In a well-functioning market, consumers have the freedom to act in their own self-interest and to maximize their own well-being. Prices are transparent, and people have a basic level of trust that exchanges of goods, services, and money benefit all parties. Consumers, it is assumed, are discerning and rational in the face of the market’s blandishments—an assumption that is crucial to the whole system’s ability to produce social good. Of course, markets have never functioned in the real world exactly as they do in economics textbooks. But in the U.S., the system has tended to work, allocating resources efficiently, generating growth, and improving the living conditions and welfare of most people.
But the new powers in the digital age have built their business models on strategies—enabled and turbocharged by self-improving algorithms—that actively undermine the principles that make capitalism a good deal for most people. Their aim is not merely to gain and retain customers, but to create a dependency on their products.
Carmakers, appliance manufacturers, and cosmetics conglomerates have always been happy to prey upon their customers’ desires and insecurities if doing so might stoke an irrational desire to buy their products. But their methods—advertising, primarily—are crude compared with the sophisticated tactics available to today’s tech giants. The buzzes, badges, and streaks of social media; the personalized “deals” of commerce sites; the camaraderie and thrilling competition of gaming; the algorithmic precision of the recommendations on YouTube—all have been finely tuned to keep us coming back for more. And we are: The average person taps, types, swipes, and clicks on his smartphone 2,617 times a day. Ninety-three percent of people sleep with their devices within arm’s reach. Seventy-five percent use them in the bathroom.
The sway these technologies have over us is unhealthy, and the ways in which they can worsen our social relationships and our discourse are worthy subjects of public concern. But addiction to technology poses another threat, too. When we are too hooked on our phones and feeds to make decisions that align with our own self-interest, the free market ceases to be free.
Where an affinity ends and addiction begins is not always clear, but when it comes to our relationships with technology, the signs of addiction are manifest. We are spending more and more hours online, forgoing time with loved ones. Deprived of a decent Wi-Fi connection, we grow irritable. We risk life and limb to send texts from the road. In a 2019 Common Sense Media survey of 500 parents, 45 percent confessed to feeling at least somewhat addicted to their phone. Among parents whose children had their own phone, 47 percent said they believed that their kids were addicted too.