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Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter

Published in March of 2017.

Academics love to worry about the behaviors of everybody else.  One big worry we seem to have is how everyone around us is interacting with technology.  We worry that our students are spending too much time absorbed in their laptops and phones, and not enough time listening to our lectures.  We worry that the next generation will outsource their research skills to Google, their map reading skills to Waze, and their conversational skills to Snapchat.  

Adam Alter’s well-researched and convincingly argued new book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked will do nothing to lower the levels of technology anxiety on campus.

Of course, the book that I wish Alter had written would be one focused on the dangers of educational technology.  Instead, Alter - who is an associate professor of Marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business - has written a book about the dangers of consumer technologies.  In particular, Alter is worried about the addictive potential of smart phones, apps, websites (particularly shopping sites), and video games.

I read Irresistible on my iPhone on a cross-country flight, using the Kindle app to read with my eyes and my ears.  Irresistible was made more irresistible by Amazon’s Whispersync technology, as the syncing of the e-book and the audiobook is a powerful motivator to choose reading a book over doing anything else.  

The irony of using a smart phone and an app to read a book all about the dangers of smart phones and apps was not lost on me.

There is little doubt that all of us should be mindful about the distraction inducing and addictive potential of our technologies.  It is telling, as Alter points out, that Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids have iPads.  

It is also true that some people get themselves in trouble with full-blown technology addictions.  Alter spends time someone who became so addicted to World of Warcraft that they ended up going to ReSTART, an the internet / video gaming / virtual reality / social media facility residential rehabilitation facility that costs $390 a day for treatment.   

The big point that Alter wants to get across is that you don’t need to have an addictive personality to get addicted to technology.  Rather, addiction is situational - and we are all susceptible.  

Alter describes how app Kim Kardashian: Hollywood has generated over $100 million in revenue since being launched in 2014, and how at its height Candy Crush was taking in more than $600,000 per day from iOS App Store.  

The design of these games, along with flash sale shopping sites like and the post-play feature in Netflix that defaults to playing the next show or movie, has made potential digital addicts out of us all.

The problem I have with Irresistible is that I’m just not sure that I buy Alter’s main argument.  

When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s we weren’t glued to our smart phones (they didn’t exist), instead we spent all of our time passively watching TV.  Is Facebook and Instagram really worse than the A-Team?  

Irresistible would have been a more convincing book if Alter had addressed previous moral panics around comic books, pinball machines, and rap lyrics.  Every generation, and every generation of academics, gets very worried about the negative impact of today’s technologies.  And then every generation seems to turn out just fine.  I have no doubt that today’s iPhone wielding, Facebook and Instagram posting, and online / app gaming young people will grow into better adults than us.  

Alter makes a convincing case that we should all be worried about the addictive potential of today’s technologies - and yet I was not convinced.

What are you reading?

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