Addiction by design: how technology keeps us hooked

Photo by John Kappa ツ on Unsplash

In 2011, I quit Facebook. In 2013, I quit Instagram, Tumblr, and Snapchat. In 2017, I quite Twitter, quitting social media all-together for three years. In between, I studied closely the psychological implications of the digital world on our lives and well-being. One of the most important lessons I learned was that technology isn’t neutral.

Technology is addictive by design.

It is deliberately designed to capture our attention.

With technological advances of the last two centuries, advertisers have achieved unprecedented access to our thoughts and feelings and have a plethora of useful personal data on each of us.

Based on these personal data points, tech companies use persuasive design to capture the attention of billions of people and influence our way of thinking towards a certain direction. Ads, smartphones, apps, social media, and the internet capture our attention with an endless parade of noise and distraction. The more time we spend on our devices, apps, and social media, the more personal information we give to Facebook, Google, and Amazon, to name a few.

Our data is used in two important ways. Data is used to persuade us, and data is used to manipulate us.

Our personal data has allows tech companies not only to sell our attention, but to also predict with almost precise accuracy our needs, interests, and stances. It is much easier to persuade someone to do something or influence their behavior if you know them and know which buttons to push.  


The attention economy has achieved its success because attention addresses a fundamental human desire. According to Michael H. Goldhaber in Attention Shoppers!,

Attention can ground an economy because it is a fundamental human desire and is intrinsically, unavoidably scarce. It can be a rich and complex economy because attention comes in many forms: love, recognition, heeding, obedience, thoughtfulness, caring, praising, watching over, attending to one’s desires, aiding, advising, critical appraisal, assistance in developing new skills, et cetera. There are also many ways to capture attention: via your thoughts, inventions, self-revelations, expressions, performances, artistic creations, achievements, pleas, and arresting appearances.

The most successful sites and apps hook their users by tapping into our most innate human needs and desires.

In his famous article, How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind — from a Magician and Google Design Ethicist, Tristan Harris describes ten techniques tech companies and product designers use to hijack our mind by tapping into our psychological vulnerabilities.

One example is Facebook’s tag-a-friend feature.

Humans are vulnerable to social approval. We are evolutionarily wired to desire belonging to a group and be approved and appreciated by our peers. Facebook’s tag-a-friend feature exploits our inherent need for social approval by nudging us to tag people in the photo’s we upload to the platform. It is not a conscious choice we get to make.

In other word, our social approval is in the hands of Facebook and its algorithm.


The power of data in persuading and manipulating us is even more evident when it comes to politics.

Politics have become more like commerce and commercial advertising.

Political campaigns have turned to “data-borne precision marketing,” precisely predicting the voters’ profiles, and use such data to “persuade, seduce, or manipulate them and influence which candidate they vote for.”

Barack Obama’s campaign did it first in 2008 with targeted political micromarketing to mobilize young people and members of minorities to vote for the first time, and vote for Obama. The 2016 US election is a glaring example of political campaigns using personal data to emotionally pry on our psychological vulnerabilities in the race for our attention and vote.

Just like in marketing, politicians are increasingly in the business of vying to capture people’s attention by any means necessary in order to promote their brand.

According Tim Wu, the author of the Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads,

The battle for attention is the first battle in everything, and those who have mastered the techniques of getting attention by all means necessary have a massive advantage.

It is, then, no surprise that technology is addictive by design, deliberately designed to harvest our attention.


Back in 2014, long before the 2016 election where a man would bulldoze his way to the Republican nomination purely on the basis of his celebrity, Mark Manson, in his article In The Future, Our Attention Will Be Sold, made the argument that “politics is becoming less about actual policies and more about dramatic actions designed to draw either positive or negative attention to various actors and political parties.”

Surely, Manson had no idea how accurately his prediction regarding the political landscape would unravel only two short years later.

Benjamin Day, the OG harvester of human attention, could have only dreamed of having this level of access to the psychological workings of the New York Sun‘s readers back in 1833.

Yet, the attention economy has infiltrated every aspect of our life, hacking our psychology, taking our agency to choose how we spend our time, impacting the way we have conversations and our social connection, and changing the fabrics of democracy.

It affects everyone.

Until next time. . . 

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