The Existential Threat of Incentives

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Financial incentives cause companies to invest in making potentially harmful products from artificial intelligence to cigarettes.

WALL-E is one of the most successful films of the 21st century, and for good reason. Those who have seen it will attest to just how incisive and clever it is. But while we all love a little robot romance, the true intrigue of the movie lies in its vision of the future—and its corresponding take on humanity. The humans we see in the movie have become overweight and anti-social because of their 24-7 immersion in various dopamine-producing simulations. Sure, Pixar threw in a family-friendly ending, and sure, the lazy condition of Wall-E’s humans may be exaggerated, but the film speaks to a valid concern. When kids started to zip around on hoverboards, and when Samsung embarked on a massive advertising campaign to promote their Gear VR, the human race took one more step towards the proverbial edge. To spell it out, if humanity continues to remove the “real world” from our lives via virtual reality and other immersive technologies, one day we may lose something very important – our agency.

We might be seeing something similar happen with the Internet. While there is not an accepted consensus on the subject, there is a concern that our attention spans are rapidly decreasing as a result of the constant bombardment of information we experience when surfing the web. Cell phones could be hurting us too, detracting from our sleep when we use them late at night, and ensuring that we are constantly in the distracting loop of social media. In my own experience, many actions on my cellphone, such as checking social media or reading the news, have become relatively subconscious and almost compulsive. It certainly doesn’t seem too farfetched to say we are playing a dangerous game with constant technology immersion.

If these products could be detrimental to humanity long term, why do companies invent and mass produce them? It is the same reason that Martin Shkreli set the price of Daraprim to 56 times its prior amount, why cigarette companies load their product with nicotine, and why many foods are oversaturated with sugar. Simply put: money.

Take smoking. Cigarettes have been proven extremely compromising to our health, yet companies obviously still sell them. What’s more, these companies have a financial incentive to create an addictive product. Cigarette and soft drink companies don’t need to be selling a vital necessity to ensure the sustainably high demand that benefitted Martin Shkreli. They must merely make their product into something we are compelled to purchase.  Capitalism permits this kind of behavior, putting the onus on companies to act sustainably and responsibly when producing their products. However, all too often, a green fog of greed obscures the view of the power brokers at the helm.

This can be taken as an argument in favor of regulation and government intervention, but that would be a misinterpretation. It is merely a call for all of us to be a little more aware and forward-thinking, especially in the face of modern technologies with ramifications beyond our current understanding. Sometimes we need to keep companies from chasing the profits at the expense of our well-being. 

Ben Katzman is a student at Davidson College.

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