Anxiety and surveillance: pillars of the new economy

The terms addiction and compulsion tend to be used loosely and often interchangeably. But in an article in the Wall Street Journal, science writer Sharon Begley draws a simple but illuminating distinction between the two psychological disorders: addiction is born of pleasure, while compulsion is anxiety’s child.

Behavioral addictions begin in pleasure. But compulsions, according to a growing body of scientific evidence, are born in anxiety and remain strangers to joy. They are repetitive behaviors that we engage in repeatedly to alleviate the angst brought on by the possibility of harmful consequences.

The drunk seeks to regain the sense of well-being that the last shot of bourbon provided. The compulsive hoarder seeks to alleviate the dread that something valuable has been lost. Compulsion is both “balm and curse,” writes Begley. A compulsive act briefly mitigates feelings of anxiety, but the very experience of relief reinforces the anxiety. The anxiety ends up feeling more real, more pressing — and even more in need of relief. Anxiety and compulsion become a self-reinforcing cycle.

Compulsions can be so severe as to be debilitating. But they also, and much more routinely, take milder forms. They alter our thoughts and behavior, sometimes in deep ways, without making us dysfunctional in society. In fact, by tempering our anxiety, they may serve as a kind of therapy that protects our social functionality. Since ours is, as Auden suggested, an age of anxiety, it’s no surprise that it is also an age of compulsion.

The near-universal compulsion of the present day is, as we all know and as behavioral studies prove, the incessant checking of the smartphone. As Begley notes, with a little poetic hyperbole, we all “feel compelled to check our phones before we get out of bed in the morning and constantly throughout the day, because FOMO — the fear of missing out — fills us with so much anxiety that it feels like fire ants swarming every neuron in our brain.” With its perpetually updating, tightly personalized messaging, networking, searching, and shopping apps, the smartphone creates the anxiety that it salves. It’s a machine almost perfectly designed to turn its owner into a compulsive.

Needless to say, a portable, pocket-sized product that spurs and sustains compulsive use can be a very lucrative product for any company able to tap into its hypnotic power. The smartphone is the perfect consumer good for the age of anxiety. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that, from a commercial standpoint, the smartphone is to compulsion what the cigarette pack was to addiction.

In a recent post, I highlighted the business scholar Shoshana Zuboff’s idea that, with the arrival of the internet, capitalism has begun to take on a new form. Traditional product-based competition (sell an attractive good at a fair price) is being displaced by data-based competition (collect the richest store of information about the identity and behavior of individual consumers). In this new industrial system, which Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism, “profits derive from the unilateral surveillance and modification of human behavior.”

While surveillance capitalism taps the invasive powers of the Internet as the source of capital formation and wealth creation, it is now, as I have suggested, poised to transform commercial practice across the real world too.  An analogy is the rapid spread of mass production and administration throughout the industrialized world in the early twentieth century, but with one major caveat. Mass production was interdependent with its populations who were its consumers and employees. In contrast, surveillance capitalism preys on dependent populations who are neither its consumers nor its employees and are largely ignorant of its procedures.

The concept of surveillance capitalism helps explain the dynamics of a growing part of the economy. But it doesn’t explain everything. It focuses on the supply side (what motivates companies) while largely ignoring the demand side (what motivates consumers). I’d suggest that the secret to understanding the demand side may lie in the anxiety-compulsion cycle. What motivates consumers is anxiety — not just the fear of missing out, but also the dread of becoming invisible or losing status, the worry that others might know something that you don’t know, the nervousness that a message might have been misconstrued, and so on — and this anxiety spurs the compulsive behavior that generates ever more personal data for surveillance capitalists to harvest. We divulge our secrets because we can’t help ourselves.

This powerful, compulsion-fueled business model may have emerged by accident — I’m pretty sure that Larry Page and Sergey Brin didn’t found Google with the intent of spreading social anxiety and then capitalizing on it through surveillance systems — but it is now sustained by design. Facebook doesn’t hire cognitive psychologists and maintain a behavioral research lab for nothing. Rewards now flow to the competitor that is best able to maximize consumer anxiety in a way that spurs more compulsive behavior that in turn generates more valuable consumer data that can, to complete the cycle, be deployed to further manipulate consumer psychology.

That’s a dark way of putting it, to be sure — it ignores the real benefits that consumers gain from many online services — but it does seem to explain the governing logic of what we once happily termed “the new economy.”

Photo: University of Alaska Anchorage.