For all the millennia of history before modern times, humans had very few options for entertainment and recreation. Food was bland, drugs were scarce, more time was spent making music than listening to it, and most social interaction was done face to face with extended family plus some close neighbors. Media was so scarce that most people never learned to read. Until the 1700s, sugar was as expensive in the West as pearls and many spices like black pepper were worth their weight in gold. Today, food engineers have produced fantastic flavors that don’t exist in nature like the Cool Ranch Dorito Loco.
Today our psychological rewards systems are being tempted and manipulated like never before. Pornography is always a click away. Gambling is now available in every gas station and on every cellphone. Attention merchants bombard us with sexualized images that are calculated to grab your eye, and when men see a sexy photo, it makes them care about the future less and become more materialistic which benefits the marketers. Chemists keep inventing new kinds of psychoactive drugs. Video games are evolving to become more addictive. Movies on demand are always available to stream and sites like YouTube use artificial intelligence to select the videos that are the most likely to distract us from the real world. Auto-play automatically continuously streams videos for us if we don’t tear our attention away. Movies and TV shows keep ratcheting up the sex, action, and visual candy (increasingly produced by CGI) to the point that all old movies seem slow-paced and boring by today’s addled standards. Social media hijacks our wanting system and leaves us feeling more depressed (and wanting more consumption to fill the hole) rather than more connected. It is nearly impossible to quit Facebook and the same things that make Facebook unhealthy are essential to the profitability of their business model. The smartphone industry profits from our unhealthy relationship with smartphones and designs them to suck us into their tiny screens.
Several books have recently studied these phenomena. Nir Eyal celebrated how profitable new addictive technologies are in his book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products which shows corporations how to take advantage of our addictive tendencies. David T. Courtwright’s book, The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Became Big Business, is more worried about the social consequences of how corporations have been using new technologies to amp up the addictive qualities of their products. Here is an interview Courtwright did with Sean Illing:
…Courtwright calls [this] “limbic capitalism,” a reference to the part of the brain that deals with pleasure and motivation. As our understanding of psychology and neurochemistry has advanced, companies have gotten better at exploiting our instincts for profit. Think, for example, of all the apps and platforms specifically designed to hijack our attention with pings and dopamine hits while harvesting our data.
We’ve always had some form of limbic capitalism, Courtwright says, but the methods are much more sophisticated now and the range of addictive behaviors are much wider than they used to be. I spoke to Courtwright about the problems this has created, why the battle against limbic capitalism is seemingly endless, and if he thinks we’re destined to live in a consumerist dystopia…
David T. Courtwright
Well, limbic capitalism is just my shorthand for global industries that basically encourage excessive consumption and even addiction. In fact, you could make that even stronger and say not only do they encourage it but now they’ve reached the point where they’re actually designing it.
And where does that word “limbic” come from?
David T. Courtwright
It’s a reference to the limbic region of your brain, which is the part of your brain that deals with pleasure, motivation, long-term memory, and other functions that are crucial for survival. You couldn’t live without your limbic system and you couldn’t reproduce without it and that’s why it has evolved. And yet that same system is now susceptible to hijacking by corporate interests in a way that actually works against your long-term survival prospects. That’s the paradox… companies offer products that will produce a burst release of dopamine in a way that conditions and ultimately changes the brain and develops certain addictive behaviors, which is to say behaviors that are harmful. Now, people have always peddled products that are potentially addictive. But what’s happened in the last 100 years or so is that more of these commercial strategies come from highly organized corporations that do very sophisticated research and find more ways to market these addictive goods and services.
It seems to me that capitalism runs on the addictions of consumers, has always run on the addictions of consumers, and therefore this isn’t all that revelatory.
David T. Courtwright
I hear this sort of point all the time, and my answer is that it’s not quite right. I make a distinction between ordinary capitalist enterprises like companies that sell people rakes or plows or nails or whatever — there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and, in fact, the free market is very good at distributing those goods. It’s a force for human progress.
But I think of limbic capitalism as capitalism’s evil twin, a really cancerous outgrowth of productive capitalism. There is a certain class of brain-rewarding products that lead to a form of pathological learning that we call addiction and it’s that branch of capitalism that is especially dangerous.
So I’m not anti-capitalism, but am I calling attention to a certain species of capitalism that cultivates addictive behavior for profit.
What sort of industries or products are we talking about? Who traffics in limbic capitalism?
David T. Courtwright
If you’d asked that question half a century ago I would’ve said we’re mainly talking about alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. But in the last 20 or 25 years, there’s been a big expansion of the concept of addiction. So now we don’t just speak about addiction to drugs, we speak about addiction to pornography, to computer games, to social media, to food, to all kinds of things…
The recent controversy around vaping and Juul seems like a good example of how limbic capitalism works in practice.
David T. Courtwright
It’s a perfect example because it captures several features of a limbic capitalist enterprise, both historically and in terms of its current manifestation. So number one, limbic capitalists target the young. This is probably the most politically sensitive aspect of limbic capitalism… Which is what we’ve always seen from Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol: the youth are your best customers because they’ll be around the longest…
It’s about more than just delivering the product, though. One of the discoveries I made is that when you look at the history of potentially addictive pleasures there’s a tendency to blend vices and experiences in ways that increase the addictive qualities of products. Las Vegas is a great example of this. Vegas is not just about gambling; it’s a place where you can booze it up, it’s about nightclubs and big spectacles and all the dazzling amusements — everything is wrapped up in a big hedonic package.
I’d love to know how you distinguish the manufacture of new demands with the satisfaction of demands that already exist.
David T. Courtwright
That’s a very interesting question. Eating is not a manufactured demand. You have to eat to survive, but you don’t have to eat highly processed food that stimulates the release of dopamine in a way that alters your mood and gives you a rush.
What we’ve done is we’ve taken things like sugar or salt that were once comparatively scarce and valuable commodities and made these things massively available. So once you get the ingredients that are capable of producing brain reward, then it’s just a matter of designing products that will essentially maximize that brain reward.
So again, the demand, “I’ve got to eat something,” was always there but what the processed food industry does, because it’s so competitive, is create products that will provide the calories and nutrients in ways that act like mood-altering drugs. And that’s where the line between simple marketing and limbic capitalism lies…
[New social technologies are addictive in new ways that humans have never encountered before.] Once upon a time, the internet and internet access were opt-in technologies. In other words, you adopted these things, you learned how to use them. But now I think we’ve reached the point where they’ve become opt-out technologies, where you’re going to have to do something radical or unusual like go off the grid or throw away your smartphone to escape it.
Once you’re in an environment where you’ve got to have this device, you’re in an environment where you will be constantly exposed to what the policy analyst Jonathan Caulkins calls “temptation goods.” You may have a firm resolution to use your smartphone just for email, or just to check the New York Times, or for a handful of other more or less straightforward functions, but sooner or later the convenience of these other devices and other apps will creep up on you and then you’ll become enmeshed in all of it.
Ezra Klein wrote that:
Twitter assessed the competition and went algorithmic, creating a space so toxic the company is now trying to understand how “healthy conversations” work. YouTube ran the numbers and built an algorithm that’s become a powerful force for radicalization. Instagram became attractive to Facebook precisely because it’s so good at being addictive. Tumblr turned out to be so reliant on porn that Pornhub is considering a bid to buy the flailing business.
consumer advertising wants us to be unsatisfied and disconnected from other people so that we look to products to fill that void. And products can never fill that void, which is great for the marketer, because then we’ll keep buying stuff to fill an ever-expanding void.
So digital technology comes along and, rather than trying to replace our human connections with product purchases, it mediates our human connections in ways that make them less satisfying. So if you engage with someone, certainly via text and email, you’re never going to get fulfilled. If you engage with them even on Skype or video, you don’t get the same rapport.
When you engage with someone in real life, the oxytocin rushes through your blood when you see their pupils getting bigger and their breathing rate syncing up with yours. These are painstakingly evolved mechanisms for achieving social harmony. And we’re losing them by spending all our time buying shit on Amazon or poring over our newsfeeds.
Smartphones are intentionally designed to be addictive using some of the same principles that make gambling addictive as well as simulating social interaction (with automated push notifications) in a way that sucks in our attention. Speaking of gambling, according to Theweek.com, gambling has stealthily become a bigger part of society than Hollywood or Major League Sports:
According to the American Gaming Association, in 2012 the 464 commercial casinos in the U.S. served 76.1 million patrons and grossed $37.34 billion. [Anthony Frederick Lucas estimates that the gambling industry is much bigger than that, taking in an estimated $240 billion in the U.S.]
Each year [gambling] revenues in the U.S. yield more profits than the theatrical movie industry ($10.9 billion) and the recorded music industry ($7 billion) combined. Even the $22.5 billion combined revenue of the four major U.S. sports leagues is dwarfed by earnings from the commercial casinos industry.
Note that the gambling industry is trying to avoid the more accurate word “gambling” and prefers to try to confuse people into thinking that it is part of sports and video games by insisting on calling itself the “gaming” industry.
If gambling were run by small-scale social clubs and church raffles, it wouldn’t be much of a problem, just like tobacco wasn’t such a big social problem for Native Americans before capitalism. It is the interaction of capitalism and addictive products that is a particularly dangerous problem because entrepreneurial capitalism will always evolve ways to make products more addictive, cheaper, and easier to buy.
This is why we should prefer the decriminalization of marijuana rather than full legalization. Full legalization will lead to the corporatization of the industry and more addiction due to the power of private corporations who will revolutionize the primitive, artisanal supply of marijuana and begin an influence campaign to market it for the first time in history.
Most people envision that full legalization of marijuana will just allow the current small-scale producers to thrive, and that those small businesses will simply come out of the shadows, but the reality is that the artisanal producers will be crushed by big agribusiness. This is what capitalism does. Corporate efficiencies will bring down the prices and make availability omnipresent at corporate retailers like Walmart and Speedway. The entire supply chain will become so efficient that marijuana will become the cheapest intoxicant in the history of the world.