The Addictification of Everything
How the Addiction Economy infests society
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The world around us is a dangerous place, full of addictive products looking to hijack our brainstems.
We do what we can to shield ourselves from these dangers like making our phones black and white or asking for only 25% sugar in our boba tea #smallthings. Meanwhile, we see what happens to folks who don’t put up their guard in time. In the US, drug overdose deaths are up 4x in 20 years, while obesity rates are up from 10% to 40% in 50 years.
What is happening? Since when was our world full of addictive products, trying to suck you in? In some ways, our world has consistently been addictive—it Always Has Been™. But addiction has both been getting more intense and more prevalent. Paul Graham calls this the Acceleration of Addictiveness. I’m going to call it The Addictification of Everything.
To understand the Addictification of Everything, we’ll first define addiction, then look at how addiction has been a constant presence in human history, and finally explore how addiction has become even more ubiquitous today.
I. What is addiction?
Addiction is narrow, repeated behavior in the face of broad, repeated harm.
For example, fentanyl addicts continue their narrow, repeated behavior (using a drug) in the face of broad, repeated harm (to their health, family, and community).
The first part of this definition is “narrow, repeated behavior”. By “narrow”, I mean the reduction of many activities down to a few. Andrew Huberman uses this for his definition of addiction: “the progressive narrowing of what brings you pleasure.” By “repeated behavior”, I mean to do a thing many times. If you just go to the casino once a month, it’s likely fine. But spend 10 hours on slots every day and it’s likely an addiction.
The second part of this definition is “in the face of broad, repeated harm.” What this tells us is that addiction requires repeated harm. I currently do “narrow, repeated behavior” where I write my book every day. But it’s not harming me. (Not yet at least!) If my book writing got in the way of my health or personal relationships, then I would consider it addictive.
The “broad” part of this definition is important. From the narrow perspective of the addictive substance, it’s always a positive relationship—that’s why you keep doing it. But when you zoom out to a more holistic lens, there might be harm, and therefore addiction.
Addiction is a gradient. How many times does it take to qualify as “narrow, repeated behavior?” How much harm needs to be done to qualify as “broad, repeated harm?” On one end, there is addiction to hard drugs, which can lead to the largest harm, death. On the other end, there are small addictions, like how much I watch Magic: The Gathering streamers on Twitch.
We’re used to addiction for individuals, but addiction can apply to larger systems as well. Humanity is addicted to fossil fuels like a drug addict is addicted to fentanyl. Our use of fossil fuels is “narrow, repeated behavior in the face of broad, repeated harm.” At the system level, we’ll often call “broad, repeated harm” an externality. From the perspective of Shell’s shareholders, we should pump more oil—the harms are external to the profit motive.
Addictification is the expansion of addiction into all activities. But where did we begin? When did we first taste the forbidden fruit of addiction?
II. Human economies are built on addiction
All systems are built on addiction, even before humans.
For example, when cyanobacteria first learned how to photosynthesize 2.3 billion years ago, they covered the world producing oxygen as waste and killing all of the anaerobic bacteria. We call this the Oxygen Catastrophe. From the perspective of the cyanobacteria, photosynthesis was just narrow, repeated behavior. But from the perspective of the biosphere as a whole, this behavior came with broad, repeated harm. (Extinction!)
Addiction is a logical consequence of replication. A replicator is anything in the universe that can make a copy of itself. Cyanobacteria, and indeed all of life, is a replicator. Replicators need matter and energy to copy themselves, which they pull from their environment. If their environment includes other life, harm occurs. A cheetah does narrow, repeated behavior (reproduction by eating prey) in the face of broad, repeated harm (death to the gazelles).
Throughout the different ages of humanity, we’ve been defined by one addiction or another.
Early homo sapiens were addicted to hunting megafauna. Sapiens spread across the globe from 100,000 years ago until 10,000 years ago. Whenever we came to a new continent, we would kill 90% of the large mammal population there. This was good for us, but bad for the woolly mammoths.
We learned to farm around 10,000 BCE and agriculture spread, killing hunter-gatherers in the process. But even for the new farmers, domestication was not necessarily a net good. With worse cereal-based nutrition, human height actually decreased by four inches during this time. Farming also moved us into cities which gave us new moralizing religions like Christianity and Islam. These Abrahamic religions spread, ending animistic religions in the process. Good for us, bad for them.
In the last half of the 2nd millenium, the Industrial Revolution and globalization brought protoforms of our modern addictions:
The Triangle Trade shipped tobacco and sugar (drugs) from the New World back to Europe, where it was processed into rum (a drug), which was shipped to Africa in exchange for slaves, who would then work in the New World to farm more tobacco and sugar.
Before the War on Drugs, we had the War for Drugs. The American Revolutionary War began when the British tried to tax tea (a drug), leading to the Boston Tea Party. This happened out East too. Newly consumerist Britian was addicted to silk and porcelain from China. But their mercantilist government wanted to minimize imports and maximize exports. Britain needed to export something to China. Opium was the answer, and British opium exports increased 100x from 1650 to 1880, leading to the Opium Wars.
Colonial powers were addicted to expansion in the face of broad, holistic harm to indigenous populations. Like all addictions, Europe’s addiction to expansion was unsustainable. After the Scramble for Africa in the lead up to WWI, there was nothing left to expand into—just each other. Meanwhile, leaders like the German Kaiser and Russian Czar were addicted to nationalism and an us-versus-them mindset. They were scared of what their people would do if they didn't go to war. Addiction to colonialism + nationalism = war.
Replication implies addiction. Human history is peppered with systems built on addiction.
And yet, addiction is addicted to addiction itself. (Woah.) We are even more addicted today.
III. The Addictification of Everything
Addiction has infested every aspect of our lives. Let’s start with behaviors that make US life expectancy lag 4 years behind the OECD: drugs, obesity, cars, and guns.
Drugs are the clearest example. Overdose deaths are up 4x, with synthetic opoid deaths up 30x. It takes 30mg to OD on heroin but only 3mg (essentially a speck of dust) to OD on fentanyl.
Obesity is also the result of addiction. Foods are engineered to be overeaten, and the resulting calorie surplus is the source of obesity. We’re surrounded by addictive foods.
Cars kill us through addiction in two ways. First, 33% of car deaths come from drunk driving or distracted driving—addiction to alcohol or screens. Second, we are addicted to a US car culture. Other modes of transport are much safer, better for the climate, etc. But we can’t escape.
The US is uniquely addicted to guns. We have narrow, repeated behavior (legal gun ownership) in the face of broad, repeated harms (50x more gun deaths per capita than the UK). A sure sign of addiction: a man kills 20 kindergarteners at Sandy Hook, but nothing changes. We’re trapped here.
The US does narrow, repeated behavior (drugs, food, cars, guns) in the face of broad, repeated harms (decreasing life expectancy).
Addiction pervades every industry. I like to call this the Addiction Economy.
First, with the Attention Economy, Big Tech addicts us to our phones by prioritizing time spent over time well spent. This causes various harms, like doubling depression in teens. Our only recourse is reading books that teach us about dopamine fasts and The Art of Doing Nothing.
Financialization is a form of addiction. As Jeremy Grantham notes in the Age of Easy Money: “In the last 50 years, the percentage of GDP that goes to finance has gone from 3.5% to 8.5%. The financial industry is like a giant bloodsucker. But we do not generate any real increase in income. We are just a cost.” Good for Wall St, bad for the rest of us.
Plus, I haven’t even talked about traditional addictions like cigarettes or gambling. These are still around, still insidious. A friend of mine was addicted to casino and sports gambling, so needed to put himself on a self-imposed blacklist so they wouldn’t let him in. Philip Morris is somehow still a $140 billion company, but their primary product hasn’t changed in decades—cigarettes coupled with scientific doubt.
Indeed, we can view all companies today as part of the Addiction Economy:
Attention Economy. Apple, Youtube, Facebook, TikTok. Maximize engagement in the face of loneliness and mental health.
Oil and Gas. Saudi Aramco, ExxonMobil. Maximize fossil fuel extraction in the face of the climate crisis.
Food. McDonald’s, Nestle. Maximize addictive fats and sugars in the face of obesity.
Healthcare. CVS, UnitedHealth. Maximize opioids and other must-buy drugs in the face of an overdose crisis.
Consumerism. Walmart, Amazon. Maximize sales in the face of massive waste.
Sigh. Rip. Damn. Meh. What should we do?
Addiction is narrow, repeated behavior in the face of broad, repeated harm.
Addiction is not new. Replication implies addiction. Human history is peppered with systems built on addiction.
But today we’re currently experiencing the Addictification of Everything—the expansion of addiction into all activities.
Addiction is not just reserved for companies. For example, as Chris Elmendorf notes: unions, governments, and nonprofits all rent-seek the excess value in our constrained housing supply. Politics too is full of addiction. We’re addicted to manufactured outrage and 24/7 news cycles in the face of massive polarization. The moment something gets politicized is the moment we know nothing will get done. And yet we politicize everything.
More generally, we live in a system with the expectation of growth. Dopamine creates an expectation of reward for our brains. Debt creates an expectation of profit for our institutions.
Many addictions start out harmless: a candy bar here, a TikTok video there. But as PG says:
“When the thing we want is something we want to want, we consider technological progress good. When progress concentrates something we don't want to want it seems bad. The thing we like is transformed into a thing we like too much.”
The primary goal of any system it to perpetuate itself. Systems are addicted to themselves.
It’s difficult to know what we should do about the Addictification of Everything. After these addictions speedrun our bodies, brainstems, and biosphere, we eventually do respond. Attorney generals charged tobacco companies with a $200 billion settlement in 1994. The Sackler family will pay $4.5 billion for falsely marketing opioids. It’s a fine response eventually, but would be much better to prempt the harm first. Instead, we should tax addiction like we tax externalities. Sin taxes and Pigouvian taxes are a good first step here.
If we want to change the culture itself, we need spread anti-addiction memes. These social antibodies exist for behaviors we now look down on, like smoking. But there are some more generally concepts we can propagate too.
Compersion is when you feel happy for someone else’s happiness, like a world in which Philip Morris is happy that someone quit smoking. (Wake me up when this happens.)
The philosophy of subtraction from Aya Miyaguchi of the Ethereum Foundation is a way for institutions to be happy without growth. Instead of an addition mindset, organizations can aim to be small, not large:
We should not embrace post-growth (increasing GDP does actually lead to happiness), but we should embrace post-addiction. To do this, we will need to measure addiction itself. Just like we track government corruption indices, we should track Gross Domestic Products of Addiction (GDPA). If someone is producing, importing, or exporting lots of GDPA, that’s bad.
One final place to look is further upstream: addiction is often caused by a lack of connection. Let’s tax the Addiction Economy and point the financial capital towards building social capital—walkable cities, third spaces, and human connection.
Not sure when, but hoping for a less addictive future for our kids,
This week on the Rhys Show:
I interviewed Peter Singer on his new book, Animal Liberation Now. Lots of juicy nuggets on the utterly inhumane conditions of animals, and what we can do about it (vegetarianism, cellular meat, etc.).
Full episode below and on Apple, Spotify, Google, and YouTube.
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Stardust Evolving, Doug Petkanics, Daniel Friedman, Tom Higley, Christian Ryther, Maciej Olpinski, Jonathan Washburn, Sam Jonas, Patrick Walker, David Hanna, Benjamin Bratton, Michael Groeneman, Haseeb Qureshi, Jim Rutt, Brian Crain, Matt Lindmark, Colin Wielga, Malcolm Ocean, John Lindmark, Ref Lindmark, Peter Rogers, Denise Beighley, Scott Levi, Harry Lindmark, Simon de la Rouviere, Jonny Dubowsky, and Katie Powell.