Addicted to Technology!

[fr] Une longue tirade, malheureusement pas vraiment traduisible vu l'heure et la longueur, sur la dépendance à internet, qui est à mon avis un faux problème. J'y parle de notre définition de la technologie (une voiture, c'est aussi de la technologie, et on ne s'alarme pas des gens qui seraient "dépendants de leur voiture" comme on le fait de ceux qui sont "dépendants de leur ordinateur"), de la valeur (petite) généralement accordée aux rapports humains qui passent à travers un ordinateur, de l'insuffisance de la "déconnexion" pour résoudre un problème d'utilisation excessive de cet outil, puisqu'il reste un outil valable et même indispensable pour certains, même si c'est un lieu privilégié de fuite.

Help! we’re all becoming addicted to technology! Think of it… we’re soon going to be merged to our computers and cellphones, and we already have a hard time living without them. Heck, we can’t even spend a day without chatting or checking our e-mail! Or our blog comments! Where is the world going?

What technology?

Let’s take a few steps back, shall we? First of all, please define technology. Do we consider that we are “addicted” on our cars? Our clothes? Our flats? The postal system, goods manufacturing and distribution, the newspaper? Oh, but those things are actually necessary, not superfluous like all this internet/computer/techy stuff. That’s what we mean by “technology”. People could communicate very well without IM and cellphones and e-mail, couldn’t they? So, shouldn’t we strive to remember that “real” human relationships happen outside the realm of all this “technology-mediated” communication?

Wrong.

Cars are technology. The banking system, and similar infrastructures our world relies on, are in their way a form of technology, and certainly, built upon technology. People who argue that cars, fixed landlines, or shoes are more “necessary” than IM are simply stuck with views on what “technology” is and its value that are dictated by the state of the world when they came into it. (Read original material by Douglas Adams.)

We consider things like fixed phones and the postal system like something we need because they have been around for so long that our society and the individuals inside it have completely adapted to having them around, relying upon them, and using them. It is “normal” to feel uncomfortable or jittery if your phone landline is cut or if your watch breaks down. But somehow, it is not “normal” to feel uncomfortable or jittery when we can’t check our e-mail for 24 hours.

Computers, the internet, and the various programs we use are tools, like the phone and our vehicles. They allow us to get things done, interact and connect with others, and also enjoy some recreation. Of course, they can be over-used. Of course, some people will have an unhealthy or even pathological utilisation of them. But they differ from the classical objects of “addiction”, like drugs, which (usually) do not serve a directly constructive purpose.

Addicted to our cars

I find it very problematic to speak about “addiction” regarding computers or the internet, partly because it makes it look like the problem is with the tool (instead of the person), and partly because it is very difficult to draw the line between healthy and unhealthy use of the tool without taking in many environmental and personal factors.

I think that making a comparison between computer and car usage is quite enlightening in that respect. They have in common that they are a form of technology, they have a use, and can be abused. Yet we worry about addiction to computers, but not so much about addiction to cars. Let’s have a closer look.

A car is not a vital necessity. Before cars existed, humanity managed to survive for quite a long time, and wasn’t necessarily worse off (I guess that judgement depends on one’s view of progress). However, nowadays, depending on where you live and what your lifestyle is, it’s hard to get by without a car (though possible by making some arrangements). Would we consider somebody who uses their car everyday “addicted”? Most certainly not, because probably the main reason the car is needed is to commute to work. But what if one likes going to drive around in the countryside every week-end? Or takes the car to drive to the store when it is 5 minutes away on foot? Or uses the car for comfort, when public transport could be used? What about the distress one can end up when a car breaks down and has to be taken to the garage? Would anybody dream of speaking of addiction here?

Just as the car allows us to easily cover long distances, the computer allows us to do things we could not normally do without. It’s technology. Now, if the way we live tends to require or expect us to do these things, the technology becomes “necessary”, and not “superfluous”. Makes sense?

Nurturing online relationships has little value (not)

One problem with applying the reasoning I did for the car to the computer has in my opinion been touched upon in the LIFT’07 panel I mentioned previously: the blurring of the distinction between what is “work” (ie, “necessary”) and “personal” (“not that necessary”). Aimlessly chatting on IRC can actually be very important for my professional life. In general, taking care of one’s network (really: taking care of the relationships we have with other human beings we know) is something which should not be considered “superfluous”. During the panel, Stefana Broadbent mentioned that technology allowed us to actually keep alive (“manage”) a greater number of relationships than what we would be capable of without. Which leads us to the second problem: human relationships which take place “through the internet” are less valued in today’s world than the “real” ones which take place face-to-face.

What’s missing here is that “virtual” (how I hate that word in this context) interaction is not there to “replace” face-to-face interaction, or traditional communication technologies like the written letter, the fax, or the phone. IM, chat, blogging and e-mail most often keeps people in touch when they would not be communicating at all. I would not be keeping friendships alive across the Atlantic without my computer. And some of these friendships are no less valuable than the relationships I have with people I get to see in the flesh more often because they live in my hometown.

But more than that, these “poorer” channels of communication open up different dimensions in the way we relate to others. I’ve heard this said twice recently (though I’ve been aware of it through personal experience for years). First by Regina Lynn in her (well worth reading) book The Sexual Revolution 2.0. At some point, she explains that for those who are used to texting and IMing in the context of a romantic relationship, the absence of these “channels” makes it feel like there is something missing in the relationship. Second, Stefana Broadbent (again on the LIFT’07 panel, link above) mentioned that the arrival of Skype and VoiP did not kill chat — people are still chatting even though they could use the richer communication channel and actually talk.

This is not surprising. We know that some things are easier to say or more adapted to this or that communication channel. It’s not news either — using letters or the phone rather than face-to-face is not always a choice made for questions of distance or availability.

If not addiction, then what?

Of course, as I mentioned, there are unhealthy uses of computer technology. And computer technology has characteristics that help us get “hooked”, so it won’t be surprising that people might use it compulsively or excessively. And for people who for a reason or another (and I at times can include myself in that lot) need to “escape” life/reality/pain, goofing around aimlessly online or chatting for hours with random strangers can be used as an alternative to getting drunk/stoned/passing out in front of the TV/reading all Harry Potter books cover-to-cover without interruption. But is it right to talk about “addiction” in such cases?

Whatever you call it, the problem here is that you can’t just tell the people to “unplug” as a solution. For most people who have built part of their life around the internet, the computer is a valuable tool for work and social life. And anyway, even with substance abuse addictions, going “cold turkey” does not solve the real problem, though it’s usually better for your health. (I have personal experience from “the other side”, here: I have never in my whole life even tried smoking a cigarette, because I sense that if I did, there are high chances I would turn into a heavy smoker. I’m not free. One could say I have an addiction problem, even though it is not manifest in substance abuse. It’s latent and finds an expression in total abstinence.)

If the computer is used excessively, it is necessary to address the real underlying problem. The “thing” that makes people need to escape to somewhere. Because the line between “normal use of the tool” (I need to chat to some extent to keep in touch with my friends/family/collegues) and “excessive use” (I spend all my free time chatting, forget to eat, and don’t go out anymore) is drawn in quality rather than quantity and does not comprise a clear border like a different environment, schedule, or tool, the “easy” solution of “quitting” does not work.

Then, how does one determine if one’s use of the computer is excessive? I like to say that the main defining criteria for this kind of problem is pain. Is the intensity with which one uses the computer (or cellphone, or whatever) a source of suffering? Does the person feel that it’s out of control, and would like to do something about it? Is it having concrete effects like work loss, strain on relationships, or is there dissimulation regarding the time spent at it, hinting at a general unease about the time that is used on the computer? The secondary criteria would be purpose. Addiction or escape serve a purpose (shields one from something). Is it the case? What is this purpose? It’s not a simple question, and it often doesn’t have a simple answer, and addressing it might even involve a therapist.

Not that addicted…

I find that the mainstream press and certain specialists (doctors or teachers I’ve met) are a bit quick to shout “addiction” when faced with the importance the computer and the internet have taken in our lives. I’m not an “addict” because I get uncomfortable if I haven’t accessed my e-mail in 24 hours. I’m not an “addict” because I chat to my friends from the other side of the pond every day. I’m not an addict because when I think of something interesting, I feel an urge to write about it on my blog. I’m not an addict because I need my computer to take notes during a conference, rather than a paper and pen with which I’m illegible and which hurts me. I’m not an addict because I sometimes choose to stay in and catch up with what people I know are saying on their blogs rather than go out clubbing.

Yes, when I’m not doing too well I will easily turn to my computer to escape from the world or myself. Before I had a computer and a social life on the internet, I used to turn to the TV in such occasions, or drown myself in books or music. One isn’t better than the other. But here, clearly, the problem is me, and not the nasty technology.

If you’ve read all this, let me know what you think. I suspect I might have taken a few shortcuts here and there, and I’ll be more than happy to make them explicit if you point out what isn’t convincing.

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17 Responses to Addicted to Technology!

  1. What I like most about IM is that it’s essentially changed how I communicate with people in the same room because it is relatively unobtrusive and doesn’t interrupt someone else’s flow of work. My colleagues and I might be discussing something in a chatroom and one of us (usually me) might call for “headphones off” mode where we can talk using our vocal chords. Works especially well if you are all working on different things at the same time, yet have to collectively address an issue. This also keeps peace at home, where the S.O. might be in the other room, and it’s just a little message asking “How about some tea?” The crackle of the traditional intercom has been replaced by an Adium quack. ;)

    However, I do find it ironic that the “addiction” to computers and technology seems to attract more wolf cries than another phenomenon that’s less productive and even more widespread – the addiction to television. I mean, what’s up with that?

  2. This argument is like drunks in a bar talking about how alcohol is not addictive, and how alcoholism is bunkum.

    My argument against, I know is an uphill one. Simply because “bloggers” and web 2.0′ers are people who work in IT, or have a strong interest in IT, the internet and so forth. It would be totally natural for people in IT to feel they need to be wired up “to the national grid”, so to speak. For the rest of us where computing and using the internet takes backseat in “things in life to do”, this dependence people have on the internet could most certainly be perceived as an addiction, just like my friend who enjoys smoking marijuana, whilst not chemically addictive, requires it for him to “feel normal”, and also to get some sleep, because smoking weed does that to you.

    Where I work, which doesn’t even have a computer in it, people would be mystified if you asked them what a “blog” or a “wiki” is, or maybe even IM. These people don’t have a dependency or addiction to the Internet. They can operate their lives, most part, without having to sit in front of a computer. In fact, I can tell you that the team of 16 I work with, 3 own a computer. One guy likes to web cam, the other likes to look up astrological charts and find himself a partner, and the other being me. A few co-workers have never used a computer, and some have never gone beyond typing a letter or playing some game their nephew got.

    Could you stop using your cellphone? Could you stop using your email account, or talking on IRC? If you’re reading this, quite possibly not if you wish to maintain the current lifestyle you have. If you wanted to change your lifestyle, then it’s most certainly possible. In 7 weeks I will be changing my lifestyle. I will be leaving the life of full time worker, mouse potato after hours to one of travel and discovery, my only desire to use a computer to send emails to my parents to let them know I’m still alive, and even then, I can call them instead. Will it be hard for me? Sure. But this is what I’ve chosen, so I can go and do what I want. If you people want to spend the rest of your lives in front of your computer or crackberry socialising with 9pt Verdana, go right ahead.

  3. Ric says:

    @Dr Frank – does that mean you are now “addicted” to travel? I don’t think Steph is trying to make judgment here one way or another – rather to point out that before a technology becomes so ubiquitous as to be a part of the fabric of life (think of paper money, or cars as examples) then early adopters seem to be seen as unhealthily attracted to it, or addicted. While it IS possible to be that, the ‘unhealthy’ part is measured not in time, but in psychological dependence.

    Most of COULD stop using whatever technology you might name, but if it adds to our life in some way meaningful to us, why would we?

    (BTW – I find it very easy to spend time away from my computer – even weeks at a time!)

  4. Ric Hayman says:

    “Take care, there seem to have been problems with the comment form lately” – Steph, you don’t need to copy to clipboard if you have coComment turned on … if it gets lost here, retrieve it from coCo (hey – you’re allowed to encourage use of the product!)

  5. I think that technology will look beyond the internet soon – and it’s allready started to happen…

    I will just include you in my future considerations post, then you can all follow the trackback if you want to read my ideas on technology and the future..

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  8. Please Make Holes in My Buckets!…


    Facebook is Stowe’s fault. Twitter was because of Euan. Anne Dominique is guilty of getting me on Xing/OpenBC. I can’t remember precisely for Flickr or LinkedIn or — OMG! — orkut, but it was certainly somebody from #joiito. The …

  9. Catherine says:

    It’s hard to define what exactly constitutes an addiction, and it’s only when you try to go without that you realise the true extent of your dependence. My mobile phone broke a month ago, I can’t send or receive texts at all. Here in Ireland texts are used more often than phonecalls with the “computerised” generation, and I actually felt cut out! I was finding out about things later than everyone else and because it’s second nature to text people forgot to call instead! As I haven;t fixed my phone yet, I’m now finding that the internet is an increasingly attractive alternative! I’m admittedly become obsessed with the instantaneous messaging, myspace, bebo! And I do wonder what would happen if I just plugged the thing out – no more internet, yes I would survive but I’m quite happy to keep on going as I am!

  10. Catherine says:

    It's hard to define what exactly constitutes an addiction, and it's only when you try to go without that you realise the true extent of your dependence. My mobile phone broke a month ago, I can't send or receive texts at all. Here in Ireland texts are used more often than phonecalls with the “computerised” generation, and I actually felt cut out! I was finding out about things later than everyone else and because it's second nature to text people forgot to call instead! As I haven;t fixed my phone yet, I'm now finding that the internet is an increasingly attractive alternative! I'm admittedly become obsessed with the instantaneous messaging, myspace, bebo! And I do wonder what would happen if I just plugged the thing out – no more internet, yes I would survive but I'm quite happy to keep on going as I am!

  11. Thomas Bailey says:

    I do not need a car to commute. I ride a bike, done so for 20 years. I am able to do so because I live fairly close to work, about 8 km. Some of my bike rides are quite long. Several to San Francisco (70 km), one to Hollister (100 km), one to Oakland (70 km), one each to Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay, and countless rides to San Jose (15-25 km). I have even biked to Sausalito, and am planning to bike to Los Banos, Santa Rosa, Manteca, Tracy, and even Los Angeles for the AIDS LifeCycle. I frequently use GPS to log my rides.

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