David T. Courtwright


On his book The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Became Big Business

Cover Interview of December 04, 2019

In a nutshell

Vice and addiction have always been with us. The Age of Addiction shows how entrepreneurs melded vices and addictions into a global economic system of limbic capitalism, outmaneuvering reformers determined to contain the damage through regulation and prohibition.

“Limbic” refers to the brain region responsible for pleasure, motivation, and long-term memory essential for survival and reproduction. Yet the same system can be captured by others and made to work against us. Limbic capitalism hurts us by systematically undermining appetite control.

The chief means of subversion are products that provide quick hits of brain reward, ranging from old standbys like drugs and alcohol to the latest social media and gaming apps. Technological innovation enables limbic capitalists to sharpen and multiply commercial hooks, catching more of us with products that encourage excessive consumption and addiction.

The “and” is important. Not all forms of excessive consumption are addictions. Yet regular, heavy consumption has a way of shading into addiction, as when a steady drinker’s craving intensifies and erupts into full-blown alcoholism.

The odds of addiction depend on both personal and social variables, which is why arguments about causation are heated. What I want readers to see is that the social causes are historically contingent. Limbic capitalism, a potent force today, was not always so. It emerged gradually from the ancient human quest to discover, refine, and blend novel pleasures. The likelihood that this quest would spawn addictions grew as entrepreneurs rationalized—that is, made more scientific and efficient—the trade in brain-rewarding products and pastimes. Commercial vice became more dangerous as it became more McDonaldized.

rorotoko.com Pre-digital limbic capitalism. Mint Hotel, Las Vegas, 1969. Special Collections, Lied Library, UNLV.

Limbic capitalism overlaps with surveillance capitalism. The photograph of one-way surveillance of the Mint Hotel in Las Vegas, taken in 1969, shows a pro gambler watching for card counters and cheaters among the tipsy tourists on the casino floor, sheep waiting to be sheared. But one can as well imagine Ray Kroc contemplating McDonald’s customers in 1979. Or Philip Morris executives studying Marlboro smokers in 1989. Or Anheuser Busch ad men quizzing Super Bowl focus groups in 1999. Or pornographers tracking site visitors in 2009. Or Juul marketers targeting teenage vapers in 2019.

The photo’s James Bond-ish quaintness (pressed suits! one-way mirrors!) reminds us of limbic capitalism’ recent, high-tech surge. Today digital cameras enable jeans-clad casino employees to monitor more territory, more quickly. Blackjack tables and dealers have given way to serpentine rows of blinking video poker and slot machines. House-issued debit cards track gamblers’ play. Algorithm-generated incentives keep them glued to their custom-designed chairs.

Digital technology did not invent limbic capitalism. It did supercharge it by firing all five cylinders of the engine of mass addiction: accessibility, affordability, advertising, anonymity, and anomie.