The Men in Grey and Addictive Designs

Sebastian Deterding thinks the field of User Experience (UX) has a lot to learn from a children’s book called Momo. In the book, and the movie based on it, Momo is a girl with an amazing gift. She can make people feel better just by listening to them. (But, you might ask, don’t we all have that gift?)

One day the Men in Grey show up, claiming to be from Timesavings Bank, Inc. They start informing the villagers how many seconds they have left in their lives and just how much of that time they are currently wasting. The villagers are shocked and start finding ways to save time and deposit it in Timesavings Bank. The more time-efficient they become, however, the less time they seem to have. Their lives become hectic and cold as they are drained by the Men in Grey, who are actually alien parasites that steal time and smoke it like cigarettes.

The point of Deterding’s (2014) analogy is that much of UX today is not all that different from the Men in Grey. Is UX about helping people or is it about capturing more of their time? This calls to mind the work of Ivan Illich, who became famous for his arguments about the manipulative nature of many of today’s products and institutions.

In Deschooling Society (1971), Illich argued that modern man is not only less active and less creative but also lonelier than we used to be, living a siloed existence devoid of thriving convivial relationships. To this one could add the signature effect of Deterding’s Men in Grey: We also now live hurried, distracted, less contemplative lives. The more time we “save,” the more overwhelmed and stressed out we become. Perhaps “saving time” in turn requires us to focus on time more than we should in the first place.

In Tools for Conviviality (1973), Illich introduced the notion of “radical monopolies,” a concept he would later use to argue that professional groups and the rising culture of experts have created a sort of monopoly on many basic human activities (Madar, 2010). Many of us have been robbed of much of our knowledge for creation and reduced to mere consumers. This is not only less economically and environmentally sustainable, but is less psychologically rewarding, leaving people with a general sense of dissatisfaction.

Key to Illich’s argument is his distinction between an “industrial” and “convivial” tool. (For an excellent discussion, see Sanders and Stappers’ 2013 book, Convivial Toolbox.) A “tool,” for Illich, is basically a design. This can be either a device or a process, producing either tangible or intangible commodities. A tool is “convivial” if easily used by anybody, and as often or seldom as desired to achieve a purpose chosen by the user (Illich, 1973). Convivial tools allow users to enrich environments and express tastes in a noncoercive way. An example discussed by Illich was the landline telephone. It was noncoercive and inexpensive.

Industrial tools, on the other hand, are more coercive. An example is the automobile. Consider all the time the average person must work just to own a car, to keep fuel in it, to pay for maintenance, and insurance. Consider the sum healthcare costs of automobile accidents, not to mention the environmental cost of the oil industry. Illich argued that if you divide the distance a person drives per year by all the effort needed to make that driving possible in the first place, then the real average speed or gain afforded by the automobile is less than four miles per hour.

Interestingly, a newer example of a coercive, industrial tool might be social media. (Perhaps the Men in Grey now say they’re just trying to connect everyone.) Take Facebook as an example. Facebook’s users are not its customers, who are the people that pay for the ads on the site. In this way it is similar to television, but with an important difference: With social media, users not only provide their time and attention (and their data), but also create all the content that advertisers then capitalize on. The users are, in a very real sense, working for these companies.

What companies like Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and Youtube have realized is that they can get users to work for them if they allow users to capture each other’s attention. As someone spends more and more time on these sites, however, all of these “jobs” can start adding up. Bogost (2013) argues this can result in something like underemployment: As we stretch ourselves thinner “working” for more companies, we may become inundated in a similar way. He calls this reality “hyperemployment.”

As our social media work spreads us thinner, it adds “digital stress” to our lives, driven by a looming sense of “connective obligation” (Case, 2011): We feel obliged to keep checking in. If we don’t, God forbid, then we might miss something. This anxiety is a form of digital stress now called “FOMO”, the “fear of missing out.” It’s so strong that we suffer “nomophobia,” a sense of panic when we can’t find our phones. And if we’re putting in all this leg work, well…as Lenhart et al. (2010) found, we get angry if we think others aren’t upholding their end of this connective obligation, if they’re not responsive enough, not plugged in enough, not, perhaps…also acting like an addict.

Why do we do this to ourselves? The answer, which is probably no longer controversial, is that we’re addicted. We’re trying to “maximize rewards.” A rat in a Skinner box will keep pushing a lever for food pellets. Humans will keep clicking and scrolling for a little dopamine—call them little “feelgood pellets.” Our response, just like the rat’s, boils down to reinforcement schedules, of which there are four kinds. Our responses can be reinforced on a ratio or interval schedule, which are themselves either fixed or variable. (Here we’ll ignore negative reinforcement.)

In a fixed-ratio schedule a reward is obtained after every X number of responses. This produces a step function where each reward is followed by a respite, until another reward is desired, which produces rapid responses to generate the next reward. Piecemeal work is an example of such a schedule. The most powerful schedule is variable-ratio. Here, the reward depends on the number of responses, but the number required is different every time. Since we can’t predict how many it will be, all we can do is respond at a steady rate, again and again and again. 

Variable-ratio is the reinforcement schedule that slot machines use. Slot machines are so successful that they’ve literally reshaped Vegas itself. As Schüll (2012) observes in his book, Addiction by Design, more and more gambling addicts are moving away from classic, more social games like poker and blackjack and gravitating toward solitary machine games like the revamped, electronic slot machine.

When it comes to likes or responses on Twitter or Facebook, these “feelgood pellets” happen after a variable (unfixed) amount of time has passed. This is a variable-interval reinforcement schedule. Though not quite as powerful as variable-ratio schedules (and therefore slightly less intense than gambling in a casino), variable-interval and variable-ratio schedules still generate a similar response pattern: Both produce a steady rate of responses with no predictable pauses or changes in rate (Domjan, 2000).

But wait. Why only attend to one source of pellets at a time? Why not open multiple tabs? Why not compulsively sample multiple streams of media input, ever trying to maximize those little dopamine feelgood pellets? Enter the grim world of “media multitasking.”

Multitasking is, of course, a misnomer. What we’re really doing is task switching, incessantly. The late Clifford Nass famously argued that media multitasking is not best thought of as an honest attempt to get more done. It’s more a form of distraction, a way of avoiding the real task at hand. In other words, what we tend to call “multitasking” is often a form of procrastination. Wang and Tchernev (2012), for instance, found that people may begin media multitasking because of some believed productivity benefit, but that’s not why they continue doing it once they begin—they continue because it feels good. 

And it changes our brains. Excessive computer use can have similar effects as cocaine use or alcoholism, reducing the amount of gray matter in the brain and causing abnormalities in the white matter (Lin et al., 2012; Yuan et al., 2011). It’s interesting that we spend so much time focusing on ergonomics, things like the heights of our desks and chairs and monitors. Why not also stress the effects of excessive screen time? We know it has deleterious effects (e.g., Nakazawa et al., 2002; Yoshioka et al., 2007).

Facebook of course would say this is absurd. Twitter too. They’re not Timesavings Bank. It’s all about connecting people of course. It’s like email, or smartphones. These are all just…“conveniences.” And yet, like the villagers harassed by the Men in Grey, we find that the more “conveniences” we have, the less time we have, which will always be the case as long as our conveniences are themselves time-consuming—and they will be as long as they’re addictive.


An alien of superior intellect tells you the story of the monkey with a box with a button on it wired to the pleasure center of its brain.

“What’s the monkey do?” you ask the alien. 

“It can’t stop pushing the button,” the alien replies. 

“Stupid monkey,” you say. “I would never do that.” 

The alien replies, “You already are.”


Bogost, I. (2013). Hyperemployment, or the exhausting work of the technology user. The Atlantic. Retrieved from:

Case, A. (2011). Connective obligation. Cyborg Anthropology. Retrieved from:

Deterding, S. (2014). Designing the good life: The ethics of user experience design. Slideshare. Retrieved from:

Domjan, M. (2000). The essentials of conditioning and learning. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Ende, M. (1973). Momo. London: Puffin Books.

Illich, I. (1975). Tools for conviviality. London: Marion Boyers.

Illich, I. (1973). Deschooling society. London: Marion Boyers.

Lenhart, A., Ling, R., Campbell, S. & Purcell, K. (2010). Teens and mobile phones. Chapter Three: Attitudes towards cell phones. Pew Internet and American Life Project. Retrieved from:

Lin, F., Zhou, Y., Du, Y., Qin, L., Zhao, Z., Xu, J. & Lei, H. (2012). Abnormal white matter integrity in adolescents with internet addiction disorder: A tract-based spatial statistics study. PLoS ONE 7(1): e30253. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030253.

Madar, C. (2010). The people’s priest. The American Conservative. Retrieved from:

Nakazawa, T., Okubo, Y., Suwazono, Y., Kobayashi, E., Komine, S., Kato, N. & Nogawa, K. (2002). Association between duration of daily VDT use and subjective symptoms. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, Volume 42, Issue 5, 421-426.

Sanders, B.-N. & Stappers, P.J. (2013). Convivial toolbox: Generative research for the front end of design. Amsterdam: BIS Publishers.

Schüll, N. D. (2012). Addiction by design: Machine gambling in Las Vegas. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wang, Z. & Tchernev, J.M. (2012). The “myth” of media multitasking: Reciprocal dynamics of media multitasking, personal needs, and gratifications. Journal of Communication, Vol. 62, No. 3, 493-513.

Yoshioka, E., Saijo, Y., Fukui, T., Kawaharada, M. & Kishi, R. (2007). Association between duration of daily visual display terminal work and insomnia among local government clerks in Japan. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, Volume 51, Issue 2, 148-156.

Yuan, K., Wang, G., Zeng, F., Zhao, L., Yang, X., Liu, P., Liu, J., Sun, J., von Deneen, K.M., Gong, Q., Liu, Y. & Tian, J. (2011). Microstructure abnormalities in adolescents with internet addiction disorder. PLoS ONE 6(6): e20708. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0020708. 

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