Dealers, zombies and lawyers


In my view, one of the more interesting books to come out of Silicon Valley in recent years is Nir Eyal's succinct work Hooked: how to build habit forming products (Nov 2014).

Eyal provides a simple, convincing model for how people end up using certain software products habitually and suggests how producers may design software for that purpose.

The long and short of it is to provide intriguing "triggers", easily acted upon, with action delivering variable rewards, which intensify with the user’s investment of time in using the product.

If such a product becomes associated, in the user’s mind, with some important need in their life, a habit of use may be formed - the "trigger" is internalised.

Habits can, of course, be good or bad things.

The other day, I stumbled across a new book which looks at the same issues as Eyal from the user’s perspective: Irresistible: why we can't stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching (Mar 2017) by Adam Alter, an associate professor at NYU.

Having now read Irresistible, and re-reading Hooked immediately afterwards, my impression is that, despite the overlap in ground covered, the two books have been written in barely overlapping intellectual milieux - which makes them all the more interesting to read together.

In places they refer to the same evidence (e.g. Bogost's 2011 Cow Clicker experiment (Hooked, pp 175-6, Irresistible, pp 313-6). However, Alter's book does not, so far as I can see, refer to Eyal's work, or to much of the work which seems to have been most influential on Eyal. In another attempt to test for overlap between people influencing Alter's and Eyal's ideas, I also compared the long lists of people thanked for reviewing drafts or otherwise contributing. Alter's list names around 100 people; Eyal's around 500. Nobody appears on both.

Parallels and divergences

So, it would seem that there may be something CP Snow-ish going on.

However, there are parallels between the conceptual structures which the two authors appear to have developed independently.

Alter's notions of goals, feedback, progress, escalation and cliffhangers certainly have some similarities with Eyal's key concepts, though I haven't attempted a precise mapping.

Another parallel is that both have clearly thought hard about the morality of manipulation. Both use a drug dealer metaphor to describe the creators of harmfully addictive products, and both refer to zombies in discussing the users of such products.

However, Eyal sees the problem of addiction as an edge case, whereas Alter sees it as much more significant and provides lots of evidence, helpfully illustrated by anecdotes.

For instance, Eyal says that it is "important to recognise that the percentage of users who form a detrimental dependency is very small.  Industry estimates for pathological users of even the most habit-forming technologies, such as slot-machine gambling, are just 1 percent. Addiction tends to manifest in people with a particular psychological profile." (p170)

He also suggests that "[e]ven though the world is becoming a potentially more addictive place, most people have the ability to self-regulate their behaviors" (p171) and that "[w]ith the exception of the addicted 1 percent, users bear ultimate responsibility for their actions" (p176).

Alter's conclusion, in contrast, is that "[h]alf of the developed world is addicted to something, and for most people that something is a behavior. We're hooked on our phones and email and video games and TV and work and shopping and exercise and a long list of other experiences that exist on the back of rapid technological growth and sophisticated product design" (p317).

Alter also suggests "an insidious difference between substance addiction and behavioral addiction: where substance addictions are nakedly destructive, many behavioral addictions are quietly destructive acts wrapped in cloaks of creation. The illusion of progress will sustain you as you achieve high scores or acquire more followers or spend more time at work, and so you'll struggle ever harder to shake the need to continue.(p174)

What does this mean in practice?

Despite the difference in emphasis between Eyal and Alter, Eyal's work is most definitely not amoral.

Eyal emphasises a moral obligation only to build a product that you will yourself use (or that the younger you would have used) and that you believe materially improves the lives of others. He also recognises the need for users to develop "mental antibodies" and rejects the view that the risk of addiction can be ignored by makers. Hooked as a whole shows more concern about the dangers than the quotations above might suggest, if taken in isolation.

Ultimately, both authors clearly recognise the benefits and dangers of technology, and distinguish between beneficial habits and harmful addictions. They both emphasise the need for ethics and thought in technology design, they both recognise that such things are often lacking at the moment, and that users need to find ways to protect themselves (and their children) from the risks.

These issues are clearly not going away.  Indeed, it seems that attempting to strike a better balance in this area may be becoming an industry in itself, to judge from this Nov 2016 interview in The Atlantic.

What, if anything, does this have to do with lawyers?

This blog has lawyers and legal work as a theme, so a few final thoughts seem appropriate -

1) The behavioural addictions which Alter discusses feel very familiar from the legal sector. His discussion of the unintended consequences of certain types of goal-setting suggests questions such as the linkage between utilisation targets and time-based charging and the legal profession's notoriously workaholic, egotistical "deal junkie" (or "case junkie") temptations.

2) Current tech-facilitated trends such as 24/7 availability and increased social media use by lawyers (on top of all the other demands of legal practice) also present some risks which are evidently real but not yet fully understood. Eyal himself suggests in a March 2017 interview the question of whether people are obsessed with, or addicted to, work rather than tech. I suspect that the answer is "both" and that they're mutually reinforcing.

3) The more headline-grabbing sorts of worker-manipulation seen in some other sectors aren't quite as crude in legal work. However, there are certainly serious risks to bear in mind when seeking to use more technology in the context of the numbers, structures, processes (or lack thereof) and business model which currently drive law firm success or failure.

4) In that context, it's noticeable that major law firms are now talking publicly about recognising and starting to tackle problems of stress and imbalance. For example, as I write, the current issue of Legal Business is in front of me, with a long and interesting piece on "Survivors - the battle to improve the working lives of lawyers".  Contrast that with the picture outlined in this piece by Andrew Miller a few days ago in the FT, referring to research based on London legal, banking and accounting job adverts from about five years ago.

5) I think that a more thoughtful approach to technology may contribute to making things better here. The first step may be to recognise that technological changes, and what they enable, seem likely to be contributing to the problem. Lots of little things that in themselves seem good ideas may add up to something more problematic. A following step may be to think more actively about developing ways of working which reflect a greater awareness of what human beings realistically need, and can cope with, and which are more likely to promote good habits or, at least, not exacerbate bad ones. There are already moves in that direction. A third step may be to take these human factors more into account when making technological choices, even accepting that more mechanistic, numerical considerations are, realistically, still going to be very important.

Graeme Johnston is the CEO of Juralio Ltd, formerly a partner in a global law firm.

Acknowledgment: thanks to Bob Pack for the photo!

Graeme Johnston