The addiction question ✖
Last week, my mother was in the unfortunate position of needing to get a new cell phone. I found this out in the form of an e-mail from her asking for advice on selecting a phone with “no internet, no SMS, nothing” — in other words, a bona fide dumbphone (though, as I told her, it’s simply impossible to find a phone in 2012 that doesn’t support SMS; even Jitterbug, the only slightly condescending cell phone service for the elderly, is on board with texting).
There are a lot of really good reasons not to get a dumbphone right now, including the fact that AT&T is in the process of shutting down its 2G network, which most of those phones still use. Also, setting aside Carrie Bradshaw-esque posturing about how those newfangled smart telephones are really hard to use, in most instances, dumbphones are at least as challenging to operate as their iOS or Android counterparts. No one is investing a great deal of time in creating a fantastic user experience for dumbphones anymore, because it’s obviously a dying market. Every non-smartphone I’ve used since the release of the iPhone feels increasingly like a Zach Morris phone.
Anyway, in the process of persuading my mother to get an iPhone, she raised the objection that she’s “addicted” to the internet as it is, and that getting an iPhone will only exacerbate that.
My mother has been deploying the term “addiction” in reference to the internet for years, ever since that fateful 2005 New York Times article about treatment centers for internet addiction. Back in my EverQuest (and, later, World of Warcraft) playing days, she was particularly vocal in insisting that spending that amount of time immersed in a video game world de facto constituted addiction.
The problem with addiction as a diagnostic category, writes Cyborgology, is that it’s based on a set of problematic assumptions about how the internet is uniquely pathological as a communication technology:
If we understand the internet as an integral part of social life, however, then a diagnosis of IA makes little sense. If we understand the internet as a means of sociality, a venue for business communications, an outlet for creativity, a source of news gathering and a space of recreation, then indeed, an addiction to internet technologies would be an addiction everyday life.
Maybe there is something pathological in some of the ways we use the internet. Confronted with last week’s release of Sparrow for iPhone, by far the best mobile e-mail experience on the market today, I found myself unable to use the app because it currently lacks push notifications. My idea of how e-mail works requires instant notification that I have new messages, whether or not those messages are important or urgent. (Most of the time, they’re not.)
The pathology there, if there is one, isn’t addiction — it’s impatience. And if we’ve seen any kind of large-scale change in how people interface with communication technologies with the rise of smartphones and always-on internet connections, it’s the attitudinal shift to being unwilling to wait for communication to happen.
And we’ve seen this shift happen before. The term “snail mail” didn’t emerge as an opposition to the instantaneous pace of e-mail — it was first used in 1840, to contrast postal mail to the newfangled telegraph. The need for speed in communication is not a new development, and our distrust of that need — our impulse to pathologize it — has emerged at every turn.
Posted 3/20/12 by Yoel Roth. Comments. 0 notes.