Thesis #15

Your smartphone is a slot-machine in your pocket

The smartphone is probably the most addictive device ever made. This is partly because it is — or can be — an extraordinarily useful device. But there seems to be more to it than mere usefulness — as a few minutes in any crowded public place, bus or train will confirm. Look around you next time you’re out and about, and count the number of people sitting alone who are not interacting with their phones.

Methodologies for measuring smartphone interactions vary. One study, conducted in 2013 by a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, found that people interacted with their phones about 150 times a day on average. This caused a good many raised eyebrows in media commentary at the time, but a more recent (2016) study, based on a a demographically diverse sample of 94 Android users, suggests that it is now a gross underestimate. The researchers wanted to find out how many times a day users touched their phones — with a ‘touch’ being a tap, type, swipe or click — over a period of four and a half days. Subjects used a specially-written app that counted every interaction.

The results were startling. The heaviest users registered nearly 5,500 daily touches, involving 225 minutes of interaction. But the average number of daily touches for the entire sample population was 2,617 — representing 145 minutes of interaction, which is about 560 interactions per day.

Given that so-called ‘user engagement’ is what the business model of surveillance capitalism (Thesis 14) seeks to maximise, such high levels of smartphone interaction are not coincidental: a great deal of applied psychological research informs the design and interfaces of major smartphone apps. Some of this same research informs the design of slot machines. The smartphone is now addictive by design.

Further reading

Nir Eyal, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, Penguin, 2014. Amazon UK:

Natasha Dow Schüll, Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, Princeton, 2014 Amazon UK:

Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: the Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Penguin, 2015. Amazon UK:

Paul Lewis, “’Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia”, Guardian, 6 October, 2017.

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