“Men have become the tools of their tools.” Henry David Thoreau wrote that in his 1854 book Walden. The same can be said today about some men, women, and children.
When a tool controls us, rather than us controlling the tool, the original purpose of the tool becomes lost, turned upside down. This applies to the relationship that some people have with their digital tools, from smartphones and tablets to laptop and desktop personal computers and the Internet as a whole.
The term “computer addiction” has been around at least since the personal computer revolution began in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The term “Internet Addiction Disorder,” or IAD, has been around at least since the mid-1990s when the web started becoming mainstream.
Ironically, Internet Addiction Disorder was suggested by New York City psychiatrist Ivan Goldberg as a joke, parodying the bevy of new psychiatric conditions that had been recently recognized by the American Psychiatric Association.
But his thoughts struck a chord, with colleagues telling Goldberg that his descriptions were right on target, and Goldberg came to accept IAD as a serious affliction. People were, and are, going overboard, spending too much time online to the detriment of their work, academic, family, or social lives.
In this sense, computer, Internet, or device addiction is no different from any other activity that you can become obsessed with, doing it compulsively, including shopping, gambling, and exercise. At an extreme, it all falls under the rubric obsessive-compulsive disorder.
With many young people, texting can be particularly alluring. You can get immediate feedback about what you’re thinking, feeling, or experiencing, no matter where you are.
But overreliance on texting can also have a deleterious effect on social development. In her 2011 book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle writes that electronic communication for some can compromise the ability to have a real conversation and to reflect when you’re alone.
Turkle believes that we’re giving human qualities to our devices and that we’re treating each other as things. What’s designed to facilitate communication instead is pushing people closer to their machines and further away from one another.
How many of us are addicted to our devices, refusing to go anywhere without them, constantly looking down at them, even when talking in person with others? Matters go from frustrating to deadly when driving enters the mix. Texting is the leading cause of inattention while driving, and driver inattention is the leading cause of car crashes.
The current generation of young people have drifted about as far as you can from the Sixties mantra of “Be here now.” The inability to focus on whatever task is currently at hand may be the most far-reaching negative of them all. We’re raising a generation of multitaskers who can’t pay attention to what they’re doing for more than a few minutes, and if we’re not careful soon enough we’ll have an entire society with attention deficit disorder.
There’s no question that machine culture, including device culture, has its positives as well as its negatives. Science and technological progress have raised living standards, giving ordinary people more options to pursue artistic, educational, philanthropic, and leisure activities.
With digital technology, perhaps above all else, more than its informational or entertainment value, is the way people around the world can link with one another, whether rich, poor, black, white, yellow, red, conservative, liberal, believer, or nonbeliever. Communicating across philosophical, political, racial, religious, and national borders can help us at least see our common humanity.
University of Pennsylvania English professor Kenneth Goldsmith is trying to flip the negative about digital technology on its head. He’s teaching a new course titled “Wasting Time on the Internet.”
According to the course description, students will be required to create “compelling and emotional works of literature” based on the random activities of their digital lives. Goldsmith believes that digital distraction can help produce creative epiphanies from the subconscious. Time will tell if any Pulitzer Prize-winning works will emerge from the “sup?” texts, tweets, Facebook status updates, and YouTube cat video watching.
One of the key aspects of technology is the importance of using it appropriately, with the term for this being “appropriate technology.” Whether digital or not, technology should improve, not degrade, the quality of our lives.
Awareness is half the battle, both individual and societal. Excesses often accompany new technology, the goal being a balance in how to best integrate it into lives and societies.