The week of January 31, 2016

When we just can’t get enough

By Jesse Hicks

The concept of addiction often gets used rather loosely. We claim to be addicted to coffee, to chocolate, to video games, to episodic television. (Anything pleasurable, the implicit worry goes, might rob us of our self-control.) In this week’s Kernel, we’re looking broadly at the notion of addiction, from video games and apps to home shopping to actual, physical drug addiction.

First, Roisin Kiberd examines Cookie Clicker, the incredibly addictive and entirely pointless browser game that’s provoked fans into building spreadsheets to understand it, trapped them within its never-ending cycle of cookie production, and invaded their dreams. It turns out that beneath this seemingly innocuous game can be found a scathing critique of gaming, “success,” and even capitalism itself. Cookie Clicker may seem like a waste of time, she argues, but it’s wasted time with a purpose.

If the addictive nature of Cookie Clicker is a subtle critique, Nithin Coca looks at how other apps use addictive design for less benevolent aims. In the current app economy, where revenue depends on showing ads to users, getting users hooked is part of the business model. Only by keeping users checking—repeatedly, incessantly, through push notifications and other tricks—can developers put their ads in front of enough eyeballs to turn a profit. Critics suggest that’s not healthy, that it creates anxiety that can only be alleviated by… checking your phone. But if that’s the only way to make money in an increasingly crowded app marketplace, what’s the alternative?

Hooking users is a tried and true business model, after all. Elaheh Nozari examines how it’s working for QVC, the venerable television shopping network that boasts 90 percent of its customers are repeat buyers. It may be surprising that QVC (as well as the Home Shopping Network) is still around when Amazon seems to have conquered the world of retail. But as Nozari describes, QVC offers shoppers something they can’t get anywhere else: a sense of connection to the people doing the selling. She reveals the private world of loud, proud QVC addicts—who aren’t looking for support to kick the habit, but encouragement to buy more.

Finally, Aaron Sankin reports on a Web-based form of addiction treatment that’s yielding promising results. Developed by a Yale psychologist, it’s called Computer Based Training for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and it brings a longstanding form of therapy to people who might otherwise find themselves in and out of detox, making little progress. So far CBT4CBT is only being used in a small pilot program, but researchers are hopeful about the outcome. If successful, it would offer another choice when it comes to treating addiction.

Enjoy the issue.

Illustration by Max Fleishman