What if It’s Not Tech Addiction, but Something Worse?

Our devices control us more than we control them. We have become slaves to technology. Instant gratification triggers our dopamine system keeping us hooked on social media. We touch our phones several thousand times per day. We spend more time with screens than with our children. Silicon Valley insiders send their kids to tech-free schools. Some techies worry they may have created a monster. Raise your hand if any of this sounds familiar!

Recently, technophobia has talked more and more about addiction, the idea that the lure of devices is stronger than our own will. Looking from the outside, that makes some sense: step into any metro car in any city and you will find passengers glued to their screens. But from the perspective of the user, there is something wrong with this. As users, we have purpose and agency. I know when I use my device to find out when the bus is leaving, looking up the weather forecast or just passing time waiting for my turn at the supermarket checkout. And from the point of addiction, it’s almost an insult to use the same word as someone who abandoned their family and sold their body for heroin.

What if we’re looking at this from the wrong end? What if it’s not the devices that enthrall us, but that we have rational reasons to use them? It used to be that the mobile phone was for calling and texting. The smart phone, on the other hand, does banking, restaurant and travel reservations, social media, games, weather, stock prices, maps and navigation, calendar, calculation, shopping lists, cameras and photo albums, show television and movies, news, take notes, e-mail… you name it. What’s not to like? All of these functions used to have their own (analogue) devices, now they have merged into one. Small wonder we spend more time on it! That’s not really addiction, that is more a convenient but conscious choice.

Is there no cause for concern? Yes, but the problem is maybe not addiction, but something worse. All of the functions listed used to have their own economy, their own suppliers and competition within that field. Calendars were sold in book stores, gifted from your book-keepers or, if you wanted a nicer one, you would get a Filofax-binder with a range of content options. The merging of all these economies into one device is a landgrab by the tech companies. It has many benefits: convenience and free services primarily. But the flipside is concentration of money and power. That is the opposite of pluralism and competition. Plus, it creates an imperative that tech companies must continue to grow by always absorbing new markets. Perhaps at some point, tech companies were enablers for other businesses foremost, but these days they rather acquire them or beat them on account of their sheer scale. Can this landgrab go on forever? No, but there are many sectors left for Big Tech to conquer. The monster Silicon Valley created is not one that is eating our attention, but our economy.

It may look like addiction, but it’s rather a monolithic business structure. Let’s fix the right problem, shall we?