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If you tell fiction writers that they have to only represent their own experience and not anyone else's, they don't write fiction. They write a memoir. It’s the end of my occupation.
ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: American author Lionel Shriver on BBC defending herself after calling cultural appropriation a fad. The controversy over cultural appropriation roiled right through the weekend here in Canada after an article by the editor of Write magazine led to his resignation and spawned a series of mocking tweets from high profile media people offering to put money into a cultural appropriation prize. In a moment we will hear from Hal Niedzviecki, the man behind that article and from Ryan McMahon, an Indigenous artist and writer who worries the message in one short article and an even shorter tweet speaks volumes. Also today, high waters of destruction and high hopes of reconstruction.
My basement had three feet of water in it. Everybody's taking this little breather to shore up any spots that they feel needs a little more attention.
AMT: As floodwaters wreak havoc in communities across the country and governments at all levels prepare to pour money into rebuilding, those who track climate change, floods and futures say what's needed now is a rethink—on everything from who gets to decide on waterfront development to what it is worth rebuilding. Hear them in half an hour. And author Sherry Turkle predicted a few years ago that our attachment to our smartphones could lead to an end of conversation.
Our little devices in our pockets are so psychologically powerful that they don't only change what we do, they change who we are.
AMT: Now another person tracking the effects of smartphones sees patterns of addiction akin to substance abuse. Adam Alter explains technology addiction in an hour. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti. This is The Current.
[Music: Sting]Back To Top »
'I invoked cultural appropriation in the context of literature and writing only': Hal Niedzviecki
Guests: Hal Niedzviecki, Ryan McMahon
AMT: The spring issue of Write magazine was meant to recognize the strength of Indigenous writers in Canada to celebrate the words of new voices such as Joshua Whitehead and established ones like Richard Van Camp, among many others. But the only words anyone is talking about are the 450 that editor Hal Niedzviecki wrote under the headline “Winning the Appropriation Prize” in an editorial for that issue. In it he dismissed the notion of cultural appropriation and encouraged writers to “write what they don't know.” The outrage that followed resulted in Mr. Niedzviecki’s resignation then some media heavyweights weighed in. On Twitter, Ken Whyte, former editor of the National Post and Maclean’s and a member of the heritage minister's expert advisory group on Canadian content in a digital world invited his peers to donate funds to an appropriation prize. Before long, supporters included three of the country's journalistic managers—Anne Marie Owens, editor-in-chief of the National Post, Alison Uncles, editor-in-chief of Maclean's magazine and Steve Ladurantaye, managing editor of CBC Television’s The National took to Twitter to take him up on it. All three of those editors have since apologized, but the response from some of the most powerful people in Canadian media prompted even more outrage and sparked a heated conversation about cultural appropriation, free speech and the bounds of literary inspiration. To talk about all of that, I'm joined by the man at the centre of the controversy. Hal Niedzviecki is an author. He's also the founder of Broken Pencil magazine. He joins me in our Toronto studio. Hi.
HAL NIEDZVIECKI: Good morning.
AMT: Before we talk about the response to your piece, let's talk about what you wrote. What were you trying to say?
HAL NIEDZVIECKI: Well, there's a context that needs to be said here first of all, which is that Write magazine is a very small magazine. It is the in-house magazine for members of the Writers’ Union of Canada and it is for published book authors. So what I was trying to say in that context was an address to the published book authors working on works of the imagination in print and that's an important context. So I wanted to say two things. First is that writers should absolutely be encouraged to write from points of view and perspectives that are not their own. That was the first point I tried to make. And the second point that I was trying to make—and I'll quote from the piece because nobody else does—“Indigenous literature is the most vital and compelling force in writing and publishing in Canada today.” That was the second point I wanted to make in the editorial. The connection to those ideas comes from what I learned in working with the Indigenous writers while I was editing that special issue on Indigenous writing. And it's that Indigenous writers, having experienced cultural genocide, having been raised in a dominant culture that represses their own, are doing amazing and exciting works, reclaiming their own voices and re-imagining their own unique culture. And this involves for them to some extent writing from a perspective that unfortunately and cruelly is not fully their own or they feel isn't always fully their own. And so that was the connection I was trying to make between acts of imagining other people's ideas and perspectives and Indigenous writing today.
AMT: And why did you talk about it as winning a cultural appropriation prize?
HAL NIEDZVIECKI: I invoked cultural appropriation—again in the context of literature and writing only— because I wanted to touch on that very heated subject. And I was aware of the debates around that and I wanted to push back a little bit on the idea that we should be very, very wary and very, very hesitant to invoke other cultures and perspectives in our writing.
AMT: In retrospect, should you have used the phrase cultural appropriation as you explain how you thought?
HAL NIEDZVIECKI: In retrospect—
AMT: Or would you have, not should you have.
HAL NIEDZVIECKI: You can't go back in time. But definitely if I had known that it would be taken out of the context of the Writers’ Union of Canada magazine, I would have clarified that a lot more about exactly what I meant and that I meant writing and works of the imagination in print by literary authors. And that's what I meant when I was invoking the idea of cultural appropriation.
AMT: We have someone else with us. Ryan McMahon is an Anishinaabe comedian and writer. He's launching an Indigenous media platform July 1st. It will be called Indian and Cowboy. Welcome. Ryan, can you define cultural appropriation?
RYAN MCMAHON: Sure. I think best defined, it's the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another. And certainly Hal would know that this conversation inside of the Indigenous community today is paramount to the moment we're in, around the efforts around reconciliation, Canada 150, the broader conversation of the importance of centering Indigenous voice. And you know we have one shot at this. This is the moment. And I think the moment that emerging Indigenous writers had in Hal’s publication was a big moment. It was one maybe long coming. It was one that certainly with the emerging writers that I talked to over the weekend and over the past five or six days was one that they looked forward to. And so to have these moments taken away from you or skewed in this negative way continues to rob us of the opportunity to reach audiences.
AMT: Can I clarify that? What you're saying with literature and we heard that clip of Lionel Shriver off the top and she said if I only write about myself, it's memoir—are you saying that no one can create Indigenous characters in a novel? So clarify that because that's what's not clear to some.
RYAN MCMAHON: No, absolutely not. I mean there is plenty of CanLit that features Indigenous storylines, Indigenous characters and I've not heard one Indigenous writer—myself included—say that you can't touch on these types of characters or these types of storylines. I've not heard one person say that. And so it's not even an artistic license question or a freedom of speech question really. It's really about representations that matter.
AMT: So you can do that. But what don't you want to see other non-Indigenous writers do then?
RYAN MCMAHON: Distract from the fact that should they choose to write Indigenous characters or storylines, that the Indigenous community would be silent about the types of representations found in the work.
AMT: So stereotypes, things like that.
RYAN MCMAHON: Yeah, clichés, tired half-truths. I mean what's more rewarding for the reader? To hear from Indigenous voices or to hear from someone that thinks they know something about another culture? You can do all the research. You can go visit the reserve. You can go to the powwow on the weekend and think you know something. But for the reader, I think what is important in this conversation that that has been going on for years. It should also be said this isn't a new conversation. This is a conversation that has been going on for decades—Indigenous representations. In this moment I think we are best suited to look at whose voices we're centering when we are talking about the future of this country and I think that there are so many emerging writers. Indigenous art, music and culture right now is vibrant. It's legendary. They're going to write books about this time. And so I think readers, consumers are best suited to hear those voices.
AMT: So what was your reaction when you read Hal’s essay?
RYAN MCMAHON: I was disappointed. I'm not in the CanLit circle. I'm writing a book now and I hope to be inside of that circle someday soon. But these are a lot of my friends, a lot of my colleagues and peers, people I admire and look up to and I know what they felt like. I've talked with them through the weekend and I think this is an important point, is that when you do have a shot, you kind of feel when you're from a diverse community or under-represented community, you feel like the shots are few and far between and then you get the shot. You get to have your shot at this and then you read the editor's comments kind of saying that one of the most paramount issues we face in Indian country broadly is appropriation and our own representations—whether it's a mascot issue, whether it's something that happens with Valentino and fashion, Christi Belcourt’s designs, whether it happens in video games. This has been a live conversation. It took place around Christmas time with Joseph Boyden. It takes place in a lot of other contexts. So I know it was difficult for them.
AMT: Hal Niedzviecki, how did you react to the reaction?
HAL NIEDZVIECKI: Well, let me say I appreciate Ryan's point and I think they're great points and I absolutely agree with everything he said. So it's not going to be a pretty contentious debate. I invited Indigenous writers into my house so to speak and I insulted them and I absolutely apologize for that. I didn't mean to insult them. That wasn't my intention at all. But I did. I offended them. And I have had to think a lot about why that happened and how that happened. And I think to me, what happened was was—you might call it a cultural misunderstanding. Some people want to say that it was a willful act of racism and white privilege. You know I can't control how people react to what happened.
AMT: Ryan, you're shaking your head.
RYAN MCMAHON: Yeah. I mean we have to be careful. Words are important. Right, Hal? So I'm not going to throw the R word around and start calling people racists for mistakes they make. Something I've reflected on over the last couple of days is people are losing their jobs over mistakes. Right? And people are losing careers and their good name, their body of work that may speak otherwise to an action or a mistake that they've made. And so this is dangerous territory and some people on the other side of this conversation are saying this squad of Twitter activists are taking down the establishment. No. We're actually just standing up to say hey, we actually have a voice. This is the wholesale change that we're talking about and we're here to have our voices heard. I want to ask: have you reached out to the writers to apologize to them? I think at the base of this and what we're talking about in good relationship in Canada now is the importance of founding these relationships and establishing these relationships. They can't happen in silos or vacuums.
AMT: Okay. Do you just want to answer that question? Have you reached out to the authors?
HAL NIEDZVIECKI: You know it's been a week. It hasn't been an easy week and I've been trying to figure out how to respond to all this. I haven't yet reached out to the authors to apologize, but I absolutely plan to reach out to every single one of them and apologize and try to have that conversation that I think all of Canada is having and I think it's actually a very important and great and productive conversation.
AMT: Okay. A number of media people tweeted monetary offers for a prize, an appropriation prize. Walrus magazine editor-in-chief Jonathan Kay did not do that, but he did tweet: “The mobbing of Hal Niedzviecki is what we get when we let identity politics fundamentalists run riot. Sad and shameful.” Jonathan Kay actually resigned from The Walrus on Sunday. He says it wasn't about this issue. This is what he told us Friday.
Editors get fired for all sorts of reasons. They resign for all sorts of reasons. And I think he probably went too far with his satirical Swiftian proposal for a prize for taking away other people's cultures. That said, I found the response—which was an effort to shame him, to accuse him of thought crimes—to be way over the top and it suggested that when you write about other cultures which is the basis of much of the most famous works in literature, that this is akin to a kind of hate speech. And that was what I objected to which was the reaction to what he did.
AMT: How do you respond to that, Ryan McMahon?
RYAN MCMAHON: Yeah. I mean I don't know anyone on the equity committee that responded to Hal and I wasn't in the meetings. I wasn't in the room. If it was heavy handed, I think that's a conversation for the organisation and the board. I think for me—
AMT: We’re talking about the Twittersphere too though. The anger that was out there.
RYAN MCMAHON: Sure. Let’s talk about that.
AMT: But he just used the phrase “identity politics fundamentalists”. What do you think of that?
RYAN MCMAHON: Well, fighting on Twitter at midnight to hold up whiteness and its power structure is also identity politics. So if those in power in mainstream media in Canada want to point the finger at emerging Indigenous writers as some sort of identity politics fundamentalists, then they also have to look at themselves as white structural power playing Canadian media types that are also holding up the identity politics of whiteness.
AMT: Okay. So as we heard, some of the most prominent journalists in the country—notably three people with editorial decision making powers—did tweet money toward a prize. They have all since apologized. How did you respond to that?
RYAN MCMAHON: I mean it is absolutely gutting to think that those that could be my boss—I’ll personalize it—those that I could pitch sitcoms to, those that I could walk into rooms with thinking I had a shot at a job or a contract, for those people in diverse communities around Toronto who potentially are going to J-school and think that these might be their bosses. This is for black, Indigenous, people of colour to see these elites at the top of the industry openly mock on social media an entire conversation and group of people leading the conversation is not just pitiful and shameful, but it is cowardly and hurtful and this is a reset button. Just when you think you're taking a step forward in this country, when you think oh man, maybe it will be okay, we have something like this.
AMT: They've all apologized. Is that enough for you?
RYAN MCMAHON: No, frankly. No.
AMT: Hal, how do you respond to the throwing in of money on Twitter that Ken Whyte started?
HAL NIEDZVIECKI: Well, first of all, again I agree with Ryan. It's unhelpful. It's counterproductive. It's disgusting. And very important for me to say is that it completely takes out of context the argument I was trying to make and it has no relationship at all to what I was saying, which was a literary argument about works of the imagination. I absolutely acknowledge cultural appropriation exists. It happens. It's incredibly hurtful to Indigenous people, to people of colour who have had to deal with those things. And you know when I was using the word cultural appropriation, I was trying to push some buttons within the writing community and make sure that we didn't err so, so much on the side of caution that we're no longer able to say “I'm going to put a person of colour in my writing.” I don't want that. Nobody wants that.
AMT: Let me clarify though. Didn't you say you don't believe in cultural appropriation?
HAL NIEDZVIECKI: I did. Those were the words I wrote. The context is important. I wrote those words in the context of a writing magazine for writers.
AMT: Okay. So let me ask each of you: where does inspiration end and appropriation begin? Ryan?
RYAN MCMAHON: Yeah. Well, I mean that's the question of the day and it's not for me to define what good art is or isn't. But I can tell you from experience. I just ran a national tour with a project called Stories From The Land. I was trying to tell a story about the Sturgeon Lake Indian Band which was a band of native people inside of Quetico Provincial Park. In 1914, they were forcibly removed in the middle of the night to make way for the royal visit that was going to happen—Quetico Provincial Park being the crown jewel of Ontario provincial parks. I'm trying to tell the story for a live storytelling project, but I need to get permission so I need to go to the Lac La Croix band which is in treaty three where I come from and seek permission. I drove four times to the community to seek that permission to share a story that is important to Canadian history and to this day have never pressed record on my audio recorders to do that work. So seeking permission, being on the right side of communities, that's what I'm focused on inside of the work that I do and I think that it goes back to relationships.
AMT: And you are talking about an event that occurred.
RYAN MCMAHON: That really did occur.
AMT: But what about the imagination? Hal, where does inspiration and appropriation begin?
HAL NIEDZVIECKI: It's an incredibly difficult question. Every writer has to answer that question for themselves and then face their audience and stand up and say this is what I wrote. This is why I wrote it. I hope that you will read this and respond accordingly. You have to just know yourself that you have in some cases sought permission, in other cases done your absolute best to represent another culture or point of view. And then to me, it comes down to the audience as well. And the audience has the right to respond just like they had the right to respond to what I wrote. You know I've written 12 books. I'm used to people saying to me you got it all wrong. So I respect that. And I think you do your best and the audience responds.
AMT: Okay. We're out of time. I’m going to give Ryan one—like you’ve got 10 seconds to respond.
RYAN MCMAHON: A funny story. Up in Northwest Territories, I said I was writing a book of short stories and they warned me not to be like Farley Mowat or “Hardly Know It” and I thought that was pretty funny.
HAL NIEDZVIECKI: Can I just say—
AMT: No, you can’t because we’re out of time. Hal Niedzviecki, we have to leave it there. Author, former editor of Write magazine. Ryan McMahon, Anishinaabe comedian and writer launching an Indigenous media platform July 1st called Indian and Cowboy. What’s it called, Ryan?
RYAN MCMAHON: Cowboy.
AMT: Indian and Cowboy. Sorry about that. Both in our Toronto studio. Stay with us. The news is next and then Canadians from coast to coast are trying to come up for air after heavy flooding across the country.
You get emotional because you think it’s a nightmare, so you’re going to come back and it’s going to be just a nightmare. But no, it’s real.
AMT: Extreme weather and its devastating impacts are real. They raise big questions about how and if we should be rebuilding after disaster. We'll talk about that next. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti. This is The Current.Back To Top »
Why rebuild after flood if it's likely to happen again? asks climatologist
Guests: Jeannine St-Jacques, Glenn McGillivray, Steve Conrad
AMT: Hello. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti and you're listening to The Current.
AMT: Still to come, if you're the kind of person who gets separation anxiety when you're away from your phone for too long, listen up. Research shows the deep craving we have for our devices could be an all-out addiction. In half an hour, how technology keeps us hooked. But first Prime Minister Trudeau says we have to rebuild better after floods across the country. But what if you know it's just a matter of time before the high waters return?
AMT: Residents in British Columbia’s central Okanagan district who have been dealing with floodwaters got a reprieve over the weekend when heavy showers that had been predicted failed to materialize.
We still have lots of water. We're not finished yet. I got some sleep last night. I feel better now. The water levels have gone down about three inches in here.
AMT: Kelowna resident Jerry Gilkinson speaking to CBC News. Water levels did not rise as much as expected. In some cases they even went down and many evacuation alerts and orders were rescinded. But officials say more rainfall and melting snow could still pose a risk of further flooding in the area. They are advising residents to keep sandbags in place for now. Kelowna mayor Colin Basran said yesterday the situation is still volatile.
What the situation is right now in our city is that with high lake levels and creek levels, there's just really no more room for any more water. And so we dodged a bullet over the past few days but we're still in a very volatile situation. If the weather changes and we do get a bit of increased precipitation, it's certainly going to have an impact and so we're asking our residents to still be vigilant and those living in low-lying areas next to bodies of water, we're asking that they still be ready to leave on a moment's notice.
AMT: Kelowna mayor Colin Basran. Meanwhile in Quebec and Ontario, thoughts are turning to what comes next when the waters recede. It will cost millions of dollars to clean up and rebuild the many businesses and homes ravaged by floods and many are questioning how that money should be spent and even if that reconstruction should be done. Last week the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, added his voice to those calling for a more thoughtful approach to rebuilding.
One of the things that we are aware of is that the frequency of extreme weather events is increasing and that's related to climate change. So we're going to have to understand that bracing for 100-year storm is maybe going to happen every 10 years now or every few years and that means that as we look to rebuild our communities, our homes, our infrastructures, we're going to have to think about what we can do to rebuild better, to rebuild in ways that are going to be more resistant, more resilient to the unpredictability we are now living. And that's something that we know that it might be more expensive to rebuild better now, but that will certainly be less expensive than the cleanup and the disaster response that is going to increasingly have to have to happen if extreme weather events keep going the way they are.
AMT: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Well, I'm joined by three experts who thought about how or even if we should rebuild better. Jeannine St-Jacques is a climatologist and a professor in the department of geography, planning and environment at Concordia University in Montreal. She's in our Quebec City studio. Glenn McGillivray is managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction. He's in our Toronto studio. Steve Conrad is adjunct professor at the University of BC and a board member of the BC Water and Waste Association. He's also an engineer with a background in psychology and he's in our Vancouver studio. Hi, everyone. Welcome.
GLENN MCGILLIVRAY: Thank you, Anna Maria.
JEANNINE ST-JACQUES: Hello.
STEVE CONRAD: Good morning.
AMT: Hi, everybody. Steve Conrad, I'm going to start with you in Vancouver. Prime Minister Trudeau says we have to build better. What have we been getting wrong when it comes to rebuilding after a major flood?
STEVE CONRAD: Well, I think the first thing we need to do is think a little bit about what Justin Trudeau was mentioning in terms of how we actually do design and build our communities. Historically what we have done is design communities based upon an average—an average rainfall, an average sea level, an average river flow. But with climate change, we're starting to see that these averages, they fluctuate over time. And so what we need to do is design communities that can appreciate those differences. You know if we looked at British Columbia, just the weather over the last few years, in 2015 we were talking about drought. In 2016 we had weeks of snow in Vancouver. And now we're talking about flooding. If I was to sum it up in a few words, you might say the BC weather has really shown us to appreciate the unforeseeable and in appreciating that unforeseeable, it means that communities should plan for events that are outside these historical norms that we have typically used to design our communities. So what that might mean for communities? Well, perhaps we need to consider ways to reduce the impact of storms by slowing that water down, slowing the storm water that goes through our communities through rain gardens, through green roofs, using different types of building materials that are more porous. So rather than these concrete and steel structures, we can use materials that absorb that water and slow down that water.
AMT: Okay. So I'll get some more ideas from you in a moment, but what you're saying is we've got some of this wrong so far.
STEVE CONRAD: Well, it's not so much that we've had it wrong, but I think we need to appreciate that we need to do it definitely different than what we have based our historical averages on are no longer true.
AMT: Jeannine St-Jacques, when we talk about building better and when it comes to rebuilding homes and communities, should we rebuild everything? Is there a process we should have to determine what gets rebuilt and what doesn't?
JEANNINE ST-JACQUES: Absolutely not. We've been building on the flood plains for years, which is insane to be honest. Quebec has a problem in that it manages its water very poorly and its flood management is also very poorly done. In the early 2000s, the province shifted the responsibility of water and flood management down to the municipality level by and large. Now municipalities cannot deal with it. They're not set up to deal with it. They don't have the budget to deal with it. They don't have the expertise. It's been a disaster as we see.
AMT: And why is that? What do municipalities do that say, a province or a federal government wouldn’t do? How do they see it?
JEANNINE ST-JACQUES: Well, they don't have the expertise. They don't have the staff. They don't have the budgets.
AMT: So they're allowing development in areas that are flood prone.
JEANNINE ST-JACQUES: Yes. They're in a conflict of interest situation because everybody likes the waterfront view. Everybody likes the river and the lake. If you allow building there, that's high value property and then you get property taxes and municipalities of course are desperate to be providing services and they need that tax money. But then when the floods come, the damage is vast. The municipalities can't deal with paying for the floods. And you can't manage a watershed at the municipality level. A watershed will contain many municipalities and if municipality A does something to improve their lot in the next flood, that might make things worse for municipality B. So it has to be managed at the watershed level and we're just not doing that right now.
AMT: Okay. Glenn McGillivray, when you look at what's going on, what do you think the best way to prevent flooding like this from happening again in the future would be?
GLENN MCGILLIVRAY: Well, I think I tend to look at these things from kind of a risk management perspective and risk management tells you that the best way to avoid a risk is just not to go there in the first place, just not to be there. So when it comes to flood, it means not building on a flood plain. And when we have had the flood, it means not rebuilding on the flood plain, particularly the immediate flood plain or the flood way. So we have to really think twice about putting things back and the prime minister talked about build back better. And one of the problems that we have is just putting things back the way they were and crossing our fingers and hoping it doesn't happen again and that's not going to be the case.
AMT: You talk about a mandatory buyout. What is that?
GLENN MCGILLIVRAY: Well, this is where a government body would step in and offer fair market value for the property so it's pre-flood fair market value and then the land would be converted into green space or that sort of thing. We saw it in the Toronto area after Hurricane Hazel in 1954. So 81 people around the tribal area drowned in those floods and the powers came in, bought out just around 200 homeowners in the Etobicoke area and a few other places and around the Humber River and so on, converted that land into parklands and green space. And that land floods from time to time and it did just over a week ago when we had those torrential rains. Parks flood. Nobody's killed. No property is lost And we've also seen it recently in Sydney, Nova Scotia where the governments bought out 17 or 18 homeowners there as well. So mandatory’s best. Voluntary programs do not work.
AMT: What happened in Calgary after their big floods?
GLENN MCGILLIVRAY: Yeah. There was a voluntary program that was launched and the homeowners were offered fair market value and only about a third of the homeowners that were offered took the government up on the offer. That doesn't work. You get a few people, a few assets out of the floodplain but you have the majority of people staying. It tears apart the fabric of that neighbourhood. The neighbourhood is not the same anymore and you still have risk.
AMT: Jeannine St-Jacques, what do you think of what Glenn McGillivray is saying?
JEANNINE ST-JACQUES: I think that's a very good idea. Municipalities are allowing people to build in the floodplain. It has to go higher up. We need the province to be stepping in and saying you can't build on the floodplain. There are watershed management organizations but they've got a pathetic budget and they have no legal teeth. They say that. The other thing is in Quebec, we desperately need proper flood maps, flood recurrence maps covering the entire province. We don't have that.
AMT: Why not?
JEANNINE ST-JACQUES: It's going back into some old history that I don't understand. But we don't have them. We need them. What we have is out of date. What we have is a situation what it arises for is we don't have a proper organization inside the ministry of environment or public security that occupies itself with water and flood management. Like for instance, Ontario, Alberta, in Saskatchewan where I've been doing extensive consulting over the past decade. So what we have is very tiny Centre d'expertise hydrique which has the best of my knowledge, less than 10 people. They can't do it. They produce some flood maps, not many. For instance, Montreal, most of Montreal doesn't have proper updated flood maps. We need to be building up the Centre d'expertise hydrique or some other organization in public security but we can't have the two fighting because right now we have Centre d'expertise hydrique producing the flood maps and we have public security trying to deal with managing the urgent conditions.
AMT: So you're telling me that this is also a bureaucratic issue, that in other provinces they deal with it differently but they've downloaded it to municipalities that can't act alone.
JEANNINE ST-JACQUES: Yes. Very much.
AMT: Steve Conrad, as we have that discussion, you also look at infrastructure. So when municipalities are building or rebuilding infrastructure, what do they have to think about when it comes to flooding?
STEVE CONRAD: Well, I guess there is really kind of two problems there with infrastructure. The first thing municipalities need to look at is replacing some of the aging infrastructure. And Canada's infrastructure card reported just from a water and wastewater perspective that we have $80 billion of needed infrastructure investment just to replace what is already there. And so municipalities develop programs to go through and replace this existing infrastructure but then they also need to determine A, is it in a good place to begin with? B, is there an area for them to move it? Do they have domain over that land where they can move their infrastructure, move critical services outside these high-risk areas? And then lastly, how are they going to pay for that additional investment when the way that infrastructure sort is paid for is through a cost recovery. So how can municipalities really look to fund these new investments? And I would actually agree with the other speakers that local communities may need to get themselves sort of out of the business of investing into infrastructure development, just often because infrastructure is connected and especially in a watershed.
AMT: Do you hear the conversations happening that you say need to happen, Steve?
STEVE CONRAD: Well, I don't want to sound too pessimistic but I would say on a very limited basis, yes, but not in a connected basis. So here in Metro Vancouver, we see within the city of Surrey conversations occurring about developing and adapting their infrastructure to mitigate effects like heat island effects or to look in ways to improve storm water management, but not so much on a regional basis. And so I think what we need is a regional plan at the minimum and provincial plans for sure and then federal support.
AMT: So I've got a clip for you to listen to. One of the people planning to build better is a man named Alain Pitre of New Richmond, Quebec. He owns a sporting goods store not far from the Cascapedia River. It's the third time in six years that his business has been flooded. CBC Quebec’s Marika Wheeler caught up with him. He was showing her dikes he built around his store after the last two floods. Listen to him.
What I've been through this weekend, I took some notes. Things are going to change. The walls I have built are not strong enough. I will make them stronger and bigger. I went through Internet. There's some things that you can buy which is a water fence. Temporary. It's made of rubber, whatever that will rise with the water level going up and will go back down as the water level goes down, which you just put on for emergencies. Things like that will make me probably save my business and make me sleep better because every time the forecast for big rain comes, I'm worried. I'm nervous.
AMT: Jeannine St-Jacques, what do you make of what he's saying there?
JEANNINE ST-JACQUES: Well, he's trying to do something which is good but we have to accept that as global warming continues to bite, we're going to be seeing more and more extreme conditions. As the atmosphere warms, every degree of warming is seven per cent more water vapour in the air that can then potentially come out as rain. We're seeing changes in the jet stream. We're expecting—all of the models are predicting more and more droughts, more and more floods, more and more extreme whatever. So sometimes just staying in place, it's just not going to work.
AMT: So what does that mean for planning, Jeannine, for people along parts of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway? What do you see?
JEANNINE ST-JACQUES: Well, to begin with, I think we desperately have to get out of the one in 20 year flood zone. It's impractical and I think it's going to have to take the province to step in and saying that. And on one hand we have the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying we have to rebuild smarter. On the other hand in Quebec, we're missing these flood maps. Philippe Couillard is saying we're going to help people rebuild in place. So I'm a bit pessimistic there. We've got an election year coming up.
AMT: People don't want to give up their homes. They like where they live. Is this part of the problem?
JEANNINE ST-JACQUES: Oh yeah. It's normal to be very attached. You put a lot of time and money and effort into a home. There's all this sentimentality. And somebody coming in like myself—a nasty hydro-climatologist—saying you can't build on the floodplain, I mean I'm saying hard and cruel things. But if somebody rebuilds and I imagine they're going to have to put a lot of their own money into it because forgive me but insurance, Glenn, never seems to cover replacement costs in anything that I know of. If somebody then rebuilds and there's a good chance in their lifetime they're going to get flooded out again and have to start again, well, that seems even harder and crueller.
AMT: You have actually looked at the Gaspe area. What do you think of future flooding there, Jeannine?
JEANNINE ST-JACQUES: Certainly their main problem is sea level rise, as you saw the destruction of the boardwalk at Perce which I've walked on and is now splintered matchsticks, where Gaspé is going to have to be retreating from that coastline. I wasn't aware till you played the clip that Cascapedia is rising that much, but it's an area of research that I'm certainly currently involved in—what river flows have been like in that area. So I think the Gaspé should be preparing for the worst. I know the coastal road— I've driven it many a time—wraps around the coast very tightly. We may have to be thinking of moving that coastal road inland a bit. We're certainly going to have to be thinking about increasing the size of some of our culverts and we desperately need that water expertise level at the provincial level advising people.
AMT: Glenn McGillivray, a few things. First of all, can I clarify: the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, you work with insurance companies?
GLENN MCGILLIVRAY: Yes, we do. Yes.
AMT: You represent them through this institute or?
GLENN MCGILLIVRAY: From a scientific standpoint. We do research on behalf of the industry and on behalf of Canadians as a whole.
AMT: So if people decide to go ahead and rebuild homes and businesses in these flood zones where it's already flooded, what do they have to do? Because insurance doesn't cover them.
GLENN MCGILLIVRAY: Well, flood insurance, overland flood insurance is very new in Canada. It's only been around for about a year and a half so very few Canadians have it. And so we're not quite there yet. We're not quite at a point where we can say well, this will happen into insurance and this won't happen to insurance. It's burgeoning. It's just growing now. So it's hard to say.
AMT: Is the industry saying you should make these buildings more flood proof or is the industry saying to the decision makers, the legislatures you should be thinking twice about letting people even build there?
GLENN MCGILLIVRAY: Right. That's the first thing. We're saying that we shouldn't be there in the first place, particularly in that one in 20. That's the flood plain that can flood very regularly. And when you're out on the fringe of the one in 100, then you can start talking about things like building more resiliently so that when the flood comes, you don't have the damage that you would otherwise have had.
AMT: Steve Conrad, you had started to talk about a few things that can mitigate some of this. What are rain gardens?
STEVE CONRAD: Well, rain gardens are essentially green spaces that collect and absorb water and allow it to percolate into groundwater systems at a slower rate rather than sort of flush that water away. Historically we design storm water systems to try and get rid of the water and get it out of the city as fast as possible and then that sort of increases this water flow for downstream communities. But there's a number of ways that communities can slow that down so that the impact of rain events are mitigated.
AMT: So am I right in understanding the more development we have, the more things we pave, the more things we build on, that's what we're doing. We're messing with the ability to absorb that water. We have to think about building differently then?
STEVE CONRAD: Absolutely. I mean a single roof, it's startling to see how much water that roof can collect and push into our systems whereas if you were to replace that roof with a green roof for example, you would slow that down and it would percolate more in a natural flow.
AMT: And what else can you do?
STEVE CONRAD: Well, I guess there's a number of things. Just to throw out sort of a secondary thought, it's all good to think that we’ll sort of retreat from these flood areas. But ultimately I think people are going to want to build in these communities, build in these areas that are high value and so communities are going to find themselves sort of in the climate change adaptation world whether they think they are, just because I think development will continue in these high value corridors. But we see a number of ways that we can mitigate that. If you look to Copenhagen for example, within their urban development plan they actually have water buffers and water storage areas to mitigate the very extreme rain events that they have. And so they may use a dual service like a skate park that is a skate park one day and the next day it's a water reservoir or rather than having just a paved court or down the middle of the street, you actually have a green area through the middle of the street that can help absorb that water.
AMT: Now you have a degree in psychology. I'm intrigued how you put that to work on this issue.
STEVE CONRAD: Well, one of the things I look at is people's willingness to pay for some of this infrastructure investment. And so the sort of the willingness to pay for things is very fascinating to me and one example is working within the water sector and so the average cost of water here in BC is something like .00063 cents for a liter of water from the tap. But people are willing to pay three dollars and fifty cents for a litre of bottled water from the store. So that's close to 5,000 times more than what they would pay at home. So how could we capture that willingness to pay for these types of valuable services and turn it around and invest in infrastructure?
AMT: Jeannine, what you're talking about too is political will to actually take control of some of these big things like flood maps, like the watershed.
JEANNINE ST-JACQUES: Mhm. Yes, I am.
AMT: What about the psychology of that?
JEANNINE ST-JACQUES: What I'm hoping is as an aftermath of all of the floods and all of the misery that we're seeing now is that people will start thinking and having this discussion. I think there's a good chance and all my colleagues think there’s a good chance and that's why we're on the air talking to people, trying to say hey, we have to start thinking about these things.
AMT: So even as people buy or build houses or think about where they might live, they need to think about floodplains.
JEANNINE ST-JACQUES: But they need that information and we have to be getting that information freely available on a website that you don't have to pay $111 as it is the case now for the few floodplain maps that there are. That has to be up on an easy to use website for every citizen to look at.
AMT: Glenn McGillivray, what do you want to add?
GLENN MCGILLIVRAY: I would agree with that. There's one eastern European country where you can enter your postal code into a web site and find out your risk and that's the type of thing that we need. Fortunately the data is not really forthcoming to us as researchers let alone to homeowners and homeowners wouldn't understand a flood map. It's not really fair to lay that on them and say here, read this and interpret it. Another thing I think we have to do is get it into the deal when you're buying a home. Early on in the deal so that you can make an informed decision, is this home at risk? Yes, no. What risk? And then the homebuyer can make a decision. Right now there's something like that in Ontario. It's completely voluntary and it's my understanding that it comes just as the keys are being handed over to you and the final papers are being signed when it's too late. So we really have to get on top of these things. It's not hard. I think we often hear this thing that oh, if I'm designated in a flood plain, my property value is going down. The research on that is really split. It's not really clear that that's the case and so we can't use that as a driver.
AMT: We have to leave it there. Thank you all of you for weighing in on this. Appreciate your thoughts. That is Jeannine St-Jacques. She's a climatologist and a professor in the department of geography, planning and environment at Concordia University in Montreal. She joined us from Quebec City. Glenn McGillivray is managing director at the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction. He's in Toronto. Steve Conrad is an adjunct professor at the University of BC. He joined us from Vancouver. Let us know what you think of what they're saying. You can tweet us. We are @thecurrentCBC. Find us on Facebook. Go to our website, www.cbc.ca/thecurrent. And stay with us. In our next half hour, stop scrolling. Listen up. We're talking about your insatiable appetite for technology, texts and timelines. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti. This is The Current on CBC Radio One, Sirius XM and yes, on your smartphone radio app.Back To Top »
Why technology is addictive and what to do about it
Guests: Adam Alter
AMT: Hello. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti and you're listening to The Current. We've all felt the powerful lure of a buzzing cell phone or a glowing tablet or the draw of a favorite video game. These days it can be tough to fight the urge to be connected all the time. Now research is starting to show that that craving can in fact be a real addiction and the impact of these technologies is disrupting our lives like never before.
[Sound: Phone buzzing]
[Music: The Disruptors theme]
VOICE 1: I'm on my cell phone on all day. Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat.
VOICE 2: I'm addicted to my phone.
[Sound: Phone notification]
VOICE 3: I spend about five hours, six hours to check Facebook and talking to friends. I think sometimes I use my cell phone too much.
VOICE 4: A lot of my friends are on their phone 24/7, can't put it down. Everyone's looking down at their lap on their phone figuring out what they're doing next and not living in the moment.
AMT: Okay, Adam. I have two cell phones. They're both in my office. They're not in the studio. I separate church and state so I have one work, one play. I have an iPad in the studio with me. I'm not going to look at it. It's got Twitter on it. I have a computer and I have a Fitbit on my wrist. What do you have with you?
ADAM ALTER: I have less than that. I have an iPhone and it's on airplane mode which is one of the ways that I make sure that I don't spend too much time on my devices. And I also have a watch. I'm going to be going for a run later so I have what is similar to a Fitbit. It's a Garmin.
AMT: Okay. So if my Fitbit starts to vibrate because my phone three rooms away is ringing, I'm going to ignore it. [chuckles] And we are going to see how long we can go without looking at any device. What do you think?
ADAM ALTER: I think that's an excellent idea.
AMT: I'm speaking to Adam Alter. He's in our New York studio. He's an associate professor of marketing and psychology at New York University's Stern School of Business. His new book is called Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Welcome, Adam Alter.
ADAM ALTER: Thanks for having me.
AMT: So how addicted are we to technology?
ADAM ALTER: We're pretty addicted and the vast majority of us we're talking about here that have at least one of these so-called behavioural addictions. We're talking about addictions that don't involve substances and this is a really new phenomenon in the modern world. It didn't really exist before say 10, 20, maybe 30 years ago.
AMT: So how do you define technology addiction?
ADAM ALTER: Well, behavioural addiction basically is any compulsive behaviour, something that you return to over and over again that doesn't involve the ingestion of a substance but that you do because it feels good, it's something you want to do, but in the long term ultimately undermines your well-being in at least one respect. And for many of us it's social, but it can also be financial. It can harm your psychology, the way you think about the world and it can also change how you are physically for the worse. So it can have a number of different effects and it affects different people differently.
AMT: So let's talk about the smartphone. It is ubiquitous. How do you measure how attached we are to our smartphones?
ADAM ALTER: Well, the best way to measure is probably to download the right kinds of apps and they measure how long you spend on your phone. They measure what you're doing on your phone and they can also measure how you feel while you're doing that. The one that I like to use is called Moment and it was eye opening for me when I first downloaded the app. I spoke to the creator of the app. His name is Kevin Holesh. And he said to me before you start using it, I'd like you to guess how long you spend on your phone and I guessed, I thought an hour roughly and I used my phone between three and four hours a day.
AMT: You were surprised at that.
ADAM ALTER: I was. I mean I was massively underestimating my usage and that's typical. So he finds that in the population at large, people generally believe they use their phones for about half as long as they actually do. And obviously if you don't have a sense of how much you are using something, it's very hard to curb your usage. The first thing he suggests is to actually get a sense of how long you're using your device.
AMT: and what's the average? What's the average person use the smartphone? Like what are the numbers like?
ADAM ALTER: What's striking for me is that the average, it's not just high—and I'll tell you what it is in a second—but it's rising rapidly. So a year ago when I first spoke to him—sorry, two years ago when I first spoke to him, the average was two hours and 48 minutes and this was across thousands and thousands of users. And the average now just two years later—I spoke to him two weeks ago—he told me it's now an hour longer than that. It's three hours and 42 minutes and it's rising all the time. He tracks it from week to week and it's just climbing. It doesn't seem to be slowing down.
AMT: And this is of course people using their smartphone, not actually having conversations, not actually making phone calls. This is for straight up data use, games, texts.
ADAM ALTER: Yes. It's all screen time. So he distinguishes screen time from using the phone for its original purpose as a method of making calls. He doesn't even count that. So if you spend time on the screen and then you're also on the phone, it could end up being many, many hours and then if you're in front of a computer all day, that's more hours in front of a screen and then a TV, that's more. And so on and so you know we spend a vast majority—a lot of us spend the vast majority of our days in front of screens.
AMT: Our connection to our phones has created an actual term: nomophobia.
ADAM ALTER: Yeah. It sort of mashes together a number of terms. It's no mobile phobia. And the suggestion from researchers who study no mobile phobia is that today if you formed a nation of nomophobes as they're called, it would be the third or fourth largest nation on Earth. We're talking about hundreds and hundreds of millions of people.
AMT: And a nomophobe does what?
ADAM ALTER: A nomophobe gets the jitters when the phone is out of reach. You put your phone on airplane mode when you're in the air, you feel uncomfortable. Basically if you imagine walking out the front door starting your day and then maybe 20 minutes later realizing you've left your phone at home or it's tumbled out of your pocket and it shatters and you realize you’re without your phone. If you think about how that would make you feel, if you break into a cold sweat or you imagine that you'd feel uncomfortable, you are a potential nomophobe.
AMT: Uh-oh. Busted. And I do have two—one for work, one for play—but there is one always right by my bed at night. The other one’s just outside the room.
ADAM ALTER: Yeah. Seventy-five per cent of people now say that they can reach their phones 24 hours a day without having to move their feet. So that's typical.
AMT: It's not solely the phones. What other kinds of tech are drawing us in?
ADAM ALTER: Yeah, it isn't just phones. We mentioned earlier smart watches, Fitbits, devices that measure how far we're walking, how many steps we're taking. The experiences that we mainly see as the biggest drive is our e-mail, text messaging. Social media is a really, really big one obviously. Not surprising.
AMT: What is it about social media in particular that is so hard to resist?
ADAM ALTER: Well, there's a sort of toolbox of ingredients that you can bake into any experience and the more ingredients you haven’t experienced, the more likely it is that it will be hard to resist. Now it's not a perfect science. Game developers that I've spoken to say we often will put all those tools into an experience and people still won't play the game and another time they'll put the ingredients and people will. So there's an art to it as well. But social media, the biggest thing that it does—the biggest ingredient that it draws on—is variable feedback or variable rewards which is also the thing that drives gambling behaviour, lotteries and things like that. This idea that a reward is just within reach but it's never guaranteed. Paradoxically when you guarantee someone a reward, they get bored and they stop doing something quite quickly, whereas when you build in just a small dose of uncertainty as for example when you might post something online and you're waiting to see whether people like and comment and respond and share and things like that, that uncertainty especially where the reward devices is driven by humans—we're really fascinated by how humans think of us—is very hard for humans to resist. And so you'll see that all the very successful platforms that maintain that success over years have a very strong social feedback engine, something like the Facebook Like button or the Instagram like or comment buttons or the heart that you can fill in if you like a post. All of that is very hard for us to resist and that's certainly the main ingredient.
AMT: What about video games? How are these designed to actually be addictive?
ADAM ALTER: It's funny. I was talking to some video game designers and they explained it like this. They said you know the grand parents of this whole thing were the original casino game and slot machine developers. They really learned a lot. There was a real science behind creating slot machines and then that extended down and video game developers were the next people to sort of latch onto these ingredients. Video games use the same kind of variable feedback. You never really know if you're going to get a reward which is what they learned from the slot machine industry but it's a lot more than that. So one of the big things with video games is this creation of artificial goals. Humans love a goal. If you put one in front of them, it doesn't matter how arbitrary it is. They are driven to complete the goal and they will mindlessly move towards it. And this is not just humans. This is sort of a prerogative among almost all animals. If we know there's a goal, we want to fulfill it. We don't like an open loop. And video games do that really well. It's baked into the process that you may have say, Angry Birds will say we have 500 levels and until you conquer all 500, the loop is open. And so they mix that variable feedback with these long range goals that mean that you're going to be hooked to the game for a long time.
AMT: There are so many positives of technology. Why do you think it's so important to understand the dark side as well?
ADAM ALTER: I think the only reason we need to consider the dark side is because those positives are so obvious and there are so many of them. I mean technology is miraculous. I have family who live in Sydney, Australia and I live in New York and I have a young son. And the way that he really communicates with them is driven entirely by screens, by tech and he couldn't have done that 10, 15 years ago in the same way as he can do now. I mean as far as he's concerned, he's basically in front of my parents, his grandparents and my brother, his uncle. And that's such a great thing that I think we need to be shown the dark sides because the dark sides are hidden from us. And I think it's important because it’s still the early days. We don't fully understand what kids who are born into this tech era—kids like my son—will be like when they've spent decades in front of screens in ways that earlier generations were not. So I think that's why it's such an important conversation.
AMT: Well and speaking about the young, let's talk about toddlers who use technology because you actually use that quote, “Never get high on your own supply.”
ADAM ALTER: Yes. Never get high on your own supply obviously is the idea that if you are—dealing is a strong word for technology—but talking about drugs, if you're dealing drugs the best way to maintain some distance from them and to keep being the entrepreneur that you are in that world is not to use them yourself and keep them away from your family also by extension. And I think what fascinated me was hearing from a number of tech giants, real titans in the tech world who themselves refused to let their kids near the technologies that they themselves have been responsible for creating. The most striking example was Steve Jobs who in releasing the iPad, he was up on stage at Apple in 2010 and he basically said this is the best way to consume all sorts of experiences—to browse the web, to learn to communicate with other people far better than a laptop, far better than a phone. And a few months later, he was on a phone call with a journalist from the New York Times who said to him, “So your kids must love the iPad,” which seems like such a softball question. And Jobs said something that was so striking that it became the basis for a long article. He said, “Actually, they've never used it. We limit how much technology our kids can use at home and we don't bring the iPad into the home,” which is such a striking idea that someone would publicly describe the virtues of a product but refuse their kids to use it. That does start to sound a lot like drugs.
AMT: Well, you make the point that there's a private school in the San Francisco Bay Area where they don't use any technology. Seventy-five percent of the parents of those students are execs in the tech industry.
ADAM ALTER: Yeah. Striking. Really there's a real move away from tech among tech titans. They will keep their homes tech free and then they'll send their kids to tech-free schools and in interviews, they say really interesting things, things like “I've seen the dangers of using too much tech first hand and it's the last thing I want for my kids.” That was really early on in my research where I started to see dozens of instances of that kind of response from tech titans and I started to think well, look, there's a story here. There's much more to this and I think we need to understand—the rest of us need to understand— what these experts seem to understand for themselves. If they're keeping their kids away from screens, I want to know when I have a young son, what should I be doing?
AMT: What do we know about the impact of technology on adolescents?
ADAM ALTER: It's very piecemeal at the moment. We get little bits and pieces because the research is still so young and the kids that we're talking about are pretty young most of them. When you talk to psychiatrists, they say that the two big events were the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, so 10 years ago and the iPad in 2010, seven years ago, that they started to see big spikes in especially issues among kids’ social and developmental delays. That means that for a few years now, researchers have been really interested in those effects. And we know things like for example, kids who seem to use screens a lot, a recent study suggested that they were more delayed in acquiring language, the ability to speak. We know that there's some evidence that kids who spend a lot of time socially on screens are not as skilled as communicators. They find that a lot of the nuances escape them. It's easy to see why that would be. If you are texting, say someone sends you something that you think is funny. You have this very mathematical clinical way of communicating with them where you can say “lol” in lower case letters means one thing. “LOL” in caps means another. The number of exclamation points you use at the end of that tells the person in mathematical terms precisely how funny it is and there's no risk there of miscommunicating because there's this sort of language, very precise language. But if someone says something funny in front of you and they're sitting in front of you, the way you crease your forehead, the way your eyebrows move, the way you laugh, the lilt in your laugh, the way your eyes move—everything is a cue. And we don't even think about that if we're skilled communicators who have spent a lot of time face to face. But if your early use of communication is spent lol-ing and you don't acquire those nuances, it's very hard to acquire them later on. And that for me is the biggest concern, that kids who when they young spend too long in front of screens, I think it takes them a long time—if they ever—acquire the same skills that those of us who were not on screens as kids take for granted.
AMT: The other side of that is given the ubiquity of technology, does all of that change by the time they're adults?
ADAM ALTER: Yeah. Possibly. You know we really don't know. One thing I think needs to happen is there needs to be a longitudinal study, so a study that begins with these kids as kids and follows them as they become tweens and teens and adolescents and young adults and parents themselves. I'd like to know, are there ways in which the generation that was born into screens now will differ from other generations? And I really hope not. I want to be wrong about this. I want to be wrong about the fact that I think they will be in some ways different. And I think that's why this is an important conversation right now because we still have the power to intervene, to carve out sacred time that's not in front of screens for these kids and for ourselves.
AMT: Because humanity really demands face to face contact and regular conversation.
ADAM ALTER: Yeah. I mean the very most basic building blocks of human interaction have to happen face to face. Romance does not happen in the long term without being in someone else's presence. And that's how the species just continues to exist in a very, very basic way. So that's one thing and then the workplace is another. You can certainly do a lot of things virtually and more and more will be done virtually and by robots and so on. But we still will ultimately need to get together and have meetings face to face with other human beings. And I think it's going to get harder and harder for us to do that. And there's already this kind of phobia among particularly younger people. Even this preference for texting over phone calls, I have that. I prefer to send an email rather than get on the phone even though I know the phone is way more efficient. We're all resorting to the more indirect forms. And if that extends and it becomes just the way humans are as a species, we will look so different from the humans who 50 years ago were all about face to face interaction.
AMT: Now into all of this concern about the technology comes the emerging technologies. How concerned are you about things like virtual reality?
ADAM ALTER: It's funny. Until a couple of weeks ago, I was concerned in a very academic way. I sort of understood intellectually that being in a virtual reality space would be compelling and that you could imagine people who have experiences, that you're playing a game that's just really immersive and fascinating or you're having dinner with three of the people you most want to meet from history. Whatever it is, there are all sorts of experiences. The sky's the limit here. Once the technology is sophisticated enough, you will be living in the ultimate perfect world for yourself. And so I used to say I think that's concerning. Well, I tried one of these experiences. I played a game, a Ghostbusters game, a virtual reality Ghostbusters game. I'm not a particular Ghostbusters fan. I think it's fun but I spent 10 minutes in this world where I had virtual reality goggles on. I had a haptic vest which basically means that if a ghost flies through you, you can feel it in your chest because the vest gives you feedback. And this is still primitive virtual reality tech. It’s a primitive game. But I found the experience so compelling, so much fun, so much more fun than any game I've ever played before, that if they'd said to me hey, it turns out that was just level one. There are 100 more levels. Do you want to spend the next three days playing? The answer would have been absolutely. And I have a lot of other things to do.
AMT: You would have just let them go.
ADAM ALTER: I would have let them go.
ADAM ALTER: I was totally wrapped. Yeah.
AMT: So you know there are countries in Asia taking this addiction very seriously. What are they doing? Who are they? What are they doing?
ADAM ALTER: Yeah. They're mostly East Asian countries. So Japan, Korea, China are the three in particular that are taking this most seriously. Some of them are introducing legislation. I don't know that it's the right legislation but they're trying to prevent kids from spending too much time on games which they have decided is best done by limiting whether kids can play games at certain times of the day and in certain locations. So there are all-night parlors in Korea for example where you can play games all night. These parlors have rules about kids under 16 playing after midnight. So they're called Cinderella laws. They also seem to be treating this as a medical issue in a way that most North Americans and Canadians don't. We generally think of this as a sort of cultural malady which is the way I think of it, rather than something that—I'm not saying we should all be treated medically for this whereas I think what they're doing in these countries is thinking of this more as a medical problem and as a result, parents are taking their kids to very long-term camps that are basically run as military camps. They wear fatigues and they march in the morning no matter what the temperature and they are told to get out of bed at certain times and people shout at them and it's a very sort of harsh way of dealing with the problem. I'm not sure it's particularly successful. But I think the main lesson for us is they are taking it seriously on a very big scale. There are dozens and dozens of these camps, in particular in China. It's interesting. There are documentaries about the people who run these camps and there are earnest and they are trying their very best, but they all admit they basically don't really know what they're doing. They're trying their best but there's not a lot of good research out there. So I'm not sure that I endorse that approach but it does suggest that the government is taking the issue more seriously than it is here.
AMT: What's going on in North America?
ADAM ALTER: Not a whole lot. There’s not much legislation wise. The government's not really considering legislation to change how gamers play games or how we consume experiences or how the producers of these experiences can produce their products. Just to give you a sense of what I mean by that, in Western Europe it's very different. So there's a rule that came through in France in January this year that if you have a company with more than 50 employees, you have to draw up an agreement with those employees saying this is how we will protect you from email between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m., I think are the hours. And it's things like if you get emails in those hours, we will batch them and hold them and we will deliver them the next morning at 8 a.m. so you can have a break. That break is forced on you. There's nothing like that in North America as far as I can tell. I think that the conversation is rising to a point where perhaps that will change and I hope it does.
AMT: What role do you think companies play in this? Should they be held responsible for something?
ADAM ALTER: Yeah, I do. And I think it's because they are in power here. They can make decisions about how they deliver e-mails. E-mail is really the biggest culprit in the workplace. There’s a wonderful company in the Netherlands. It's a design firm and at 6 p.m., the desks are tethered to the ceiling and at 6 p.m., they rise to the ceiling no matter what you're doing. So you could be in the middle of typing an email and the desk will physically be inaccessible. You won't be able to continue typing the email.
AMT: I love that.
ADAM ALTER: It’s great.
AMT: What do they do? Do they take out the smartphone out of their pocket and keep going?
ADAM ALTER: Yeah. Well, that's the other problem. That's the big thing. An even better one I think is in Germany, the car company Daimler, when you go on vacation they automatically have a vacation message on your e-mail account that says thank you for e-mailing this person. Your e-mail has been deleted and you have an option. You can send it to this other person instead who will handle your e-mail while this person is on vacation or you can e-mail again when the vacation ends. But the effect there is that if you're on vacation from Daimler, you will not get any new e-mails in your inbox until you return to work. And the people who work there say that that's just miraculous because they go on vacation and they're actually forced to take a vacation. And it makes them much better workers as well.
AMT: So those are companies that answer to and protect their employees. What about the companies that create those games and make them addictive? Do you see anyone trying to go after them?
ADAM ALTER: No, not really. Not in a concerted way. You know there are ways of being heavy handed about it. If the government said you have to do X, then they would do X if they had to or they'd find loopholes. But they would be doing what the government tells them to do. But short of that, you know the idea that you would produce an inferior version of your product, it's just not going to happen because when you talk to people who work at these companies, even if they have a conscience as individuals, they'll say something like I know this product is hard to resist and in fact, it is designed to be irresistible. Having said that, I have shareholders to take care of and I'm in the business of making money and that's really the first business for me. The second business maybe and I would consider this is the well-being of the people who are using my product. Now I'm not killing them in the way that I might be if I were giving them cigarettes or drugs. And so it doesn't rise to the level that I believe is serious enough that requires that I actually change what I'm doing. I think what will happen in time is that just as we now demand green practices from the companies that we buy from, we require that they don't dump pollutants into the water or into the air. I think that'll start to happen with tech companies where we'll say to them I want to use your product, but I basically refuse to use your product if there are competitors who are showing me that they actually care about me as a consumer, that they are doing things that will protect me from the harm that could come from their products. And that's where I think things will start to change—when the consumers start to demand it.
AMT: And in the meantime, the average person trying to balance the pros and cons of technology—any advice?
ADAM ALTER: Yeah. I think the best thing we can do is start small. I've worked with a lot of people who've had this issue. Start out by picking at time every single day and it's better not to pick times by the clock because different days mean different things at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. and so on. What you should do is say I have dinner every day. Dinner for me will be a screen-free time. That means taking the TV and putting it off, taking my phone and putting it in another room in a drawer somewhere far away, sitting either alone or in front of people whether you're at a restaurant, whether you're at home. Whatever you may be doing, it should be screen free and people at first find that's difficult. They have a bit of withdrawal as you might from a drug. But over time, what happens is interesting. They say that that really makes them feel like healthier, happier people to the point where they expand it. They say I'm going to do it not just dinner but from dinner till bedtime and then I'm going to keep my phone away from my bedside. And they say they sleep better when they do that. The other thing they could do—which is what I've done today—is you put your phone for as much of the time as possible on airplane mode. And so I now do that on Saturdays. I'll spend the day with my wife and son basically screen-free. We use the phone as a camera but that's all. So that I think is the best thing we can do.
AMT: And this conversation that we are having now, have you made it through without checking anything on that flight mode phone or looking at that watch on your wrist?
ADAM ALTER: I have. I can't be too proud of that though. I'm at a distinct advantage that my phone is in a bag far away which really helps me.
AMT: Well, thank you for doing that.
ADAM ALTER: Yeah, no. Absolutely. You know if anyone recognizes the issues, it's me after having gone through this. But I will say that that's what you should do. When you want to try to avoid a phone, don't keep it near you and think that willpower will get you through. Put it far away and then you'll succeed.
AMT: So we've both done well. I have not checked Twitter on the iPad either.
ADAM ALTER: Oh, good. Good.
AMT: I have not looked at the Fitbit. I've just been listening to you and it's fascinating to hear what you had to say.
ADAM ALTER: Thank you so much for having me on the show. I appreciate it.
AMT: Well, thank you. Thank you.
ADAM ALTER: Thank you. All the best. Bye.
AMT: Adam Alter, associate professor of marketing at New York University's Stern School of Business. His new book is called Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Tomorrow we'll follow up on this conversation. I'll be speaking to a counselor who works with young people who have a hard time looking away from their screens and someone who thinks it may not be so bad after all to raise a hyper connected generation. Hear them tomorrow. I'll also issue a challenge to you. Track your cell phone use for 24 hours. As he mentioned, there are apps that let you do that. We’ll link to a few of them on our website. Take your best guess. Test it. Let us know what you find and if you're surprised: www.cbc.ca/thecurrent. Click on the contact link to see all the ways to reach us and if you're really tech savvy with that smartphone, record yourself and email us the audio. q is next with Tom Power. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti. Thanks for listening to The Current.
CBC would like to acknowledge the support of the Broadcasting Accessibility Fund.