Internet Addiction is a Symptom of a Larger Problem


Paul Graham wrote recently about the increasingly addictive nature of much of what we produce. He takes this as a consequence of technological progress, that we will inevitably create and discover things that are highly attractive to us. He points out that the Internet became addictive while we were in the middle of using it, it crept up on us.

In resisting the addictive and unhealthy things society has managed to adopt as normal, Graham argues that you will look eccentric. That if people don’t think you’re weird, you’re living badly. I wear that as a badge of pride. I make my own bread and yogurt, grind my own meat (though I don’t raise it), and abstain almost entirely from fast food.

It is in our nature that we produce and consume addictive things. I mean that quite literally, our human ‘hardware’ is driven by emotions and cravings that are chemically based in our brains. It causes us to seek out food and sex, it forces us to sleep, it slows us down with depression when stress releases enough of the wrong chemicals.

For millions of years natural selection has served us well. For the last hundred thousand we’ve been falling out of harmony with it. Our ability to invent and discover, to create and consume, to evolve our knowledge and society has drastically outstripped the speed of our physical changes. For awhile our cultural norms served as a buffer, we developed slowly enough that society could recognize behaviors that led to more harm than good and create taboo. Now change is so rapid that we’ve outstripped our capacity to recognize problems quickly enough.

The things that can become problems are very seductive. They appear to have substance, or are concentrated forms of things that did have substance but have lost them in their transformation.

One thing we’re really good at lately is info-porn. We watch the food network but still eat garbage and don’t cook, we watch the weather channel for more than the 60 seconds of information that is actually needed per day, we read concentrated news feeds, and see streams of ‘friends’ actions and thoughts. All while not really engaging in the living that should be represented by the thoughts.

We have a problem.

In the middle of the last century there was supposed to be this bright future ahead of us. It included things like flying cars and jetpacks, but it also included entire nourishing meals that would be taken in pill form. This obviously didn’t happen and aside from the practical considerations who would want to give up eating enjoyable meals? But we didn’t shake off the basic thinking that went into these bright visions of the ‘future’ and have continued barreling ahead without serious contemplation of where we’re going.

We’ve allowed our society, our lives, to become shallow. Overconsumption has become the norm; the consequence of trying to fill that empty place that should be taken up by real food, real knowledge, real achievement.

I almost just said “used to be” instead of “should be”. This is a common mistake and fallacy; that somehow in the good old days we didn’t have these problems. I don’t think that is true, in nearly every respect we continue to improve our overall state of being and we should have no desire to return to any earlier way of being. You can keep your open sewers, sunup to sundown agricultural labor, day long walks to the next village, leaded gasoline, slavery, coal heat, impact printers and Nokia phones.

I’m not going to argue that we all try to go back to living a simpler life. The conclusion here is not that simpler is better. Besides which our consumer, concentrating ways have led us to the brink of a disaster that can only be averted by accelerating change.

We can recognize the meta-problem; that new is not always improved, shiny is not always pretty, that societal norms are not safely normal, that fast and cheap can be dangerous. Dealing with the shallow but attractive things life throws at us is fundamental to being who we are, which things we choose to accept into our lives and which we reject is fundamental.

Things seem to always develop as bubbles. Humans find the next new hot thing and exploit the hell out of it until we use it up or destroy it, or we figure out it needs to be applied in moderation. The pace of change means that these curves are piling on top of each other, and the length of human attention spans means that we have a hard time recognizing when we’re in them. Our capacities are limited, from now on our reach will always exceed our grasp. And that’s a good thing.

We all face a choice every day. We can sit on our asses and eat pot pies and watch Fox news, or twinkies and Halo, or meth and the wall, choose your poison.

We can ask ourselves what it means to be a member of the only known technological species as we reach an inflection point we may not get past intact.