The phone rings and for one of a dozen reasons I can’t take the call. I hit the kill button (as I call it) and divert to voicemail.
Five minutes later...
My thumbprint rouses the phone from its slumber and the red dot over the handset icon tells me it has something for me. I tap a small square, discover my caller’s identity, listen to my voicemail, delete it, and return to the main screen. This time I think, this time.
The f***ing red dot is still f***ing there! I can’t stand it! I need to find the programmer responsible for this travesty; this abomination… Breathe Dele, and remember what the therapist told you about not scouring the Internet for rifles, sniper scopes and Apple iPhone developers in the same five minutes.
If your reaction to a malingering red dot isn’t the same as mine you might think I should build a bridge and get over it. I might if I didn’t know exactly what the b******s behind my phone apps were doing. They’re messing with my nucleus accumbens, the organ in my brain that receives a chemical called dopamine and makes me feel good. That’s right, they are quite literally messing with my mind, your mind, our minds, and are doing it quite deliberately.
The nucleus accumbens is the home to our addiction. It’s a pleasure centre in the brain that will leave you a drooling, bug eyed fiend if the means to stimulate it was put into your hands. No more sleep for you if I give you a box with a button wired to electrodes in your head. Not had a bath? Kids not eaten in days? Yeah well, smelling good is overrated. The kids were looking flabby so I’m weaning them off food. This is how you’ll reason while jabbing at the button, eyes glazing over. We’d have to prise the box from your dead fingers to get it off you.
You may not know this but I can stimulate this organ in your brain at will. All I have to do is ‘like’ your Facebook post (or to produce a big hit, post a comment). People are so addicted to Facebook ‘likes’, bonds of friendship get rewired online as regular users start preferring friends who ‘like’ their posts and de-friend friends who don’t. Most do this without understanding why. It is because they love the dopamine the ‘likes’ produce, which is why shortly after putting up a post or tweet, people spend ages fretting over it, watching for reactions like Pavlovian dogs, counting ‘likes’, retweets, and comments. If the public don’t ‘like’, share, or comment, avid users become irritable in the same way drug addicts become tetchy and irrational if they can’t get their regular fix.
App developers know this, and code to mess with our minds. The results of successfully pulling this physiological trigger are incredibly lucrative. If you want to make a lot of money out of a group of people, give them something they’ll get addicted to. It’s the reason social media users are urged to ‘like’, retweet, comment on, and share garbage their mates post (like this). This is why the emoji is so hyped someone’s made a movie of it - to keep a desensitized public from weaning itself off social media now we know it’s full of crap, lies, bullying and Russian propaganda. The proper emoji advert should say: can’t be arsed to express an opinion, why not pick an emoji from a handy selection a geek on a spectrum made and we’ll send your friend their daily dopamine fix. Yes, your brain secretes dopamine even if all it has to work with is a festering file in junk mail with the subject ‘<person you barely know> commented on your post’, where said comment is smiley/grumpy/sad face b******t he or she couldn’t be bothered to turn into words. You see this junk and are sorely tempted to move it into your inbox, because that’s what you do with ‘junk you love’.
Developers drive shorthand dopamine shots like emojis and canned responses because they know that sending your friends dopamine is the surest way to get them to send you some back. People create dopamine feedback loops and feel better for it, so they create dopamine feedback loops and…. You get the point. The logic at play is: he/she liked my post (sent me dopamine); I’d better like one of theirs back so they’ll know I’m willing to play the game, even if it says: Sign This Online Petition In Support Of Clubbing Baby Seals, or Send This To Everyone You Know If You Want God To Bless Them Today, like God is on f***ing Facebook. What you’ll find is there is none more irritable than the spurned liker – I ‘liked’ your s**t, but you don’t ‘like’ mine? This followed by DEFRIEND, DEFRIEND, KILL!
I know all this. I know how it works. I know why Linkedin took off when they sent out emails telling you people looked at your profile without telling you who. Why don’t they tell you who looked? It’s not as if they didn’t know when they sent the email? Let’s have a short quiz here. When you find out someone you know/respect/love/want to work for looked at your profile, what do you get? Yes, come on down you genius. Yes you at the back there. You got it 100% right! You get a shot of DO-PA-MINE.
I don’t really care if companies manipulate my physiology. Department stores have been pumping the smell of coffee and baking bread through the ventilation system for years. I’m happy to receive my dopamine like everyone else; it’s a Cowardly Old World version of Huxley’s Soma. I’ve read the books that tell software developers (like me) how to make gullible users believe that being dialled in to Titter, Whatsapp, Facebook ‘n’ stuff is better than having real friendships. One of the most successful, Nir Eyal’s Hooked, has the strapline ‘How to Build Habit Forming Products’. So if you think the red dot on your phone is accidental, or the result of some altruistic software development, you’re wrong. It’s there to facilitate the creation of habits. We’ve been trained like lab rats to understand there’s a hit from a drug we cannot resist lurking behind the dot!
To clear the red dot you have to use the app. The app maker, who will profit from your habit, knows you can’t bear the red dot because it hints at a potential dopamine hit you’re not yet getting. Clear the dot, clear the dot, CLEAR THE DOT! I don’t know about you, but I’ll sometimes see the identity of a caller, not want to speak to them, see the red dot appear after they’ve rung off, and immediately open the app to clear the dot; as if I don’t know I only missed one call and exactly whose call I missed.
I know the tricks and I don’t’ mind them. I’ll like your like of my like if you like. I’ll retweet your tweet if you’ll retweet mine. I’ll take my dopamine kick too, and enjoy it.
What I cannot abide is an empty triggering of my dopamine response. It’s like being a rat that’s trained to lift the hatch with the light above it to get at a reward, only to find when it lifts the hatch there’s nothing there. How frustrating is that? I currently have a number 1 on my email icon indicating there’s an unread message, but there’s nothing in my Unread folder. The recently acquired ‘missed call’ red dot on my phone adds to the frustration of a message in Hotmail saying I’ve a Skype chat waiting when there is in fact no such ‘chat’. I’m sick and tired of having people mess with my mind who haven’t the common decency to make sure they understand the implications and bloody get it right.
I wonder what little evils we’re inspired to do by malfunctioning, manipulative programming (brought to you by Do No Evil, Silicon Valley tax dodgers). Perhaps frustration lingers, perhaps it spills over – there’s a lady standing on a crowded train with a Baby on Board badge, but the frustrated man who might have given her his seat persuades himself she’s overweight and faking it; after all, isn’t that a coke bottle poking out of her bag? I know I’m not the happy chappy I was when I turn from the device that’s thwarted my desire. What have I said or done in the immediate aftermath that would never otherwise have crossed my mind?
I’ve finished my rant, which was mostly a diversion to give the dumb phone and its rubbish software time to do the right thing. No doubt some anal geek will tell me it’s not the phone, it’s the network provider, like I give a s**t whose fault it is. There’s still a stupid red dot on it, teasing me with a shot of a drug I love that it hasn’t got. I’m going to go online, buy a hunting rifle and sniper scope, and then I’ll hunt down the morons from whoever that are responsible for… Breathe Dele. Relax and remember what the therapist said about the curse of knowing too much about your illness.