Book Review: Irresistible
Irresistible: Why we can't stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching
Hardback, 354pp. Published by The Bodley Head, London, UK
Price: £18.99 ISBN 978-1847923578
I don't intend to make a habit of reviewing secular books, but where they can prove useful to Christian living, I will make an exception. Irresistible by psychologist Adam Alter is one of those books. Drawing on recent research done in the field of behavioural addiction, Alter sets out to show how the world of technology is designed to make addicts of us. Tech companies such as Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, Fitbit, and Pinterest all profit from their user-base becoming dependent. In short, the success of the tech sector depends on you becoming an addict.
I should start by declaring an interest. I love technology and use it extensively. This blog was partly typed on a smartphone and partly dictated using voice recognition. But I am also too dependent on it. I have blogged before about how technology attempts to hijack my life, and thus this is not intended to be critical. Far from it, it is intended to help. I have become concerned over the last few years about behavioural addiction, particularly among young Christians.
The book starts in alarming fashion: the author quotes Steve Jobs (Founder of Apple) at the launch of the iPad;
What this device does is extraordinary...It offers the best way to browse the web; way better than a laptop and way better than a smartphone...It's an incredible experience...It's phenomenal for mail; it's a dream to type on.
But what is startling is that Jobs refused to let his children use the device. You might be tempted to shrug your shoulders at that or say ‘one for the parents’, but it should be a wake-up call to all. If the creator of the iPad doesn't allow his children to use the device, then what does that say about it? What we know for sure is that Jobs considered the negatives of the device he described to the world as extraordinary, the best, better, incredible, phenomenal and a dream (all in one short paragraph), to be enough to warrant a blanket ban within his family. Alter considers this to be analogous to the first rule of drug-dealing: never get high on your own supply. From here he launches his thesis: technology is addictive and not in a good way.
The book is split into three main sections dealing with different aspects of the subject. First, the rise of behavioural addiction, or the what? Second, its mechanism or the how? Last, the remedies or the what next? The book is well researched and credible, drawing on published literature and recent developments in neuroscience. But, Christians will be disappointed (but not surprised) that he bases some of his analysis on Freud, which puts part of his thesis at odds with the revelation of Scripture.
In the first section, the author charts the emergence of behavioural addiction, demonstrating that there is the capacity for addiction within all of us by outlining the biology behind it. He lays the blame at the door of the internet and the various technologies that have thrived on it. While it is certain that these companies have unscrupulously exploited the weakness of humanity with clever technology, the author almost views humans as automatons, incapable of making the right decision. We know that this is contrary to Scripture, where we find that all are responsible for their choices, and not mere victims of circumstance.
In the second section, he investigates the methods that these companies use to create behavioural addiction. He outlines how gaming companies have used goals and progress to turn us into video game junkies. He shows how Social Media giants like Facebook and Instagram have made us susceptible to presenting a fake reality to gain feedback in the form of likes. He lifts the curtain on how Netflix has cleverly blended the cliff-hanger plot device with technology to make you an addict within 3-4 episodes. Finally, he reveals how companies like Amazon have configured their platforms to make internet shopping compulsive through social interaction. The bottom line is this: tech companies have thought of everything to keep us 'checking, scrolling, clicking and watching.' Their future depends on it!
In the final section, he predicts what behavioural addiction will look like in the future and makes some recommendations about how we can conquer them and thrive as human beings. Some of this is helpful and unintentionally Scriptural. For example, Alter says;
Willpower is...about looking at those yummy chocolate chip cookies and refusing them. A good habit ensures you are rarely around those chocolate chip cookies in the first place.
Flee youthful lusts; but follow righteousness.
2 Ti. 2:22
As for the future, it does not look bright. Alter predicts that the rise of virtual reality will make our engagement with technology even more immersive and thus even more addictive.
In summary, this book is highly recommended. If you are a parent and want to know how to bring your digitally native children up in a tech-filled world, then you must read this book. If you are an elder of a local church or a preacher, and you want to know what temptations young people are facing, then you must read this book. If you are a young person struggling with behavioural addictions–and according to Alter 60% are–you must read this book. It is at the very least a damning exposé of the world's evil machinations.
But there is a caveat: don't expect the remedies provided to work in the long-term. Humanity is fallen and will always find a way to fall again. Remedies sought in the flesh, despite being useful, will be undermined by the flesh. The real way to beat behavioural addiction is not to limit your email viewing to certain periods of the day (although that helps), or to find a replacement habit for your incessant video gaming (modify as appropriate), but to understand that you are a fallen, and sinful human being and the only way to defeat that is to live in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Let Scripture have the final word;
(The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ
2 Co. 10:4-5