Not addiction; dependency

This week’s New Yorker features an article, by Julia Ioffe, on Chatroulette, the quirky video chat service that at this point seems mainly of interest to pervs and reporters. Ioffe suggests that, in addition to all the wank artists and show-me-your-tits doofuses, expeditions into “the Chatroulette vortex” also reveal “a lot of joy”:

There is, for example, the video of the dancing banana, crudely drawn on lined paper, exhorting people to “Dance or gtfo!” (Dance or get the fuck out.) The banana’s partners usually respond with wriggling delight.

Well, one gathers one’s joy where one can these days.

Much of Ioffe’s piece is devoted to a profile of Andrey Ternovskiy, the “shy and evasive” Russian teenager who was inspired to invent Chatroulette out of, he claims, a love for “exploring other cultures” that apparently developed during a brief stint selling tchotchkes to tourists in Moscow. “Like much of his generation,” Ioffe writes, “Ternovskiy has an online persona far more developed than his real one.” The young man started skipping school in his early teens, preferring to spend his days at his computer. “The last three years at school, I haven’t done anything,” he tells Ioffe. “I just can’t make myself. There’s so much interesting stuff in the world, and I have to sit there with textbooks?” Ioffe comments:

By “the world,” of course, Ternovskiy means the Internet, which is also where most of his friends are. His closest confidant is a Russian immigrant named Kirill Gura, who lives in Charleston, West Virginia. Every night for the past five years, Ternovskiy has turned on his computer, found Kirill on MSN Messenger, and talked to him until one of them fell asleep. “He’s a real friend,” Ternovskiy says … Ternovskiy says that he sees the computer as “one hundred percent my window into the world.” He doesn’t seek much else. “I always believed that computer might be that thing that I only need, that I only need that thing to survive,” he says. “It might replace everything.”

Ternovskiy’s case is, of course, an extreme one, but it’s also, whether we care to admit or not, representative. The world of the screen hasn’t replaced everything, but, for most of us, whether we’re of Ternovskiy’s generation or not, it has replaced a lot. According to recent media surveys, the average American spends some 8.5 hours a day peering at a screen – TV, computer, or cell phone – and that number continues to rise as smartphone use explodes. We’ve reached a point, in other words, where it’s more likely than not that we’re looking into a screen at any given moment when we’re awake.

Last month, the University of Maryland’s International Center for Media & the Public Agenda released the results of an informal study of college students’ attitudes toward media. Two hundred students at the school were asked to refrain from using any electronic media for a day and to write about their experiences. The students, the researchers reported, “use literal terms of addiction to characterize their dependence on media.” By using the a-word – “addiction” – the researchers assured themselves of a burst of media attention. (If there’s one thing we’re addicted to these days, it’s the word “addiction.”) “College students are ‘addicted’ to social media and even experience withdrawal symptoms from it,” ran a typical headline. “According to a new study out of the University of Maryland, students are addicted to social media, and computers and smartphones deliver their drug,” began a story at the Huffington Post. Predictably, the overheated reports were quickly countered by a flood of counter-reports pointing out the silliness of confusing the language of addiction with addiction itself.

The use of the addiction metaphor gave everybody an easy way to discuss, and dismiss, the study without actually looking at the study’s results, which provided a fascinating look at how we live today. Here’s a brief, representative sampling of how students described the experience of going without their devices for just a few hours:

“Texting and IMing my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort. When I did not have those two luxuries, I felt quite alone and secluded from my life. Although I go to a school with thousands of students, the fact that I was not able to communicate with anyone via technology was almost unbearable.“

“Not having a cell phone created a logistical problem. It was manageable for one day, but I cannot see how life would be possible without one.”

“My attempt at the gym without the ear pieces in my iPhone wasn’t the same; doing cardio listening to yourself breath really drains your stamina.”

“It is almost second nature to check my Facebook or email; it was very hard for my mind to tell my body not to go on the Internet.”

“I began to compare my amount of media usage to that of my friends. I realized that I don’t usually check or update Facebook or Twitter like a lot of my friends that have Blackberrys or iPhones. I did however realize that as soon as I get home from class it has become a natural instinct to grab my computer (not to do school work which is the sole reason my parents got me my computer!) but to check my email, Gmail, umd account mail, Facebook account, Twitter account, Skype, AIM, and ELMS: that’s six websites and four social networking sites. This in itself is a wake-up call! I was so surprised to think that I probably spend at least 1-2 hours on these sites alone BEFORE I even make it to attempting my homework and then continue checking these websites while doing my school work.”

“With classes, location, and other commitments it’s hard to meet with friends and have a conversation. Instant messaging, SMS, and Facebook are all ways to make those connections with convenience, and even a heightened sense of openness. I believe that people are more honest about how they really feel through these media sources because they are not subject to nonverbal signals like in face to face communication.”

“When I was walking to class I always text and listen to my iPod so the walk to class felt extremely long and boring unlike all the other times.”

“My short attention span prevented me from accomplishing much, so I stared at the wall for a little bit. After doing some push-ups, I just decided to take a few Dramamine and go to sleep to put me out of my misery.”

“On a psychological note, my brain periodically went crazy because I found at times that I was so bored I didn’t know what to do with myself.”

“I clearly am addicted and the dependency is sickening. I feel like most people these days are in a similar situation, for between having a Blackberry, a laptop, a television, and an iPod, people have become unable to shed their media skin.”

“The day seemed so much longer and it felt like we were trying to fill it up with things to do as opposed to running out of time to do all of the things we wanted to do.”

“I couldn’t take it anymore being in my room…alone…with nothing to occupy my mind so I gave up shortly after 5pm. I think I had a good run for about 19 hours and even that was torture.”

“Honestly, this experience was probably the single worst experience I have ever had.”

And so on.

The problem with the addiction metaphor, which as these quotes show is easy to indulge in, is that it presents the normal as abnormal and hence makes it easy for us to distance ourselves from our own behavior and its consequences. By dismissing talk of “Internet addiction” as rhetorical overkill, which it is, we also avoid undertaking an honest examination of how deeply our media devices have been woven into our lives and how they are shaping those lives in far-reaching ways, for better and for worse. In the course of just a decade, we have become profoundly dependent on a new and increasingly pervasive technology.

There’s nothing unusual about this. We routinely become dependent on popular, useful technologies. If people were required to live without their cars or their indoor plumbing for a day, many of them would probably resort to the language of addiction to describe their predicament. I know that, after a few hours, I’d be seriously jonesing for that toilet. What’s important is to be able to see what’s happening as we adapt to a new technology – and the problem with the addiction metaphor is that it makes it too easy to avert our eyes.

The addiction metaphor also distorts the nature of technological change by suggesting that our use of a technology stems from a purely personal choice – like the choice to smoke or to drink. An inability to control that choice becomes, in this view, simply a personal failing. But while it’s true that, in the end, we’re all responsible for how we spend our time, it’s an oversimplification to argue that we’re free “to choose” whether and how we use computers and cell phones, as if social norms, job expectations, familial responsibilities, and other external pressures had nothing to do with it. The deeper a technology is woven into the patterns of everyday life, the less choice we have about whether and how we use that technology.

When it comes to the digital networks that now surround us, the fact is that most us can’t just GTFO, even if we wanted to. The sooner we move beyond the addiction metaphor, the sooner we’ll be able to see, with some clarity and honesty, the extent and implications of our dependency on our networked computing and media devices. What happens to the human self as it comes to experience more and more of the world, and of life, through the mediation of the screen?

At the end of Ioffe’s piece, she reports on a recent trip that Tournovskiy made to West Virigina to meet his IM buddy and “real friend,” Kirill Gura, face to face: “‘It was a little weird, you know,’ Ternovskiy told me later. ‘We was just looking at each other without having much to say.'” At this point, there’s probably a little Ternovskiy in all of us.

11 thoughts on “Not addiction; dependency

  1. dougiedd

    I remain unclear why you think “internet addiction” should be considered “rhetorical overkill”? There is a growing body of evidence that would suggest otherwise, though admittedly it is controversial and I doubt you are trying to make a psychological argument about the merits of including it in the next DSM…

    I want aware that a clear criteria for addictions are that they be a “purely personal choice”? Which addictions would you think meets that criteria?

  2. Alleen

    About 10 years ago I got hooked on my online community. I had “friends” and an online persona. A persona that got mentioned in national news while I stayed anonymous at home. I checked email, carried my iPaq everywhere, a laptop, my cell phone.

    But the novelty wore off and I tired of it all. I do not use any social media. Don’t have an iPhone. Don’t Twitter. I check some websites here and there (here!) and use my computers for work.

    But what would I rather be doing? Feeding my koi while a rose-breasted grosbeak sings over the pond. Reading a book. Listening to bluegrass. Hiking through a glacial valley. Planting tomato seedlings tomorrow morning and playing tennis. Friends will come over to barbecue and we’ll drain some bottles of wine. No iPhones at the table!

    I have no doubt that people who can’t live with electronic toys and friends will eventually discover the wonders of real life and it will be as though they came out of a cave into the light.

  3. Seth Finkelstein

    This part is key: “But while it’s true that, in the end, we’re all responsible for how we spend our time, it’s an oversimplification to argue that we’re free “to choose” whether and how we use computers and cell phones, as if social norms, job expectations, familial responsibilities, and other external pressures had nothing to do with it. The deeper a technology is woven into the patterns of everyday life, the less choice we have about whether and how we use that technology.”

    But where one goes with this idea is critical. It’s very tempting to do reactionary what’s-the-matter-with-kids-today pontification, because that appeals to Grumpy Old Men and Blue-Haired Women, so there’s a certain market for it. As well as the ever popular look-at-the-weird-nerds-with-no-social-skills, which is evident in the first article.

    Making it about economics and who-benefits is another matter.

  4. SplendidOne

    Let’s broaden the language on this a bit, please. I consider my “screens,” as you label them, to be windows.

    I woke up this morning and looked out my bedroom window at my private disc golf courser/arboretum. Likewise, I looked out bathroom and other windows as I prepared to go to work. Just before I left, I watched my wife head to her job on her bicycle, through my living room window. Then I looked into my laptop’s window and checked overnight email. I drove to work looking out the windows of my car. I made a couple of blog posts through my laptop window at work, as I looked out my office windows (both into our larger office and outside to the trees). I peered into a parking meter window to pay to park. Then I had a cavity filled by a dentist while overlooking the intersection of State and Liberty Streets from a second-floor office window. Then I drove back to work interacting with the world through the windows of my car once again. Now I am back at work, looking at the interior and exterior windows and the window of my laptop as well as the larger monitor beside it. I have open in those windows a total of 52 different browser windows. I like windows. A lot.

    I have nearly 900 Facebook friends and at least another 2-3,000 in other social networks. I get more than 120,000 email messages a year.

    And, in response to Alleen, I also spend a lot of time outdoors (planting and trimming trees in my private, 8-acre arboretum/park, playing disc golf at a nationally competitive level, walking my dogs, playing with my cats), share lots of F2F social time with friends and family (including wine), and read an average of nearly one novel every couple of days.

    None of that is mutually exclusive. All of it is wonderful. I’m nearly 63 and I love the Internet!!!

  5. Planningss

    Great article and I must read this book. I agree that the addiction term is unhelpful as it allows us to write it off as a problem we can solve. It also makes it less interesting in my view, by labelling it a bit of destructive behaviour, rather than a larger shift in how we behave.

    I would also question the word “dependence” though, as it seems to be used negatively. It can of course be positive or negative for though we might be overdependent on cars, our dependency on toilets is entirely positive. Our dependence is a sign that it is a fundamental part of our lives, and without it our lives would actually be worsened.

    I’d argue that our relationship with the internet has been about over-dependence at times but as it becomes more enmeshed into our behaviour it is becoming useful rather than destructive. I am as interested as you in what changes screens have brought about in humans, but would see it as a relationship which is becoming increasingly defined by utility (where we seek to augment our lives in a positive way with technology), rather than over-dependency.

  6. kevin hadduck

    I walk, sometimes for hours alone, without benefit of electronic company. I drive, sometimes for hours alone, without turning on my radio, not to mention any other electronic devices. I read, sometimes for hours. I think, sometimes for hours, and find that three things contribute best to my thinking: reading, long conversations with friends face-to-face, and the silence of solitude.

    My computer is one legitimate (but not the best) source of reading, and email has become one legitimate source of communication with friends-those who are not within reach for face-to-face conversation. My work demands that I use a computer routinely, daily.

    It remains a thing I use because I have to; rarely because I want to. I depend upon it for work, for some information and communication, and for a small amount of entertainment. I depend upon family and friends for far more important things. And in regards to those more important things, the computer has definitely not made my life richer.

  7. So-and-so

    Internet addiction is real according to 69% of my respondents

    (admittedly, perhaps a somewhat biased group) Only 4% did not believe that internet addiction was real, and 27% voted “maybe.”

    I’ve also noticed that “If there’s one thing we’re addicted to these days, it’s the word ‘addiction'” as you pointed out:

  8. Kelly Roberts

    A slightly tweaked version of one of the student comments above would make a great warning label for computer screens:

    “In the unlikely event that you are disconnected from the internet and forced to confront your vanishingly small attention span, please take the following steps: (1) Stare at the wall for a little bit; (2) If your body (your actual, physical body, not your avatar) isn’t atrophied to the point of total paralysis, try some push-ups; (3) Take some Dramamine/Xanax/Vicodin and go to sleep. If you wake up and find that your internet is still disconnected, please repeat steps 1 through 3.”

    Dougiedd: Don’t we have enough bullshit in the DSM as it is? Kids used to be shy; now they’ve got Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD). Where does it end? One is dependent on the internet. One is addicted to cigarettes.

  9. John Schoettler

    Don’t those who believe in technological determinism state that the artificial/digital world of the ‘screen’ is a genuine extension of the natural world? As the natural world and the digital world enter an excellerated period of hybridization and coalescing, the lines between the natural and the artificial become harder to distinguish and our dependency on them increases exponentially.

  10. Len Bullard

    The deeper a technology is woven into the patterns of everyday life, the less choice we have about whether and how we use that technology.

    True. I got along perfectly well without cell phones and credit cards until the phonebooths disappeared and I couldn’t book an airline flight. Still, the notion of addiction doesn’t worry me. ANY positive feedback system is addictive.

    As I noted elsewhere, I’m worried that as predicted, it has become the cultural equivalent of Tesla’s Thumper.


    Thank you. The pervasiveness of addiction rhetoric in American society makes it’s difficult to have an intelligent conversation about the interface of the individual and his/her socio-political world. Indeed, equally as pervasive and problematic is our choice rhetoric. Bedfellows they are.

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