When future generations look back at the early 21st century, they may well decide that its political turmoil — the collapse of the euro, the spread of Islam, the rise of China — pales into insignificance next to a far more important development: a fundamental change in the relationship between human beings and their social environment.
This was the moment in history, they may conclude, when our species mastered the art of manipulating its brain chemistry to produce intense bursts of short-term pleasure. As a result, billions of people began to have more fun than their minds and bodies could handle — and developed insidious, life-sapping addictions.
Already, the distinction between ‘addicts’ and ordinary people is far less clear than it was even 20 years ago. The line between consumption, habit and addiction is becoming dangerously blurred.
It’s not difficult to find evidence that appetites are spinning out of control. At Victoria Station, young commuters pant like elderly spaniels after rushing to catch their train. Many of them are clutching over-filled baguettes; they have to lick the mayonnaise off their fingers before fishing for their tickets.
Other travellers are hovering over a gigantic free-standing food counter loaded with thousands of pieces of loose candy: jelly beans, toffee, bonbons, liquorice sticks, fudge and lollipops, all glistening with artificial colouring. These sugar addicts look furtive as they scoop the sweets into the paper bags. Anyone would think they were buying pornography, from the way their shoulders hunch and their eyes dart sideways.
Not that many of today’s porn connoisseurs have to go through the ordeal of scanning the top shelf in the newsagents. That embarrassment has been made redundant by technology. More than 150 million people visit porn sites every year, and the figure will soon rise into the hundreds of millions as the developing world hooks up to the internet.
The numbers tell only part of the story, however. It’s not just that digital technology creates unprecedented desire for pornography; the images themselves are shockingly explicit compared with most pre-digital porn. Never before have so many nice people discovered that they have depraved sexual tastes. Husbands who would once have retreated to their dens to pore over car magazines now download videos of ‘teen sluts’ being violently penetrated and gasping for more.
The difference between old-fashioned porn and internet porn is a bit like the difference between wine and spirits. After hundreds of years as a mild intoxicant, erotica has undergone a sudden distillation. Digital porn is the equivalent of cheap gin in Georgian England: a reliable if unhygienic hit that relieves misery and boredom. And, unlike the old ‘dirty mags’, it is available in limitless quantities.
As a general rule, the distilling of pleasures is a quick route to addiction — by which I mean excessive consumption of something that causes harm to the person consuming it. There are other definitions of addiction that portray it as an irreversible brain disease. They would carry more weight if anyone had identified a clinical test for addiction — for example, a blood test or brain scan that distinguished alcoholics from non-addicted heavy boozers. No such test exists. Nor is there any prospect of scientists identifying a gene for addiction. To be sure, people may be genetically vulnerable to excess consumption. But biological inheritance influences all our behaviour. And that’s what addiction is: a pattern of behaviour stimulated by changes in the environment.
We’ve all seen Gin Lane, in which a hollow-eyed, syphilitic harridan drops her baby down a stairwell. Hogarth was exaggerating, but not by much: in the mid-18th century, parts of inner London suffered the world’s first mass epidemic of alcoholism. Its causes were no mystery: technology interacted with politics to poisonous effect. First someone invented the means to distil liquor from grain in industrial quantities. Then the British Parliament passed a series of Acts breaking the monopoly of gin distillers and allowing anyone to distil even rotten grain into spirits.
The gin craze was eventually stamped out by legislation banning home distilling. Once cheap gin ceased to be available, addicted drinkers kicked the habit. There’s an interesting comparison to be made with the heroin epidemic among American GIs during the Vietnam war. Again, technology and politics were implicated. In the late 1960s, new techniques for manufacturing pure heroin coincided with the arrival of bored, scared and disorientated troops in the Mekong delta. By 1970, 15 per cent of soldiers were snorting or smoking heroin. The Nixon administration panicked at the thought of thousands of helpless junkies arriving back home after their tours of duty.
In the event, though, the near impossibility of scoring high-grade heroin in Middle America meant that the vast majority of GI heroin users became almost instantly un-addicted. Their environment had changed too drastically to sustain their habit. So much for an ‘irreversible’ brain disease.
We should think of addiction as, essentially, supply-driven behaviour that hijacks reward circuits common to all human beings and most animals. Particular substances and actions cause the brain to overproduce dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and, especially, desire. It’s even been suggested that a line of cocaine has a similar effect on the brain to the experience of falling in love. Certainly both cokeheads and young lovers spout similar varieties of carefree nonsense; also, they both exhibit signs of craving typical of dopamine.
Since addictive highs are supply-driven, you can usually ‘cure’ an addict by cutting off the supply. But that’s easier said than done. This isn’t Vietnam. You can’t round up consumers of depraved videos and airlift them to a porn-free part of the world.
In fact, it’s hard to see how the new addictions can ever be beaten in a digital era. With every passing day, technology finds new ways of distilling pleasure — of producing sharper and smarter hits that create craving. The manufacturers of computer games, for example, have appropriated techniques from slot machines, timing rewards to make their games more psychologically ‘sticky’ — i.e., to keep players online for longer. Meanwhile, the gambling industry seeks expert advice to refine its operations. Dr Adi Jaffe, a Los Angeles psychologist specialising in addiction, was recently asked to go and work for a company that runs online casinos. ‘I told them I wasn’t in the business of creating addicts any more,’ he replied. (Before cleaning up his act, Jaffe was one of LA’s most successful upmarket drug dealers.)
Digital technology enables an extraordinary cross-pollination between industries wanting to make their goods more ‘sticky’. Much of the product testing takes place in dark corners of the web controlled by organised crime. Some of the techniques that glue you to Facebook or your favourite celebrity news site were pioneered by mafia-funded geeks tasked with bouncing visitors from free soft-porn sites to pay-per-view gangbangs.
That’s the problem with technology: it’s increasingly adept at producing surges of dopamine and other feelgood brain chemicals but also morally neutral. This is as true of, say, pharmaceuticals as it is of computers. Take the case of Vicodin, a powerful codeine-based painkiller that works wonders for twisted backs and rotting wisdom teeth. It’s also a hit at teenage parties, thanks to the blissful buzz it produces if taken in sufficient quantities on an empty stomach. Alas, it’s powerfully habit-forming with nasty side effects. But that didn’t stop American doctors handing out 130 million scripts for it in 2010, making it the most commonly prescribed drug in the country.
Then there are Ritalin and Adderall, the amphetamine-based drugs prescribed to children with ‘attention deficit hyperactivity disorder’. Those words belong in inverted commas because ADHD is such a vague and ill-defined diagnosis. But there’s nothing vague about the extremely addictive high that these pills create — which is why there’s such vigorous black market demand for them.
There’s a lesson to be drawn from all this, but not a comforting one. It’s spelled out brilliantly in an essay by Paul Graham, a Silicon Valley investor and blogger. He makes the point that if we want to stop the processes that addict us, we will also have to call a halt to the experiments that cure disease. That’s because they are products of the same research.
Food, drink, drugs and consumer appliances have all been modified to make them more engaging than they were 40 years ago, says Graham. As a result, we’ve got into the habit of liking things too much. And since this process is accelerating, it’s likely that in the future we will be defined by our willingness to resist temptation.
It’s a miserable prospect: a world so dangerously seductive that, unless we listen to our inner Nancy Reagan telling us to ‘just say no’, it will ruin our brain chemistry, our internal organs or our sex lives. (There is already plenty of evidence to suggest that men’s growing fascination with rough porn is spoiling their relationships with real-life, non-slutty wives and girlfriends.)
The upside is that, as Graham observes, technology is also helping to eradicate poverty and disease. But that’s a mixed blessing for the developing world. Countries such as Brazil are moving from hunger to obesity in less than a generation. Also, places that previously never had much of a problem with alcoholism, such as northern China, are witnessing epic displays of drunkenness among young people.
There’s no obvious solution to the globalisation of addiction, but it’s not unreasonable to locate its roots in a particular spiritual malaise. One way of looking at addiction is to see it as the progressive replacement of people by things. Not only do we obsess over the things we buy, but we mediate many of our friendships via an operating system bought with a debit card. And when we do meet, it’s often in an environment that’s been meticulously engineered to alter our moods.
This degree of temptation is new to human beings and it’s intensifying all the time. Like alcoholics taking our first sip of the evening, we have no idea where we will end up — and we don’t really care.