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Our Growing "Addiction" to Digital Network; Is This the Right Term?

Posted May 21 2010 12:00am

The word addiction is always used in the pejorative sense -- no one brags about their addiction to anything at cocktail parties. Nick Carr, who blogs over at RoughType, takes on the contrarians and social critics who bemoan the addiction of many/most of us to the web. social networks, blogs, on-line news, or on-line games (see: Not addiction; dependency ). Here is an excerpt from his note:

The problem with the addiction metaphor [to describe use of digital networks and social media] that it presents the normal as abnormal and hence makes it easy for us to distance ourselves from our own behavior and its consequences. By dismissing talk of "Internet addiction" as rhetorical overkill, which it is, we also avoid undertaking an honest examination of how deeply our media devices have been woven into our lives and how they are shaping those lives in far-reaching ways, for better and for worse. In the course of just a decade, we have become profoundly dependent on a new and increasingly pervasive technology. There's nothing unusual about this. We routinely become dependent on popular, useful technologies. If people were required to live without their cars or their indoor plumbing for a day, many of them would probably resort to the language of addiction to describe their predicament.....What's important is to be able to see what's happening as we adapt to a new technology - and the problem with the addiction metaphor is that it makes it too easy to avert our eyes.The addiction metaphor also distorts the nature of technological change by suggesting that our use of a technology stems from a purely personal choice - like the choice to smoke or to drink...But while it's true that, in the end, we're all responsible for how we spend our time, it's an oversimplification to argue that we're free "to choose" whether and how we use computers and cell phones, as if social norms, job expectations, familial responsibilities, and other external pressures had nothing to do with it. The deeper a technology is woven into the patterns of everyday life, the less choice we have about whether and how we use that technology.When it comes to the digital networks that now surround us, the fact is that most us can't just GTFO, even if we wanted to. The sooner we move beyond the addiction metaphor, the sooner we'll be able to see, with some clarity and honesty, the extent and implications of our dependency on our networked computing and media devices.

He's right, of course. Calling our increasingly ubiquitous use of digital networks an addiction causes us to "avert our eyes" and stops conversation, This inhibits us from achieving a deeper understanding of how these trends are affecting our lives. Young adults today use Facebook and instant messaging to keep abreast of a much wider circle of friends than was possible in the past and make plans with them. This is not something that I or friends in my age bracket are in the habit of doing. We use other technologies to achieve the same purpose, mainly cell phone calls and email. Both they and my age cohort would be loathe to return to former ways. Carr is right when he says that we "can't just GTFO even if we wanted to." 

If you think that almost uninterrupted access and use of digital networks is common now, you haven't seen anything yet. I have posted a number of previous notes about the use of smartphones and particularly their use in a healthcare context. Such portable devices increasingly make access to the web just as easy and efficient as with a PC. A recent article tracks the astonishing growth curve of smartphones (see: AdMob: Smartphone Usage Up, iPhone and Android on the Rise ):

AdMob’s Mobile Metrics report for February [2010] focuses primarily on smartphones, a category of mobile phones that has seen tremendous growth in the last year. In February 2010, smartphones accounted for 48% of AdMob’s worldwide traffic, up from 35% in February 2009. The really big news, however, is the stellar rise of iPhone OS and Android. In the past year, [operating system] Symbian’s share of requests fell from 43% to 18%, while iPhone’s share of request rose from 33% to 50%. Android, [Google's cell operating system], fared even better, rising from 2% of smartphone requests in the AdMob network in February 2009, to 24% in February 2010.

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