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Special Edition Magazine, Spring 2020: Beyond the Techlash

Dopamine Capitalism

It is no secret that with the digital revolution has come many new forms of addiction, as users chase after social-media "likes" and other online stimuli. But less understood is the extent to which most of the tech industry now relies on behavioral manipulation to maximize profits at the expense of our wellbeing.

MENLO PARK – Here in Silicon Valley, it is an open secret that countless corporations and start-ups are working on ways to turn humans into robots they can control. More and more, the industry is focused not so much on technology as on what might be called “personality-disorder marketing.” Technologies are being created and deployed in recognition of the fact that all pleasures are more or less equal to the human brain, whether they originate with a win at the blackjack table, a line of cocaine, or “likes” on social media.

That’s why, over the past few decades, the powerful companies (and, in some cases, governments) that control the Internet have moved from accidentally or unwittingly creating human “robots” to knowingly doing so. Contrary to the usual warnings about artificial intelligence and automation, the biggest near-term threat to humanity is coming not from our machines, but from the people designing them.

Those shaping the current technological era have violated the public trust by choosing business models that are openly amoral or even immoral. Following in the footsteps of the tobacco companies and the casino business, they are consciously creating and fostering addictive behavior in the name of profits. In 2000, the average American spent 9.4 hours per week online; now, some estimates put that figure at 30 hours. And with the arrival of consumer virtual-reality devices and the Internet of Things (IoT), it is easy to imagine that we will soon spend 75% of our waking hours in virtual spaces designed to manipulate our behavior.

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