Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Internet made me write this

The latest issue of Newsweek features an article entitled iCrazy: Panic. Depression. Psychosis. How Connection Addiction is rewiring our brains by Tony Dokoupil. Currently the whole article is available to read on the site.
My own reaction to this sort of thinking is mixed. On one hand it seems to fall into the general this-really-big-thing-is-really-bad-for-you while on the other, there may be some points to consider. There's probably a good chunk of truth to the fact that the way we think about life has been radically altered by the use of the Internet. Being "always on", to borrow the title of a 2008 book by Naomi Baron, surely has consequences. However, I hesitate, because correlation is not causation. Or to quote Baron " David Hume taught us long ago, constant conjunction has no necessary relationship to causation." (p. 227)
Additionally, discussion(s) of the Internet as a very large, disembodied entity that makes conscious decisions on its own, demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of what technology's role is. For an example from the Newsweek article: "But the research is now making it clear that the Internet is not “just” another delivery system. It is creating a whole new mental environment, a digital state of nature where the human mind becomes a spinning instrument panel, and few people will survive unscathed."
Please note words like "creating", "state of nature", "becomes" and "survive". While this article is decrying the brain rewiring work of the Internet it still speaks the language of technological determinism. To quote Baron again "The way we use a technology is always a joint product of the technology's affordances and of the cultural milieu in which it plays out." (p. 234) Jaron Lanier, for all his crankiness, makes this point throughout his book You are Not a Gadget.
The discussion of "the Internet" throughout the article is confusing. It seems to substitute for a discussion of social media rather than the wide breadth of activities that a full use of the medium of the Internet enables. I'm pretty sure no one is going crazy because they are reading too many articles from a library database, or at least no one is studying, or is interested, in those people. When Dokoupil mentions the Internet I would suggest he largely is referring to social media.
My biggest issue with this article is not the presentation of the Internet as a cause of anxiety, depression and psychosis. My issue with this article is its attempt to only present the Internet as a cause of anxiety, depression, etc. For example "And don’t kid yourself: the gap between an “Internet addict” and John Q. Public is thin to nonexistent. One of the early flags for addiction was spending more than 38 hours a week online." Dokoupil does not give any current flags for what defines "Internet addiction". Also one of the reasons that 38 hours a week seemed excessive was that typically the user was paying per hour. It was not only time, it was money that was being spent.
The Internet represents/offers a mass amount of people the ability to engage in repetitious, rote behavior that, either truly or falsely, offers a sense of connection. Sherry Turkle is right. We are alone together and changes in behavior are necessary. But to blame it all, or much, of it on Internet usage sees correlation without causation.

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