Are we addicted to our iPads? Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Addiction: The key to all mythologies

From alcohol and cigarettes to Xboxes and iPads, modern life can be a minefield of addiction.

When people say they’re addicted to their iPads, they don’t mean addicted, addicted. In his recent book, The Fix (Collins, £18.99), Damian Thompson seeks to extend the meaning of the term, examining our loyalties to everything from iPads to Starbucks to 12-step groups.

While The Fix doesn’t actually upgrade our concept of addiction – there is no glossy new product – it does give the subject a symphonic treatment, with parts for experts and marketers, addicts and consumers. The findings of neuroscience supply the most plaintive high notes; its exotic vocabulary fails to account for our varied resistance to addiction, just as you’d expect it to fail to account for our varied capacity for love.

One contention of Thompson’s book is that prevailing norms can encourage the sense of being addicted. Had Nicotine Anonymous been formed in 1900, its members would have appeared paranoid. But in 2012 it seems obvious that smoking involves the addict’s cycle of anticipation, subversive thrill and shame. Overeaters are not merrily but morbidly obese these days, and a contemporary Marquis de Sade could have met Michael Douglas at a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting.

The distinction between normal and abnormal behaviour is not only changeable through time but questionable in essence. As Charlie Citrine says in Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift: “Once you had read Freud’s The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, you knew everyday life was psychopathology.” Both Freud and Jung derived their descriptions of “normal” character from the observation of mental illness.

Take obsessive compulsive disorder. The belief of the person who crosses their fingers before a job interview, just like that of a person who relocks a door 60 times to feel calm, is that it’s possible to control the unknowable with magic. The difference is supplied by the range of application. Similarly, some of us have gone shoe-shopping when what we wanted was love – which required us to reason like addicts. On my way to psychotherapy college, I once chatted with a guy who slept rough. “This,” he explained, raising a can of nuclear brew, “is not a drink problem, it is a drink solution.” But to what? The motley bunch of issues that psychiatrists assemble as “addictive tendencies” are ready-made to greet addiction as a ready-made panacea. In other words, if this is a problem, then that is a solution – and the addict’s behaviour continues to replicate the formula like spirals of manky DNA.

All addictions arise from the poignant desire to interpret existential anxieties as a physical lack – of heroin, vodka, or new shoes. An addict tries to get “clean”, not because this is an end in itself, but in order to get back in the existential dirt with the rest of us. Cleanliness, in this sense, is a long way from godliness.

But heroin is physically addictive, while shoes, surely, are not. The distinction between substance addiction and “process”, or behavioural, addiction might be less tidy than the categories imply. In a process addiction – to sex, for example – a person may well be addicted to the biochemicals she shoots up in the privacy of her own body. The biochemical element in exercise addiction is accepted. Why not in serially unrequited love affairs?

Consumer addiction has required a deep-rooted aetiology. Technology and muffins are now “irresistible”, not only because they are designed to be derangingly cool or delicious but also because we are all more susceptible to the kind of thinking it once took an old-fashioned traumatic childhood to initiate.

The psychiatric term for narcissistic traits developed in adulthood is “ASN” – “Acquired Situational Narcissism”. We recognise it without the fancy definition: raging pop stars who asked for white roses but were damn well given pink, or the supermodel who whops a stern flight attendant in the eye. It’s unlikely that all of these people had abusive parents; more plausible that this is what celebrity can do to personality.

Should fame prove elusive, the delusion that everyone “hearts” you can now be fuelled by Facebook, blogging and Twitter. If only this were a mere 15-minute experience. Even if you don’t semi-religiously pimp up your profile, you can distort your psyche by other means. In the days when wrinkles formed and richly deserved fat could not be suctioned out in your lunch hour, people knew their mortal limitations by looking in the mirror.

Now we live in a time of purchasable miracles – Fat-free! Carb-blocking! Age-reversing! – that diminish our acceptance of ageing, illness and death. Even our workouts are subtly exalted. We are “training”, apparently – but for what? Jennifer Aniston probably had no idea she was endorsing the narcissistic defence of our times when the phrase “because I’m worth it” sprang from her honey-sweet lips.

Once, during the agonies of a slow download, a friend referred to the spinning-wheel Apple icon, which signifies a technical hitch, as “the wheel of death”. When an Xbox crashes, gamers refer to the warning ring around the on/off switch as the “red ring of death”. There’s an existential theme here: what if the download or the game never restarts? Strong-hearted Buddhist monks cruise an analogous mental purgatory every day before breakfast, and a stray pulse of enlightenment has led some western psychiatrists to think meditation may help treat our “pandemic” of mental “disorders”.

For those deprived of a neat diagnosis, meditation can make train delays, or a tardy side order, seem much less injurious to the heart. The Buddhist view of patience as a virtue might be stated like this: every mochaccino you do not send back in anger for a fairer share of foam will gentle your relationship with death.

Marketing has always dealt in wish-fulfillment but it now offers eerily deep reassurances. Of its iCloud, Apple says: “This is the cloud the way it should be: automatic and effortless.” This isn’t a response to need, it’s a drip-drip sedation of angst. How have consumers allowed Apple to feel both appointed and required to offer this? The answer may be familiar. Anyone who believes that anything “should” seem “automatic and effortless” will have a hard time living – and dying. But they will consistently purchase technology. In other words, if this is a problem, then that is a solution.

Our relationship with technology firms may have an impact on evolution, because what we are encouraging is a survival of the weakest. Those of us who can tell the difference between an online relationship and a real one, those who are not interested in spending their days off finessing their software are, increasingly, seen as oddballs or kooks.

Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From the Goon Squad depicts the future of affectionate interfacing: “He hadn’t seen or spoken to Lulu since their meeting three weeks ago; she was a person who lived in his pocket.” Alex and Lulu communicate via text, which they abbreviate as “T”. After relaying to Lulu his childish response at the sight of a rising skyscraper – “up gOs th bldg” – Alex remarks “how easily baby talk fitted itself into the crawl space of a T.”

Novelists have long held this broader, scarier view of addictive behaviour. George Eliot’s Middlemarch, published in 1874, portrays a workaholic in the form of Casaubon, who neglects his marriage in order to squint in libraries. The toil of writing his “Key to All Mythologies” (an excellent shorthand for any addictive object) is more compelling – and less demanding – than the charms of his youthful wife.

Most novels are, in this expanded sense, about addiction: a sacred or fetishised object or behaviour is used by a character to displace or to eliminate more overwhelming anxieties. The character either cheats himself to a bitter or bitter-sweet end, or reforms, according to the author’s sensibility.

Jane Austen’s heroine Emma lived in 19th-century England, where well-to-do women were conditioned to addictive thinking on the subject of love. Emma’s struggle to attain self-knowledge is marred by “a disposition to think a little too well of herself”, and demoralised by a society that marketed trinkets, bonnets and red-coats as the proper objects of female concern. Emma’s friends needed husbands then in the way some of us need mobile phones now: in order to feel that they existed.

In F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, Jay Gatsby’s desire to win back his ex-girlfriend Daisy, a goal of religious significance to him, turns his criminal activities into acts of supplication. Attempting to prove his piety to Daisy he displays the wealth it has generated: “He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them one by one before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel . . . shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green . . .”

It is a gorgeous evocation of narcissism; Gatsby literally calls attention to his colourful surface. And Daisy sobs to see it, not because she understands Gatsby’s impoverishment but because she is overwhelmed to learn she is a goddess. Hollywood actors ought to scroll their fan sites with the same degree of amazement. Fitzgerald has Gatsby die off-stage, face down in a swimming pool, as would have befitted poor Narcissus himself.

It is very disappointing that, as Thompson points out, the reasons for addictive behaviour are so hard to quantify. But it’s not surprising. Their discovery requires a highly trained and peculiarly sensitive human mind. A live brain scan is too primitive an instrument.

Talitha Stevenson is a psychotherapist and writer

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special

Fox via YouTube
Show Hide image

Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

***

“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

***

Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

***

Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

***

As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.