Internet Addicts Anonymous

inattention For a long time I have been asserting that technology, which has become a generic remedy for all our concerns, is a cultural addiction. We almost always look to some form of technology whenever a society-wide problem crops up, but also turn to some device to solve our individual problems. The results of such mindless, reactive practices are several-fold. First, the underlying problem is usually left unaddressed, leaving the causes in place waiting to produce more symptoms after a while. This pattern is called fixes-that-fail by systems thinkers. If the root causes persist over long periods, the behavior shifts to a more pathological pattern of addiction or “shifting-the-burden.” Here the lack of attention to the real causes creates new problems (addiction) or prevents the actor(s) from addressing them.

A second result is the potential appearance of unintended consequences. The technological artifact may not only fail to fix the problem, but may also introduce new, unintended consequences. This gets more and more potentially dangerous as the scale of the technology become larger. I am sure one of the main topics of conversation in the upcoming Paris conference on climate change will be the use of geo-engineering projects to stop or reverse the warming due to the release of greenhouse gases. These comprise huge programs, for example, to change to reflectivity of the atmosphere so that more of the solar energy impinging on the Earth is reflected back into space. If, as many claim, we do not fully understand the complex processes that cause climate change, it is utter hubris to assert that such technological fixes come with insignificant downsides, especially if we look forward to the seventh generation that Native Americans used as a standard for contemplating the future impacts of actions taken today.

The third issue with many of today’s technologies is that they problematize ethical responsibility by separating the actor from the act in time and space. Can the controller of a drone sitting in a trailer 10,000 miles for the war zone be held responsible for the “collateral damage” caused by pulling the trigger. The classical ethical criterion of knowingly causing harm has become very fuzzy as technology interposes itself between the actor and the outcome. This is, for many, one of the criticisms against introducing GMO’s into the economy.

The fourth is related to the last but focuses not on the ethical outcomes of individual acts. A technological device by its inherent nature always acts as a filter, changing the perceptions, and consequently the actions, of the user from those that would have been realized in its absence. This is not necessarily bad, as many devices are designed to improve our actions, but the system often filters out some of the meaning-giving context of the situation. I was intrigued by an article in today’s NYTime Sunday Review (November 29, 2015) that points to recent increases in “analog things” in our digital culture.

Since then, I’ve been tuned in to evidence that our digital culture appears to have a case of analog fever. The rising sales of vinyl records, for instance, have been widely chronicled. E-book sales dropped by 10 percent in the first five months of this year, but Amazon’s physical shop has plenty of company: The American Booksellers Association counted 1,712 member stores in 2015, up from 1,410 in 2010. You can’t scroll through a lifestyle app without finding news of a precious new print journal’s launch party; Etsy is thick with letterpress-printed offerings; and the digital-only publication Vox recently published an impassioned brief on behalf of the video rental store. The writer and artist David Rees hyped his TV show “Going Deep” by skipping Twitter and Facebook in favor of putting up old-school promotional fliers — an “analog social media strategy,” as he called it. And so on.

My quick analysis leads me to the importance of touch and to context. Most, if not, all of these items provide touch in addition to other sensory inputs. They also carry contextual meaning, missing from the digital object. Many of us older folk learned what a book was when our parents read bedtime stories to us. Even if we did not understand what we heard, we got to understand the meaning of “book.” Although many children now get a digital device in their early years, real books are still the medium that works up to the first iPad acquisition. I wish this trend would be true for the acquisition of “analog” friends instead of the digital copies found on the many social media.

A second article in the same section raised concerns over the addictive power of technology, particularly digital forms. In writing the blog post, I can see a connection between the two. There’s something about all the all the different outcomes I discuss above. The author, Tony Schwartz, described, first his addiction to the Internet, and, then, the way he used to kick his habit. He wrote:

Addiction is the relentless pull to a substance or an activity that becomes so compulsive it ultimately interferes with everyday life. By that definition, nearly everyone I know is addicted in some measure to the Internet. It has arguably replaced work itself as our most socially sanctioned addiction.

He found that he could not stay focused on reading the pile of books that had accumulated bedside, noting that, “Instead of reading them, I was spending too many hours online, checking the traffic numbers for my company’s website…” He was caught up in the web that is designed to ensnare so many these days as he quoted another author on the subject.

“The net is designed to be an interruption system, a machine geared to dividing attention,” Nicholas Carr explains in his book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” “We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive.”

This feature of digital technology was observed much earlier. In 1998, Linda Stone coined the phrase, “continuous partial attention” to describe the constant shifting from one mode and item to another. She noted the difference from multi-tasking, then also very popular, where full attention jumps from one thing to another.

I won’t go into detail into his adaptation of the AA’s twelve-step method he used to deal with his habit. Only with great effort, including cold turkey Internet-free vacations, was he able to restore his ability to focus attention on what he deemed important. The article is tragicomic, well worth reading because he is speaking to a huge and growing problem. The ending describes a scene that is, as he says, haunting.

Occasionally, I find myself returning to a haunting image from the last day of my vacation. I was sitting in a restaurant with my family when a man in his early 40s came in and sat down with his daughter, perhaps 4 or 5 years old and adorable. Almost immediately, the man turned his attention to his phone. Meanwhile, his daughter was a whirlwind of energy and restlessness, standing up on her seat, walking around the table, waving and making faces to get her father’s attention. Except for brief moments, she didn’t succeed and after a while, she glumly gave up. The silence felt deafening.