7 Creepy Ways Corporations Are Turning You Into an Addict
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 ...
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 ...
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 second act was to open a tab.
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.
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 ...
The Infinite Money Cheat Code
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.
"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.
They can even try the "kid-friendly" secret-menu styles with none of the caffeine ... and all of the syrup.
What I'm trying to say is that the real problem comes when ...
The Addiction Economy Goes Mainstream
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 ...
Harnessing Addiction Is the Future
A business exploiting addiction for profit is kind of like a pro athlete using steroids -- once somebody starts, everyone else has to get on board if they want to have any chance at competing. So any maker of consumer products in the future -- from food to games to social networking to Internet porn -- will need an addiction expert on staff (or even better, a whole building full of them). Otherwise, they're playing the game without the cheat codes. From the farm to retail, from sweatshop to CEO, everybody is going to be cashing in on that same unbeatable model: overstimulate the brain's reward centers, create a stress response, sit back while people seeking relief drive your repeat business.
"But," you say, "surely the government will step in and shut them down! You know, the same as they've done for cigarettes and drugs!"
See, here's where I think most of you are still missing the big picture. And here's where to some of you I'm going to start sounding like an even crazier person.
Society wants addicts. As long as they behave themselves.
Think about it: what does a civilization want from people like you and me? It wants citizens who work all day, sleep all night, and spend their free time sitting motionless on the sofa and/or engaging in commerce. Not out committing crimes, or rioting in the streets, or getting people riled up demanding "change." It wants stability, in other words.
This, for instance, is why hardly anyone dares speak a word against caffeine -- the room you're in is filled with goods manufactured by people downing Red Bull and coffee to get through a double shift. That's not the case for tobacco -- cigarettes don't make you a better worker or soldier, and in fact they hurt your productivity by taking you out of the workforce early. Meth makes you a great worker ... for like 20 hours, but then you pass out on the floor for the next 20.
"Any profit increase was immediately wiped out by the increase to our dental plan."
That's how it works -- if a certain percentage of users of a product become sick or unemployable, the government will step in. The system is against the addictions that destabilize the system, but conversely is absolutely in favor of the ones that support it. And that's where shit gets real, because ...
Ultimately, This Is What the System Wants
I mentioned in that previous article about video game addiction that one thing that drives addiction is avoidance of something else -- you leap at the chance to play an "addictive" video game because you want it to suck your mind away from work or your personal life. You want to turn off your brain and sit motionless on the sofa. And that works out just fine for society -- here's what's happened to the crime rate in the years since video games and the Internet went mainstream:
There are a bunch of reasons for that decline, but a big one is that young people simply have hobbies that don't bring them in physical contact -- get mad at somebody over Facebook, and nobody gets stabbed. This is why online harassment is so rampant and also why nobody gives a shit: sending email rape threats is what they want the sociopaths to be doing -- because in reality they're still just staring at a glowing screen, motionless. Did I mention that when you introduce Internet porn to a population, real-life sexual assault goes down? That's where you want the deviants, too -- motionless, perched in front of a glowing screen, molesting a wad of Kleenex.
So now you're kind of rooting for it, right? But remember, the system wants to pacify you, too. The system needs impoverished customer service workers, and it needs those impoverished customer service workers to be OK with that situation. And the way you pacify a person is by reducing their life goals to a list that's one item long: feeding their addiction. An addict can become OK with anything -- their status in life, their dead-end job, the system overall -- as long as they're getting their fix.
After all, there's a reason society is coming around on weed legalization -- it may not have the chemical addiction of meth, but it sure as hell makes you OK with sitting motionless on your sofa. That's why I find it hilarious that weed is such a symbol of hippies and the counterculture. If you're working all day to make money to buy weed, then spending your free time stoned on the sofa, you're the perfect drone. Now tell me you don't know at least one person who's fine with living paycheck to paycheck, as long as they can dominate at League of Legends every night.
That feels like a tragedy to me. Remember, those pleasure centers in the brain we're letting someone else hijack were put there for a reason. We evolved to feel a high from a successful hunt, or winning a battle, or securing food, or making a friend, or finding a lover. Improving your life, in other words. Once they can decode how to induce those feelings of bliss with various combinations of chemicals or stimulus, the game is over. The chemicals will always be more attainable than the actual pleasures they're replacing.
Am I crazy? Because it seems to me like there is now a system in place that has a lot invested in you not trying to improve your life. They don't want you out in the streets, setting cars on fire and demanding the heads of bankers. They don't want you knocking down the gates of the white house and demanding a refund on your taxes, or an end to the wars. They don't want you going off the grid and learning how to make your own clothes and weapons. They don't want you running for office.
So, we turn on the TV and see mass riots in the Middle East or the inner city, and see the cops swoop down in their tanks and tactical vests. We're shocked at the sight of a system trying to pacify its population by force, but our response to that fear is to shake our head and retweet a hashtag, while motionless, on the sofa. Not realizing how much more easily we allowed ourselves to be pacified.
But even hearing me say this, you're not going to think of it that way. Because ...
Everyone Self-Medicates, but No One Admits It
How many of you smirked at the inclusion of League of Legends among my list of addictive activities up there? After all, isn't referring to video game "addiction" an insult to gamers and addicts alike? It diminishes what the violently detoxing heroin addict is going through, and insults the gamer by implying their harmless inexpensive hobby is the sign of an out-of-control degenerate.
But that, right there, is the final trick. It's also the reason we can't fix this.
We chuckle when a celebrity enters rehab to treat an "addiction" after getting caught using racial slurs or cheating on their wife. We see it as a sad sign of the times -- in an era when nobody wants to take personal responsibility, everything is just a "sickness." If somebody's an asshole they just have a "rage addiction," if they have sex with tons of hot women it's a "sex addiction," if they like looking at pictures of naked people on the Internet it's a "porn addiction," etc. And, sure enough, if you tell someone that obesity is a disease, their diet gets worse. It's a cruel Catch-22: ignore the existence of addiction, and you become susceptible to new ones. Spread the word about the effects, and you give existing addicts an excuse to fail ("You heard the man! I can't help myself!").
"I'm sorry," you tell the carnival owners, as you pull up your pants. "It's my disease!"
But, scoff at the guy getting two funnel cakes.
So we wind up living with this weird double standard in which we decide our addictions are either harmless or the result of an uncontrollable urge, while other people's addictions are a moral failing on their part. Go to any comment section for a video/photo/article mentioning the overweight. You'll find hundreds of nasty comments about fat people -- how they're lazy, disgusting, have no respect for themselves, etc. -- and approximately 100 percent of those comments will be coming from people who have at least one addiction of their own. That is, in fact, one of the key mechanisms of addiction.
See, because a food addiction is a shameful, disgusting display of moral weakness, but this Red Bull, beer, and weed in my apartment -- they're just what a cool dude needs to relax and get through the week. In fact, you could follow one of those fat-hating guys to another forum and listen to him boast about how much weed he smokes, and how much beer it takes to get him drunk, and how many times he jerks off in a week. As if all of those are badass, manly accomplishments and not stark evidence of his own paper-thin impulse control.
Or tissue-thin for the jerk-off guy.
Or, notice how they sneer at the overweight for their lack of self-control, but then demonstrate no control whatsoever over their own impulse to say horrible things about other people. That fat person can resist a cupcake for a hell of a lot longer than that commenter resisted being an asshole.
This is addiction's divide-and-conquer tactic. And it's the reason most of you will find it impossible to take this article seriously.
The fat-phobic dude above would never regard himself as being on the same team as the overeater, despite the fact that both are dealing with stress by self-medicating with a dopamine rush (yes, cruelty is addictive). When your aforementioned grandpa rants about the kids today and their drugs, he's doing it around a cigar and a bottle of vodka. The woman who downs two pots of coffee a day turns up her nose at the smoker, the smoker turns up his nose at the fat guy, right up until the day the smoker quits and promptly becomes a fat guy himself.
He just swapped one two-pack-a-day habit for another.
In a perfect world, that guy would then stop and say, "Well, that's interesting. It's almost like we're all just self-medicating in different ways, and we all need to rethink how we consume things and why." But, more likely, he'll read an article about "social media addiction" and roll his eyes. "You want to know about real addiction, honey? Try quitting smoking some time! All you need to do is turn off the damned Facebook!" We can't unify against efforts to chemically manipulate our brains, because the urge to feel superior to others might be the most powerful addiction of all.
As long as we think we can fight addiction with shame, it will be impossible for us to have an open, honest discussion about the subject (which is surprising, because trying to suppress sexuality with shame has worked so well). So, while we're busy scoffing at the idea that the things we buy are addictive, the people selling them to us will be spending millions to find ways to make them even more so.
Just wait until next year when they announce Doritos Nachos.
I would tell you to come back to this article in 20 years and see if I was right, but that's the point: when this future arrives, you won't even know it.
David Wong is a NYT bestselling author, and his long-awaited new novel is about cybernetic criminals and other futuristic shit like that. Pre-order it at Amazon, B&N, BAM!, Indiebound, iTunes, or Powell's. You can read the first five chapters for free by clicking below:
For more from David, check out 5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying to Get You Addicted and 5 Ways You're Accidentally Making Everyone Hate You.
Spread the warning and sate your Facebook addiction: click the 'share' button below.