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?
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?
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.