The Merriam-Webster definition of ubiquitous is “existing or being everywhere at the same time : constantly encountered”. Indeed, this does seem to be true about electronic devices – at least in the United States – which allow us to do seemingly anything imaginable. Want to track your steps taken, the hours of sleep you get, calories eaten (and burned), your heart rate, stairs climbed, and even remind you to start moving if you’re still too long? The Fitbit can do all that, and fit stylishly on your wrist besides; and it costs barely anything compared to what all the machines we USED to use would together. ($249 for the ultimate model, if you’re wondering.) And I won’t even touch the range of things common smartphones can do with a click…
But do the availability and cost-effectiveness of these consumer electronics (CE) make them a new hazard to our health – an addiction?
Can’t Get You out of My Head
Paula Poundstone (a stand-up comedian) talks about how people are addicted to electronics – a common theme on the internet. (While this may be satire, it’s satirizing a very popular opinion.) As proof, she states:
“I love to play ping-pong, I love to practice the drums, I love to tap dance. But I have never, even once, tried to figure out how to do any one of those things, while driving, in such a way that the cops couldn’t see. Because I am not addicted to those activities, I just enjoy them, and there’s a huge difference.”
And most of us can probably think of a moment where CE distracted someone from an important conversation or moment – whether it was yourself, a friend, or a co-worker. There are people banning smartphones from wedding ceremonies, so that people are actually “there”, not just recording images.
Personal admission: Right now, I’m writing this blog post in between feeding my one-year old his lunch, because I rarely have time to just sit down and type without multitasking something else as well. Before I deactivated my Facebook account a week ago, I would randomly browse posts in between other tasks – probably at least twice an hour, if not more. Since I deactivated it, I’ve actually had more time to do stuff with my family, because my work online is so much more productive. But I’m still behind, and still have to work in my “computing” time between all my other responsibilities. (I refuse to get a smartphone, because my laptop and tablet are already too intrusive, too tempting.)
Internet or Devices – the New Chicken or the Egg?
But maybe it’s not the devices that are the problem – maybe it’s the Internet itself. After all, there are several peer-reviewed articles on Internet Addiction Disorder, which (despite the literature) has not been included in the DSM-V (the psychological manual for mental disorders). It’s hard to think of a device we use that doesn’t link to the internet in some way – even the Fitbit mentioned earlier has an app that allows you to compare your activity with friends…or the world. Is the preponderance of information available online the real problem? Are we addicted to the semblance of knowledge?
Love of Knowledge vs. Love of Knowing
Paterson touched on the love of knowledge (and truth) in our reading from last week, but I believe there’s a deeper need being expressed here. We’re bombarded every day with information, with news, with stories that may or may not be true. (The fact that Snopes.com needs to exist is part of this.) Our natural desire to know about the world around us is being smashed by deluges of data, so instead we just want to “know” more, anything, even if it’s not true. We don’t turn off the learning process when we leave childhood, it’s just shaped and molded by our adult experience. So, in some cases, this turns into an addiction, an obsession with knowing what our friends and celebrities are writing, an urge to constantly be “on” without stopping to consider why. It’s not that we don’t care about the truth anymore, it’s just that there are so many truths out there and mentally – it’s exhausting.
The definition of addiction is this: “compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal” (Merriam-Webster). It seems this definition could hold true for the devices we use, and the Internet we access with them.
Knowledge has always been addicting, the search for wisdom a drug we start in childhood. It’s just that now we crave the pursuit, the chase, the hyperlink clicking and video watching sometimes more than the knowledge that may be contained in all of it. Is that the fault of electronics? Or our fault, for not finding other better things to satisfy that desire to know?
Paterson, R. W. K. 1979. “Towards an Axiology of Knowledge.” Journal of Philosophy of Education 13:91-100.