Turning learning into an addiction

“Lifelong learning” sounds like quite a cliche but it is also the absolute necessity of today’s and tomorrow’s work life. In order to have a chance against increasingly “intelligent” machines, the only way to be able to succeed, either as employee or in an entrepreneurial role, is a continuous effort to improve existing skills and to learn new skills. Randall Stephenson, the CEO of the telecommunications giant AT&T, puts it quite vividly when he warns that “people who do not spend five to 10 hours a week in online learning will obsolete themselves with the technology”.

The problem with this: It requires a lot of effort, energy and self-discipline. For most people, learning is not being considered fun or exciting. It is seen as work. For the majority of people who work 40 or more hours a week in their day job, the idea to keep hustling in their freetime does not have a lot of appeal. So only those with a real drive, a long-term plan or a feeling of actual urgency are willing to do what’s needed in order to facilitate lifelong learning (an Uniconditional Basic Income could free a lot of time of course, but that’s a different story).

Not only is the widespread association of learning with work and unpleasant mental effort an obstacle towards lifelong learning, but also the temptations to do other, more fun things. One of the most fun things for people is spending time with their favorite apps and online services. Popular apps are about communication, entertainment and gaming. They are not perceived as work, but as fun and exciting. And they are explicitly built to get people “hooked”. Others would say popular apps intent to get people addicted.

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This can be seen as a dilemma, but it can also be considered an inspiration: In order to implement lifelong learning into as many people’s lifes as possible, people must get “hooked” on learning in a similar manner they get hooked on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Candy Crush, Clash of Clans or Tinder. Learning must become an addiction. It must create so much joy and release such a pleasant dose of Dopamine inside the learner’s brain that he/she just can’t stop obsessing about it.

Admittedly, this is an unrealistic scenario, even though various educational apps have succeeded in proving that e.g. learning languages doesn’t need to be that painful. But describing it that way might help to path the way to a state in which the idea of constant, conscious learning as the default mode of human existence will have been internalized by the masses.

If companies, governments, educational organizations and individuals want to ensure prosperity and economic growth, they should find ways to turn learning into an addictive process or at least something close to that. The best-practices and learnings of the app economy can offer valuable insights into how to do that.

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  1. I agree that learning needs an update, but I am not sure I agree with the idea – the “hooked”-concept is ethically questionable, not the least from a design standpoint. I would appreciate a discussion about this first (I attended a workshop with Nir and he basically only says “yeah, you have to be ethical, but that’s complex”). It happens in the design and developer community, but in the end management makes the calls. I think there is already a hooked-concept that is connected with learning: information addiction, though it is something different regarding the purpose.

    • I also find the hooked concept unethical, if it is being used to create user behavior which is harmful to them. However, if it is being employed in order to make it easier for people to practice purposeful learning, then I wouldn’t see it as a problem.

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