anything in an alley, are you sure about that? After all, you know that caffeine is an addictive substance, too -- if you go without coffee and find yourself with a headache, you're having withdrawal symptoms. Hell, you've probably joked about it ("Don't ask me any hard questions this morning, I haven't had my coffee yet!"), and the only reason it doesn't alarm you is because of the way you're ingesting it -- if you saw a co-worker crush up NoDoz and snort it through a rolled-up hundred-dollar bill, you'd change your tune (seriously -- go to Starbucks tomorrow and order a Frappuccino, then shove the straw up your nose and suck it down -- they freak the fuck out).
"He started rubbing coffee grounds on his gums and yelling, 'Fuck Juan Valdez, and fuck the fucking Hills Brothers!'
It was crazy."
So tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine alone should cover most of the people reading this, and I haven't even gotten into the weird gray areas of addiction we're just beginning to understand (do you eat unhealthy food when stressed and then hate yourself afterward? Do you compulsively buy lottery tickets, or obsessively finish video game levels to the detriment of work/sleep/relationships? Do you shudder at the thought of going a month without your smartphone? Or just a day?).
Because most of us don't suffer all that much from our addictions (let's face it, your coffee habit isn't ruining your life), we're kind of ignoring something utterly fucking insane, which is that other people have discovered a neurological cheat code that make us do what they want. You see, there's a secret arms race going on behind the scenes to find out who can master this first, and the implications for the future are almost too insane to comprehend.
Don't believe me? Well, here's the thing ...
#6. Humans Are Built for Addiction
Let's back up for a moment. The next time you hear some old-timer talk about how the kids these days are all addicted to the drugs, what with all their ecstasy and reefer parties, remind him that drugs are the reason we're here.
In the Russell Crowe movie Noah (or, if you haven't seen it, the Bible) the very first thing that happens after the restart of human civilization is Noah plants a vineyard, makes wine, and gets drunk -- it's literally the first action he takes after setting foot off the ark and onto the new, green earth. Now, that is just a symbolic story, and of course the archaeological record proves it's ridiculous: in reality, the first act of human civilization wasn't to make wine, it was to make beer.
The ancient Sumerians -- that is, the first humans to settle down into something that looks like an actual civilization -- used half of their grain to brew beer, and the attraction of said beer was why humans went from roaming in hunting/gathering tribes to settling in large cities and nations. Alcohol is a pain in the ass to make on the go, and it was one of the first luxuries that made the filthy nomads say, "Yeah, this civilization shit isn't so bad." That's right: alcohol was the reason we formed complex civilizations, and having to deal with the complexities of civilization is the reason most of us need alcohol.
And that was our gateway drug; we started using opium at least 6,000 years ago (they used to make pipes out of animal bones). Caffeine goes back at least 5,000 years, supposedly to a Chinese emperor who discovered the "restorative" properties of tea. Coffee only goes back about 700 years, when it was introduced and promptly started taking over the world.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images News/Getty Images
It's a logo that literally represents obsession and addiction.
And really, it's fine -- alcohol is good for you, in moderate amounts, and caffeine is good for your brain (again, in moderation). Modern civilization demanded we work longer hours and deal with different kinds of social stress, so we adapted by finding shit in the environment that would help us stay alert and cope with the world. Never underestimate mankind's ability to adapt.
But, also never underestimate mankind's ability to take something good and weaponize it in the name of converting everyone else into slaves. Because they'd found ...
#5. The Infinite Money Cheat Code
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Here's the thing: I have found that just about every single one of us drastically underestimates the degree to which we self-medicate (and that's not counting the 13 percent of you taking antidepressants).
Fourteen percent by the end of this.
Yet, we've all known that smoker who hears bad news and immediately has to light up a cigarette to calm down, or the drinker who requires a few hours at the bar after a hard day at the office, or the stress eater -- statistically you're probably at least one of those (for me, I like to go out at night and jog. I always wind up at a stranger's house, at which point I break in, put on a clown mask and just ... watch them sleep. We've all got something, is my point). Most of us are embarrassed by how much we need our vices, but in reality, it's just chemistry -- this article has a concise, if oversimplified, description of how it works:
By over-engaging the reward system -- the circuitry of brain networks that send pleasant chemicals coursing through the body -- drugs and alcohol can trigger a stress response. The brain then begs for relief, which is often delivered in the form of more mind-altering substances. And every time that respite comes, the body and brain are a little more sensitive to stress.
It sounds so simple for something that is in reality a form of motherfucking mind control. Look, I'll be the first to admit that the "War on Drugs" has been a clumsy, catastrophic failure. But there's a reason we've always gone so apeshit about this subject. Virtually every one of you devotes a certain percentage of your time, money, and energy to a substance you've been chemically tricked into needing. And that has the potential to undermine everything we're trying to do as a species.
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"Sorry, but the needs of the money outweigh the needs of the you."
Am I exaggerating? Show me where I'm wrong:
Western civilization has come to a universal agreement that the key to happiness is freedom. It's all we talk about. It is also why the Libertarian-leaning types even think narcotics should be legalized -- after all, shouldn't you be "free" to put anything you want into your own body? The fundamental end goal of all of this shit we're doing every day -- all the work, all the wars -- is to give people a chance to do whatever makes them happy. So why not this?
But anyone who's watched a friend tortured by withdrawal symptoms knows this is a paradox: the addict is "free" to keep doing drugs, but he's not free to stop doing drugs -- the product came with a built-in chemical mechanism that punishes the user with physical torture if they stop. That's not freedom.
Unless, of course, you're the seller.
This is, in fact, the end point of freedom -- total mastery of addiction means total control. And make no mistake: this is the ultimate goal of commerce, a money-printing cheat code for overriding all sales resistance in the customer base (just don't push it too far or people will go to war with your shit). So, an Espresso Frappuccino has 165 milligrams of the aforementioned caffeine and 48 grams of sugar (you know those little packets of sugar you put in your coffee? Imagine dumping 12 of those into your cup). It's an instant rush that overloads the brain's reward system, just as they described it above. And for only $5!
But here is where I've lost a lot of you. "Oh, so you're comparing a pumpkin spice latte to heroin now? Nobody has to go to rehab for that shit!" But this is my point -- they've reached a sweet spot where the addiction is just strong enough to keep you coming back, but it doesn't send you off the rails -- and that's why their profits will dwarf the cartels in the long run. Now go to Starbucks and see how many of the Frappuccino drinkers are children.
What I'm trying to say is that the real problem comes when ...
#4. The Addiction Economy Goes Mainstream
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The study of addiction is fairly new, and we're just now beginning to get a handle on it (hell, it was barely half a century ago that your doctor would probably have a Marlboro hanging out of his mouth while he performed surgery on you). But here's the thing: once we know exactly how addiction works, there is far more money to be made in exploiting it than curing it. This is what I'm worried about.
Does this sound like a bunch of anti-corporate conspiracy bullshit? OK, a few decades ago when snack-food makers decided they wanted to boost profits, they turned to scientists to figure out how to create addictive foods that would also never sate your hunger. This is why you can down 500 calories' worth of Doritos or frozen coffee drinks and not feel "full." They please your taste buds and the pleasure receptors in your brain, without triggering the "it's time to stop eating" response that every human has as part of their normal bodily function. They had, in other words, found that they could manufacture foods that would trigger that same overload of dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins in the brain as narcotics.
They had found their cheat code, and obesity rates started looking like this:
By providing an overdose amount of salt, sugar, and fat in a package that induced you to never stop consuming, they'd found an even more unbeatable economic model than the drug dealers -- after all, you can make cocaine illegal, but you can't outlaw food. If you force them to make burgers smaller, I'll just buy two (and I literally mean I, David Wong, will buy two of them).
And every industry worth its salt is now doing the same -- here's an expert whose job it is to make social media apps addictive, and his article I linked there is entirely about how to design software to trigger dopamine and override the user's free will. Quote:
If we get really contrived with it, we may even be able to encourage addiction to a service or function. Scientists have long known that the release of dopamine is strongly associated with addictive behaviours. Addictions occur when the brain betrays the body, causing feelings of pleasure from activities. By creating certain 'ideal conditions' that stimulate the Reward Centre we can create repeat behaviour.
The same theories went into the design of modern casino games (specifically, the video slots and poker that now dominate the industry). And, as I've explained before, when video game makers looked for ways to boost profits, they turned to behavioral scientists to start using techniques perfected by B.F. Skinner (yes, there's science behind Candy Crush). They simply introduced the element of random chance to feed the gambling urge (items in role-playing games drop randomly, your success in Candy Crush or 2048 is based purely on what drops on the board) while allowing basic inputs to give the illusion of control/skill. Amazingly, the only prize you actually win is the ability to keep playing -- it's like a slot machine that pays out in tokens that can be used only in that slot machine.
It's not like it's a secret -- if you go to the mobile games store on your phone, they all quickly promise that they're "addictive" enough to be worth your time:
That's ... kind of weird, isn't it? That they promise you'll get sucked in against your will, and know that we'll take that as a good thing? As if we want to take on new addictions?
But they're right. And that's why ...