Humans Are Addicted to Technology—Here’s What to Blame

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "User Friendly" by Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why are people today addicted to technology? Why do we need to get rid of the “Like” button?

Humans are addicted to technology, and there’s no arguing against that. User Friendly by Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant has an answer for why: user-friendliness makes it impossible to do anything without relying on technology.

Find out why user-friendly design isn’t always such a good thing.

Negative Consequences of User-Friendliness

The authors contend that user-friendly design principles are the reason why humans are addicted to technology.

Kuang and Fabricant argue that rather than prioritizing making digital platforms easy to use, developers now leverage behavioral psychology to encourage users to spend more time engaging with their products. The “like” button (invented by Facebook) illustrates how an addiction to this feedback mechanism—combined with the profit motive of companies—has cascading negative effects on users’ mental health, interpersonal relationships, and the quality and type of information they’re exposed to online. 

(Shortform note: In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport contends that people’s constant engagement with technology has also led to mental health decline due to “solitude deprivation.” He writes that when people spend less time alone with their thoughts, they miss out on important benefits of solitude like enhanced creativity, self-reflection, and problem-solving. He writes that among Generation Z in particular, solitude deprivation and long periods of consuming media have caused higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among teens.) 

Kuang and Fabricant assert that trends like this illustrate a fundamental shift away from user-experience designers helping consumers by making life easier and instead taking advantage of consumers’ primal impulses. 

(Shortform note: In light of some of the harmful psychological effects of modern technology, some researchers argue that interactive digital technologies like social media should be legally regulated to protect consumers—similar to how institutions regulate addictive substances like tobacco and narcotics.)

The Impact of a User-Friendly “Like” Button

Kuang and Fabricant explain that the “like” button started as a simple feedback mechanism to affirm other people’s posts without having to type repetitive, straightforward comments such as “Congratulations!” Although it was initially intended as a convenient, user-friendly button, people quickly began to perceive their self-worth in terms of the “likes” they received on a post

(Shortform note: Several research studies have shed light on how social media “likes” influence our brains, particularly in young people. In one study, MRI brain scans showed that on Instagram, the number of “likes” on an image changes how appealing the image is to adolescent viewers. Seeing photos with many “likes” increased neural activity associated with reward processing, social cognition, imitation, and attention. Therefore, when social media images are tied to self-worth, “likes” become a powerful metric influencing what people think of themselves.)

The authors explain that because users experience a burst of dopamine (a brain chemical that makes people feel good) when they get “likes,” they develop a compulsive need to feel affirmed by maximizing their “likes.” In addition, people are more motivated to act (by liking or commenting) on negative and incendiary posts, so users are incentivized to post more radical content. Kuang and Fabricant suggest that in the real world, we’re more likely to tone down our opinions to avoid social backlash from the people around us; however, since it’s easier online to connect with like-minded people who will affirm our beliefs, these conditions increase our natural tendency toward tribalism—an “us vs. them” mentality

(Shortform note: One psychology researcher claims that although tribalism can improve social cohesion and therefore help people survive, tribalism fostered by social media algorithms can lead to further polarization by encouraging people to ostracize those who think differently. For example, one study showed that 61% of Americans have unfollowed, unfriended, or blocked someone because of their political opinions expressed on social media. To counteract the tendency toward tribalism produced by social media algorithms, the researcher recommends strategies such as confusing the AI algorithms by flagging ads and suggested posts as irrelevant and reading news from multiple sources.)

Kuang and Fabricant also assert that the Facebook algorithm specifically boosts the visibility of controversial and polarizing posts to increase user engagement—even if the post includes offensive or false information. Unlike earlier forms of user-friendly products that were intended to save people time, websites and apps profit from people spending more time on them and viewing more advertisements. And as people spend more time on a platform, the company accumulates more data that allows them to accurately predict what kind of content will keep users engaged. Kuang and Fabricant write that this results in greater exposure to misinformation, increased social strife, and an unhealthy addiction to technology. 

(Shortform note: In Digital Minimalism, Newport discusses three key principles to help people combat these negative social impacts of modern technology: Eliminate clutter by doing a cost-benefit analysis for each technology, optimize your technology use by deciding how you can use it most effectively, and recognize that you can regain your autonomy over your digital life by making deliberate choices. He also describes specific strategies such as deleting social media apps and limiting yourself to the less addictive web versions.)

Humans Are Addicted to Technology—Here’s What to Blame

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Here's what you'll find in our full User Friendly summary:

  • A look at the evolution of user-friendly design, from the 1920s to today
  • How excessive user-friendliness is causing a technology addiction
  • How user-friendliness can be used to reflect the values of customers instead

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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