Thoughts on behavioural addiction and abstracted representation of value
I came across a couple of interesting things today, which have helped me to crystallise some thoughts that have been floating in my head for a while.
Thing 1: an excellent interview with Alfie Brown, author of ‘Candy Crush and Capitalism’ (that book is next up on my reading list!)
Thought 1: Addiction to abstract ideas is easy to spot and critique in the digital world
Think of all the breathless headlines about social media addiction, video game addiction, etc and the (often well-reasoned) critiques of how odd and interesting it is that we are willing to do so much for Instagram likes, a scarce virtual good or in-game progression and other markers of digital prestige. Popular documentaries like the Social Dilemma unpack dark patterns in UX, and tell us how ‘swipe to refresh’ news feeds are well loaded variable reward machines. People are upset about the psychological control that entities like Facebook exert on areas we like to think of domains of free will (democratic elections being the main one!) and can point to the how the structures and concepts that define our digital interactions (likes, dwell time etc) drive people towards behaviours and beliefs that they may not have had otherwise.
It’s relatively easy to accept that all of these digital abstractions - retweets, facebook likes, follows, in-game currencies, etc - hook into interesting quirks of how we as humans perceive value and reward, and that’s why we value them (and why some of us become addicted).
In these areas, we also find a capacity to observe with an element of distance. Many of these activities are new enough that we have in recent cultural memory a time when they didn’t exist, and therefore don’t feel like an inevitable part of human experience. Rather we tend to view them as concepts which exist at a specific moment, that probably represent something deeper about what we value as humans, but aren’t intrinsically valuable themselves.
Thought 2: Money is also an addictive abstraction
Something that has been on my mind since reading David Graeber’s book Debt: the first 5000 years is the fascinating idea that money is neither totally inevitable nor the most basic or foundational way of representing value, but instead is a specific type of interaction that tends to predominate in certain contexts, but is absent in others.
That is, money is another abstraction (like the digital ones discussed above) that isn’t a necessary part of all human experience, but something that gets valued and appreciated at a certain cultural moment (albeit quite a long one!)
I think this is easier to see with money and systems of value that we are perhaps less personally invested in (e.g. cryptocurrencies, virtual land, in-game currencies, historic forms of money in groups we perceive as ‘primitive’ etc). But the same obviously applies to ‘real’ money as well.
We know that money addiction (gambling) exists - here there is another obvious point of comparison in how gambling mechanics are copied wholesale in a lot of game mechanics.
Thought 3: Can an abstract idea itself be addictive?
Often the underlying assumption behind these stories of addiction is that one can end up addicted to anything (food, money, games, alcohol, drugs etc) and that that because the list of things we can be addicted to is so diverse, we should turn to underlying biological or environmental factors for an explanation.
However, I think there’s something more interesting here in the concept of ‘addictive abstractions’ or addictive ideas - in the same way that certain substances are more or less physiologically addictive, maybe some abstractions and concepts (money, likes, numbers etc) are also more or less addictive, by virtue of how they hook into our cognitive quirks and existing belief systems. Similar to Dawkins’ concept of a meme and how it spreads!
Can we unlock new imaginative possibilities, if we think of money as a meme?
Something which I toyed with putting in here but feels like it’s deserving of a more in-depth treatment is the whole field of behavioural addiction, as distinct from substance addiction (which has physiological components). I want to understand how representations of value (on many levels, not just neural representations) tie in with this as well as how much of an explicit cognitive element (beliefs etc) contribute to this, and there’s also a much broader conversation to be had about the reasons people become addicted, and what purposes addiction can serve to both the individual and the nation-state.
I also want to explore the idea of function and dysfunction when it comes to addiction but also feel this deserves its own post - the concept of being ‘functional’ is so central to how mental health and diagnosis is done but there’s a lot of hidden assumptions packed into that. I think there might be an interesting approach in looking at slightly novel and therefore distanced forms of behaviour in the digital world (especially crypto and the metaverse - so much there!) and then appling those critiques back to some of the more entrenched beliefs we hold. Similar to how one might look at culture bound syndromes or the history of ‘mind medicine’ (other personal favourite topics of mine).
More another day!