OPINION: ‘Digital Detoxing’ is a scam to distract from the real problem - unethically addictive technology

Silicon Valley assures us that we can stay plugged-in for as long as want, then disconnect for a while and everything will be fine. But Nic Healey thinks when tech companies advocate for digital detoxing, it’s ironic at best and complicit at worst.

Detoxing is big business. Never mind that if you genuinely can’t get rid of toxins from your body naturally then you're probably well on your way to hepatic or renal failure and – guess what – lemon juice and cayenne pepper isn't going to save you.

‘Digital detoxing’ – the idea that we need to stop and smell the roses, or, in the words of one detoxer "to remember how to be human" – is also big business.

Companies in the Valley spend thousands of dollars sending employees away on phone-free weekends to commune with nature so they can come back to work refreshed and ready to create products that fry our brains. Over the years, Burning Man, the iconic festival of radical inclusion and decommodification, has morphed into what some have termed a "hippie party for rich people", where millionaire tech bros can pay lip service to the principles of community co-operation.

If this stinks of hypocrisy to you, you're not paranoid – you're just paying attention.

If this stinks of hypocrisy to you, you're not paranoid – you're just paying attention.

Digital detoxing is a Band-Aid solution – and tech companies know it. The more people there are who believe in the healing power of detoxing, the fewer people there will be questioning the ethics of addictive design.    

‘Don’t be evil’ is too vague. We need a new ethical high bar. 

Earlier this year, debate raged over the idea that Instagram was strategically "withholding likes". The idea was that the app would only drip feed notifications of likes on your photos, encouraging people to check back on the app more regularly.

Instagram denied the suggestion in no uncertain terms, but the idea of tapping into the behavioural modification enabled by "variable rewards" isn't a new one. Behaviourist B.F. Skinner noted back in the 1950s that rats would more readily pump away at a treat-dispensing lever if the treat didn't actually arrive every time.

The concept has been used in all kinds of digital products from video gaming "loot boxes" to pokie machines.

In 2014, Stanford professor Nir Eyal published "Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products". His book quickly became a bible for industrial product designers. But now he’s changed his tune. He recently wrote a blog post that championed a ‘Regret Test’ for product-design choices:

If users would regret taking the action, the technique fails the regret test and shouldn't be built into the product, because it manipulated people into doing something they didn't want to do. Getting people to do something they didn't want to do is no longer persuasion — it's coercion.

Philosopher, science writer and lecturer at the Sydney School of Life, Dr Tim Dean, says "I actually think Cory Doctorow put the issue very succinctly when he said that tech companies don't actually sell happiness, they sell compulsion."  

"They string us along using our psychological quirks that are geared to respond to the signs of something that's good for us, but they don't actually give us that good thing.

"If we flip it around, imagine asking tech companies to have a profit detox by doing something good for their customers rather than milking their attention for money," says Dean. Clearly that's not something easy to imagine.

Is government regulation the answer?

Most Australians agree that Government intervention is required for poker machines, so has the time come for government to step in and regulate how technology is designed?

Tristan Harris left a product manager role at Google and reinvented himself as, “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience". He dished the dirt on the way the tech industry uses selective design techniques to essentially hook us on our phones.

He firmly believes that the big players in the industry need to make some fundamental cultural shifts into designing their products with ethical considerations firmly in mind. While he'd prefer self-regulation within in the industry, he's also likened it to energy companies being regulated into embracing renewable technologies.

"In many US states, we changed the model to decouple how much money energy companies make from how much energy you use," Harris told Wired magazine in 2017. "We need to do something like that for the attention economy, because we can’t afford a world in which this arms race is to get as much attention from you as possible."