By JIM BALSILLIE, NORMAN DOIDGE
Saturday, February 17, 2018
Digital technology is changing almost every facet of our lives, from the way we work to the way we parent. Our brains are changing, too. What does it say when we can't go more than a few minutes without reaching for our phones, or give our private information to faceless corporations without a second thought? In the latest instalment of Discuss, tech titan Jim Balsillie and renowned psychiatrist Norman Doidge wonder whether we'll ever kick this addiction
Norman Doidge, M.D., is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and author of The Brain That Changes Itself and The Brain's Way of Healing. He is on the Research Faculty at Columbia University's Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research and on the faculty at the University of Toronto's Department of Psychiatry.
Jim Balsillie is former chairman and co-CEO of Research in Motion (now known as BlackBerry Ltd.) and co-founder of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.
They held their discussion, by phone and over e-mail, in January and February.
JIM BALSILLIE: Will we ever kick our smartphone addiction?
NORMAN DOIDGE: Kick it? We're just getting started. Google's Project Loon is working on bringing wireless to the four billion people not yet online by using balloons in the stratosphere to carry signals to the remotest parts of the planet. And unlike other addictions that are opposed by mainstream institutions, screen time is being pushed by educators, governments and businesses. Not a chance we can kick it the way things are currently organized.
BALSILLIE: What's causing this addiction?
DOIDGE: Simply put, the chemistry and the wiring of the brain can be manipulated. There are all sorts of behavioural addictions - gambling, online porn, shopping - that take hold because they trigger the same areas of the brain as drugs. People are unsuspecting of digital addiction. That's because each addiction - cocaine, heroin, alcohol, video games - has a slightly different form and effect, so it takes a while to recognize any new addiction as such.
BALSILLIE: I recently experienced something fascinating that made me see smartphone addiction in a different light: I attended a dinner that included a young teenager. He was constantly engaging with his smartphone. His parents saw that it was poor table manners, so they took it away. The teenager then started to fidget.
His eyes darted everywhere. He couldn't calm down and was visibly uncomfortable for the next 45 minutes. I could see the kid was in pain and was manifesting it physically. I know there is always moral panic about technology, but this incident told me that, in the case of smartphones, it might be coming too late. Seeing this kid suffer and not say a word to anyone stayed with me. People now spend on average more than 10 hours a day on their screens.
This is no longer an attention economy, but an addiction economy.
DOIDGE: Digital tech is especially good at changing our brains without our awareness. The brain is neuroplastic, meaning it has a property that allows it to change its structure and function in response to mental experience. Digital technologies are uniquely "compatible" with the brain, because both are electric and also work at high speeds. Marshall McLuhan figured this out. He argued that all media extend us - the microphone extends the voice, the radio the ear, the computer the brain's processing power. In 1969, he said, "Now man is beginning to wear his brain outside his skull, and his nerves outside his skin." At the time it seemed like one of his more bizarre aphorisms. Few believed the brain was plastic and that the media could work by, in some way, connecting to and rewiring our neurons.
BALSILLIE: Are you saying that by using screens 10 hours a day we are, by definition, addicted?
DOIDGE: For some, "addiction" is just a metaphor meaning "too dependent on" or "a compulsion."
But for many, it is literally true, and they show all the signs of addiction: compulsivity, loss of control of the activity, craving, psychological dependence, using even when harmful. Everywhere we see people who must check their phones every few moments - according to Adam Alter's book Irresistible, the average office e-mail goes unanswered for only six seconds. That's compulsive! They check while driving - that's harmful - and feel agitation when they can't. They stay up late, stuck on their computers, and then can't sleep. In online-porn addictions, people develop tolerance and need ever more stimulation for excitement, start to crave the porn, without liking it, and feel withdrawal when they try to stop.
Addicts always underestimate the time spent on the activity because they're under a spell.
If you think of addiction only in quantitative terms, you worry about, "Am I spending too much time online?" But our brain is sculpted by whatever we do repeatedly, and 10 hours a day also drives huge qualitative changes. The most important factor in any technology is what it does to our brains. In this case, it's plummeting attention spans, patience, memories or how social media is creating insecurity. So there are significant mentalhealth issues involved.
BALSILLIE: What do you think about personal responsibility?
Have we alone made ourselves addicted? Because I definitely don't think the blame should rest solely on users, especially since big tech companies now hire teams of hundreds of neuroscientists to teach what applications will have the "stickiest" effect on the brain, so they become deliberately addictive to their users. As a brain guy, does that make you feel guilty?
DOIDGE: Is it guilt we feel when we find out our relative is a snake?
These people are behavioural psychologists and behavioural neuroscientists whose focus is not therapeutic, but on manipulating behaviour to create craving and anxiety if we try to resist it.
BALSILLIE: So we should believe James Williams, the former Google strategist, when he said in The Guardian: "The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine human will." What are the techniques these behaviourists use?
DOIDGE: Originally, they mastered moulding complex behaviours incrementally by giving animals rewards. Doing so, they discovered important things about learning and even how to treat phobias and aspects of anxiety.
Now, they guide software engineers to layer each new pop-up or message or interaction with "juice" and clickbait - colour or novel stimuli - that connect to the brain's "orienting reflex" so that we involuntarily turn our attention to that thing. It also triggers chemicals that put the brain in a state that maximizes our readiness to attend to that thing. So, when something novel appears, it's pure neural "bling." You can't not look at it. These scientists are the true masters of the art of distraction. We look because this brain circuitry evolved over millions of years to make us reorient our interest to something novel, because it might be a predator or prey - our next meal - or a mate.
Then, if a quick reward is attached - such as buying a product with a click, a seductive image, a "like" or reading that some rival has just been humiliated - dopamine, another chemical, is released, consolidating that circuit. Our brain reward centre lights up and we feel a thrill. These behaviourists carefully engineer the timing of the stimuli they present. Neurons that fire together wire together, so that over time, links are moulded and we form new circuits and get addicted. Data gathered from our keystrokes can be used to further addict us, in a tailor-made way, and sold to advertisers and even to politicians, who use it to personalize their message to us, to get us to buy what they are selling.
BALSILLIE: But why would behaviourists do this?
DOIDGE: Not all do, but those who do would probably say, "For the reward." That's a joke, by the way. I would say that as their science became an "ism" - behaviourism, in this case - many leading behaviourists concluded that human beings are little more than a suite of reflexes and conditioned responses, determined by previous stimuli. And therefore we lack free will. And when you have such an impoverished view of people, what is to restrain you from doing what you did in the lab every day to those habit machines also known as human beings?
BALSILLIE: CEOs of big tech companies are simply capitalists doing what capitalists are supposed to do: maximize profit within the rules set by legislators.
And of course if you lobby those legislators, you get rules and regulations that help you increase profit. In an economy of intangibles, the marketplace frameworks are everything - absolutely everything. These companies benefit enormously from addiction so they build it into their products wherever possible.
DOIDGE: I have a colleague, perhaps the best known psychiatrist in the United States, who went to work for Google, to help them analyze all their data in terms of what it reveals about mental illness. I asked him what he thought about the industry leaders and their motivations. One of Google's founders told him, "I'm 40 years old and I'm worth $40-billion, and believe me, I really don't need more money. I want to make the world a better place." Perhaps they both wanted to believe that.
BALSILLIE: Don't ever believe a rapacious capitalist when they tell you they are not a rapacious capitalist. The joke is on those who take these "noble" pronouncements to heart. Global tech is a predatory, vicious game that very few people are built to play. It's a lot easier to virtue signal and say things such as "Money isn't that important to me" when you've got billions in your pockets. If you want to figure out the motivations of tech capitalists, look at the outcomes and infer from there.
DOIDGE: How did these companies position themselves so we can't do without them?
BALSILLIE: These companies are called "multisided platform businesses" because they bring together different groups of customers and suppliers in a way that would not be efficiently possible without the internet platform in the middle. Think eBay, Airbnb and Uber. Without any additional production costs, they attract more participants and become exponentially more valuable and entrenched. This is called "Metcalfe's Law of Network Economics." There was a common misconception that RIM's business was smartphones, but we made virtually all of our money - more than $1-billion profit per quarter - on our multisided service platform that made the whole BlackBerry system work.
We enabled mobile users to seamlessly connect to their chosen application using 600 carriers globally. But there's an important twist when services are free: Without paying anything, you're not really a customer any more - you are now the product being sold. These compelling free apps you're addicted to? They're what's needed to bait you in order to generate valuable data for an internet company.
DOIDGE: Well, how do you feel about this, as the rapacious capitalist who was there at the start?
You ran the company that created the BlackBerry, often called the CrackBerry. I am a shrink. Help me to help you deal with all the guilt you must feel.
BALSILLIE: No guilt here! Our specialty was security and protecting individual privacy. We didn't take people's private data and sell it to advertisers so that they could then target them. And we certainly didn't have any professional behaviourists on staff or on retainer.
This is a totally, totally different realm. Today's smartphones are designed to be highly addictive and extract whatever information they can. I am still troubled by the sight of that vulnerable teenager I told you about.
DOIDGE: It's sad. He probably had FOMO - the fear of missing out - if not constantly connected to social media. Hooray for us - we've created a new social-anxiety neurosis! But, to be fair to you, you are not in that "we." The fact that there were no brain scientists at RIM explains why I was never really "addicted" to my BlackBerry any more than to a landline. Some people were perhaps co-dependent-lite on them, but not like on today's smartphones. I think that's because the original BlackBerry wasn't a fullblown computer. It was truly a "smart" phone, so I, like most, used mine to connect with people of my own choosing.
BALSILLIE: People are paying such a heavy price for their screentime addictions, with all the attendant issues: anxiety, depression, envy, etc. And everyone is losing their privacy, too. Because I've never used social media and am not addicted to my phone, I have very little understanding of why people are exposing their lives and their kids' lives online.
DOIDGE: Privacy and mental health are inextricably linked, especially for young people. You need periods of privacy to form a self and an identity, a task not completed until at least the late teens. Having an autonomous, spontaneous self is the result of a long psychological process where you have time to "step back" from the crowd, and from your parents, to reflect. It requires time to let that self - your true feelings, your own quirky, uncurated reactions - emerge, spontaneously. The new phones foster enmeshment with parents, and the world, and hamper individuation, the process of becoming a unique individual, because kids are overconnected. And peer groups at that age can be Lord of the Flies cruel - and often love to mercilessly hunt down, expose and denounce the eccentricities of emerging individuals.
The "wisdom of crowds" is overrated; many crowds are far more regressive mentally and emotionally - and stupider - than the individuals who make them up. Kids know this, but lacking a solid sense of self, still long for the mob's approbation and are terrified of its censure.
And so they keep checking for and fishing for "likes" and now are compulsively virtue signalling to avoid being disliked, instead of developing actual virtue. Fear is one reason that virtue signalling is our chief vice. Social media is a 24/7 hall of mirrors, with everyone watching themselves - and everyone else - and making comparisons, all the time. This hugely exacerbates the ordinary painful self-consciousness, insecurity, narcissistic vulnerability and drama of young people's lives. How can anyone not become thin-skinned living in a round-the-clock panopticon of peers, all competing with each other for attention in an electronic colosseum? Depression has increased since 2005, most rapidly among people 12 to 17. That's not all caused by screens, but if we're spending 10 hours a day looking at screens, it's definitely a factor. Leaked documents show that Facebook told advertisers it can now track teenagers who feel "insecure," "anxious," "nervous," "worthless," "stupid" and "useless." Great. Now we have people exploiting a kid's "confidential" data by selling it to businesses that will further exploit the kid's depression. Everyone knows that social media is a world of show: masks and advertisements for yourself. It develops what psychoanalysts call the persona, a false self or facade in which one is just playing a role to impress others. But kids know they can't live up to that role and therefore fear they are imposters. It also teaches kids precisely the wrong way out of the mess: grow your vanity.
Post selfies of your best underwear pic on Snapchat; airbrush your opinions to get likes. JeanJacques Rousseau, the French philosopher, pondered the soul of the modern bourgeois as affected by social life. He observed - as beautifully summarized by Allan Bloom - that the bourgeois "is the man who when dealing with others thinks only of himself and in his understanding of himself thinks only of others."
That is many kids today.
BALSILLIE: But if it's unpleasant, why do kids keep coming back?
DOIDGE: Because that is the world they know - and because it has a shiny surface. But you see what it hides when you take it away. Kids become insanely anxious when they don't have their phones, like that teenager you mentioned.
They freak out if they go on a camping trip: Not bears, but wilderness without wireless is their nightmare. Parents increasingly discipline kids by taking away the phones, because that's the best way to get their attention. Then the kids have a meltdown and feel they've just had a part of themselves amputated. They have a point, in a cyborgian kind of way.
BALSILLIE: Actually, I know many people in Silicon Valley who deliberately constrain their children's use of the social-media applications that they, as parents, created at their companies. They send their kids to low-tech, or notech, Waldorf-like schools, complete with rolling hills and wildlife. They know smartphone addiction is a problem - they intended it just as it's playing out, but protect their families from it.
The Silicon Valley elites deeply value their privacy. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, bought four houses around his home because he wants to ensure he and his family have privacy.
It's not a trivial matter to be the pioneer of surveillance capitalism as he is and still maintain his family's total privacy. As I said earlier, the joke is on the users ... But why do people sell their privacy so cheaply?
DOIDGE: I think one of the problems in a mass communicationsbased society is that we develop mass tastes, and then the meat grinder of globalization further homogenizes us, and the more similar we become, the more interchangeable and expendable we feel. We don't feel we matter as individuals. So, for the insecure, it's nice to know someone is watching, someone is taking notes, tracking my irrelevant existence online! But what terrifies me, Jim, is that this generation, which has never known much privacy, is understandingly indifferent to its loss. They don't understand that there can be no liberal democracy without privacy.
The whole idea of liberal democracy, going back to John Stuart Mill, is that the liberty of the individual is our best bulwark against authoritarianism and the tyranny of the democratic majority, or government, or the powerful, because they have the numbers, or wherewithal, and historically seek to dominate others and determine how they must live.
Liberal democracy is thus the form of government that is expressly designed to protect the individual's liberty against that authoritarianism. It does so by dividing life into a limited public sphere, for government, and a private sphere, where government cannot infringe and which it is also duty bound to protect. It is the idea of the private sphere that made us into a free people.
But these new technologies, as currently organized, are creating a generation indifferent to privacy, and giving governments, business and others tools to monitor it. And privacy monitored is privacy destroyed.
BALSILLIE: One of the things I've learned from you is that, in medicine, when you use drugs, there are no "side effects," only "effects." Drugs go everywhere in the body. While they might target an organ and do some good there, they also affect other areas. What we call "side effects" are just the drug doing what it does in places we don't want that to happen.
The designers of digital devices set out to addict users and there has certainly been more and more publicity on this lately. But are we fully aware of the consequences that they didn't intend?
DOIDGE: No, because they unfold incrementally, beyond awareness, and sometimes involve losing awareness, as the "specs" of our brains change. For example, our brain maps in relation to our bodies in space seem to be changing. Because we spend all day staring 18 inches ahead, we are losing bodily and peripheral visual awareness. People are walking down the street in a more disembodied, ungrounded way, bumping into others. Body therapists tell me they are seeing 20year-olds with the posture of 75year-olds now, stooped, with heads way forward, from screen time.
BALSILLIE: You've also talked about how exposure to screens affects infants and toddlers - how digital technologies that claim to be connecting people are also disconnecting us in important ways.
DOIDGE: They overenmesh and disconnect at the same time. A few years ago, I was at a lecture with clinicians, discussing visual changes, and a preschool teacher there observed that, increasingly, kids weren't looking at other people when speaking with them.
Another teacher there reported the same loss of eye contact. At first it seemed to them like these kids might have Asperger's, which is on the rise, and involves a discomfort with eye contact.
But as the teachers watched the parents picking those kids up, they saw they were constantly on their smartphones, not looking at their kids - or the teachers, either, for that matter. As cute as these people's own kids were, in the moment, the kids couldn't compete with an entire virtual reality engineered to keep their parents distracted.
BALSILLIE: Were they imitating their parents' bad manners, or is it something deeper?
DOIDGE: Possibly deeper. A big brain task of the first two years of life is wiring up the right hemisphere modules that allow us to read other people's faces to learn about their emotions and, in turn, about our own. This is learned by the rapid-fire exchange of glances between infant and mother when there is so much holding and leisurely gazing into each other's eyes. You know, baby swallows milk, grimaces, mother sees it and unconsciously makes the same face back - she mirrors the baby - showing the baby the distress it is expressing, then sweetly says, "There, there, honey, the milk went down the wrong passage, you're upset in your tummy, let me burp you.
You'll feel better." Now, that feeding interaction does more than soothe the baby. It actually teaches the baby about emotions, and that facial expressions show emotions, and ultimately that you can read the internal states of others. That is how we learn about other minds. The same happens when a baby smiles: A healthy adult can't not smile back. You need thousands of those exchanges to develop that emotion-reading right hemisphere, and these exchanges, when they happen, occur very fast. If you are not paying close attention, you miss the baby's smile, or grimace, and your face won't mirror the right emotion back. Good studies show that when the parent doesn't mirror in real time, the baby gets extremely anxious, and if the face is "still" when it should move, babies actually freak out.
BALSILLIE: So, if parents are distracted, either by a screen or even waiting for a message - i.e., they are multitasking - and not giving the undivided attention required to wire up the brain in this period, you can't do it to your full potential. Because humans are born without a fully developed right hemisphere and we need parents to complete our development, right?
DOIDGE: Exactly. In brain terms, infants need people bonded to them so closely that they make the requisite sacrifices of attention. My fear is that we are slipping into a new kind of split-attentional-neglect, in a critical period of brain development, because increasingly parents, although physically present, are psychologically online. A large University of Texas at Austin study shows that even having a phone that is off within reach lowers your cognitive capacity, because it still steals your attention. You're so wired into it. If living in virtual reality means living in something that is a simulacrum of reality, we might say that we, by being psychologically online, are making ourselves into virtual parents.
BALSILLIE: Being mindful of these effects and limiting screen time definitely helps.
DOIDGE: Definitely, but only partially. Even if you limit your child's screen time to what you think is high-level educational television, if their school is pushing computers and pushing down attention spans, that is way more important than a hundred hours of Sesame Street. McLuhan's whole point was the medium is the message, meaning it isn't the content of the medium - Sesame Street - or even the time spent on it, but the way the medium sculpts the brains of an entire society, and now, the planet. Media gurus in our time are merely mouthfuls of praise for what high tech will do for you - and silent on what they will take away.
BALSILLIE: So when it comes to the brain, it's basically use-it-or-loseit?
DOIDGE: Correct. McLuhan said that each medium can "step up" one sense and step down another.
This has huge consequences.
Reading books stepped up sight and created a linear habit of mind that valued logic: You go down the page line by line, then turn to the next. This gave rise to a habit of thinking in terms of logical progression of argument. The logician asks of any statement in an argument or conversation, "Does this follow?" But in the digital age, linearity is stepped down. We now ask, "Does it grab you?" Because now information comes at us from many competing directions all at once. Our so-called "great communicators" are those who can best distract us from all the other distractions. When you leave linearity and logic behind, life becomes a Twitter feed: a series of hyper-emotional non sequiturs. That's manifest in our deteriorating, increasingly ignorant public discourse. It's no accident that our education system - itself desperately FOMO - is both computer-crazy and in favour of dropping history, a linear discipline par excellence. That is exactly the wrong move. What we need are schools that teach what screens can't do - to immunize students from the medium's faults. They should get back to teaching the most important books ever written. But that's not enough, Jim. Where are the various levels of government on all these issues?
BALSILLIE: Canada lacks leadership on these issues. We need more people stepping up and engaging intelligently, with integrity and public-mindedness. For goodness sake, we have all three layers of government closely partnering with all of these companies, even at the expense of domestic firms and our national prosperity. They are all advancing foreign tech on a daily basis. So let's not confuse moralizing with either intelligence or commitment.
Just look at the recent "deals" our government made with Facebook, Google and, maybe soon, Amazon. I've never seen anything like this in all my business career by any developed nation. When that leaked memo showed Facebook pitching companies their ability to target kids with ads when they are feeling insecure, depressed or worthless, Australians freaked out. For the issues of data collecting and selling, privacy and transparency breaches, Germans investigated and litigated, the EU started regulating in earnest, and the United States began holding Senate committee hearings. And Canada? We rush to partner with them! Our public officials have to stop sucking up to big foreign tech and start regulating them. Who is governing who here?
DOIDGE: What are the governance tools policy-makers can use to address this?
BALSILLIE: First, we must begin regulating the dominant internet companies in areas such as transparency of their advertisers, the ethics embedded in their algorithms and anti-competitive practices. This is what responsible governments do.
DOIDGE: And then?
BALSILLIE: We must create sovereign laws regarding data ownership, which is a defining issue of our time. More than six years ago, the European Union presented detailed proposals in this realm called GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), which becomes law in May, 2018. European policy-makers have been working on this for almost 10 years. In Canada, all of our political parties and policy-makers have let Canadians down with their inaction on this issue. Like the citizens of the EU, Canadians could exercise our sovereign right to ensure we own our personal data, set clear rules on the collection of personal data and for governing how the rights to our personal data are transferred to others. Big foreign tech companies will lobby hard against these measures, but I would argue our governments have the duty and the power to protect Canadians, especially our young. Canada would be in a much better place than where we are today if we copied what the EU policy leaders are doing.
DOIDGE: I'd vote for a politician who would support this, because it would actually be getting a liberal democratic government to enhance liberty by protecting the private sphere. What else?
BALSILLIE: We can support an alternative technology architecture. Much of the root problem with these apps is their centralized corporate control, where company profit is based on selling more ads to addicted eyeballs. We can lessen this dominance by supporting emerging rival applications that use blockchain. Blockchain is a new kind of transparent and incorruptible internet system that allows you to better control your own content because it's designed in a way where there's no centralized database or point of control. No one individual or one company can control it. The trust is built within the system architecture.
And trust in the system matters especially now, when there is so much mistrust in centralized power structures. If Canada strategically embraces blockchain for social media and other important applications, we can address issues of privacy and manipulation. Plus, this creates an opportunity for our domestic innovators to generate inclusive prosperity. It sounds like a complicated thing to do but it's not. It's actually very feasible.
DOIDGE: We may be the last generation that understands that privacy is worth defending. But how will we know when we are on the right track?
BALSILLIE: People won't just click "like" when they read this. They will call their MPs, too.
PORTRAITS OF JIM BALSILLIE AND NORMAN DOIDGE BY LAUREN TAMAKI
ILLUSTRATION BY LAUREN TAMAKI