On the Internet as Anaesthetic:

We’ve often heard of the idea of Internet addiction. There’s a little fear inside of us that perhaps the time we spend online is not for the best – that sense that using facebook, social media, news sites, gossip sites, general browsing, we’re simply killing time in a manner that is thoughtless and harmful to our selves. And that to move from the grip of these things is perhaps more difficult then we’d like to admit.

It’s something I think about a lot. Often because I use the Internet to procrastinate. Often because even when using the Internet to relax after having worked and gotten through everything I’ve wanted to do that day, there’s still a feeling of guilt that works away at me, that would prefer that I do other things, more useful things, things that did not involve a computer screen.

I offer up a part of my psychology as a possible starting point into thinking about these things and that comes with all the usual provisions about generalising from ones subjective experiences. I suspect however, that my experience is not that unusual. From the above paragraph I can identify a few positions that I’ve seen in discussions about technology – the hankering for “the real”, “the tangible authentic experience”, when I say that I want things that do not involve a computer screen. The idea of the good, of attempting to attend to it rather then distracting myself and with that a desire to be disciplined and careful – the idea that time off must be used well and not simply used.

This is all much covered ground and has been and will continue to be debated and dispensed with. With respect to wanting to go for what is “real”, we may remind ourselves of the arguments of certain cyborgs, that humans are never far from their tools, that they are always augmented in a sense, that the distinction between virtual and reality is a false one (or perhaps misleading is a better summary). Moreover, if I think about such impulses, there’s something regressive in it – a striking out to a supposedly simpler time or a false blaming of the Internet, of Computers, which if they were only gotten rid of would return us to a golden age. Replace the Internet with a variety of machines through time and you have a caricature of the Luddites position.

This is good criticism and wise to keep in mind. My departure from it is three-fold. Firstly, even if we accept that the virtual/real distinction is obliterated or non-existent, this doesn’t entail that we should not think wisely about the uses of our time. Even if we stick to just the virtual, there are things that we can probably identify as not good for us, or not useful. The cyborg must optimise.

Secondly, while we might consider that there’s something regressive in the impulse I have described, I also consider it to be necessary when such systems are dominating and all powerful. This is the darker side of technological criticism in the form of machine smashers, but it comes from the overwhelming set of forces arranged against them. Consider that it’s probably (at least not without great effort and not without immense sacrifice) not possible for me to choose to live without these technologies. It is not possible for me to do my work in any tangible sense without these technologies. We are internet dependent. We are computer dependent. But these things can be and have been designed in ways that very much go against our good. And that dependency means that technological choice is a joke – the choice is between one type of mobile phone or another (you can extend this to many types of technological abstentions. We don’t have much choice to pick otherwise, unless we wish to go against the grain of an entire society).

My last thought ties these two together. A worry about addiction is a worry about control from an outside force, a dependence on something that inhibits you from living well. It might not be that Internet addiction has much to it – but the use of such terms is telling in and of itself. Addiction is a disease that strips autonomy and control from the lives of it’s users by inducing a dependency.

The two points I’ve mentioned, worry about use of time and worry about machine dependence are at their base a concern for control. A hunger for control can be domineering and irrational – control not always being something humans are granted – but if seen as striving for control of ones life and the wish to live it as one chooses, then I cannot see something wrong with that impulse.

At the base of it, I wish to live my life freely and not the one pre-ordained for me. In my use of the Internet, in the use of computers, I can sense a controlling tendency from the outside. And I think this is the same reason anarcho-primitivists abstain from general society, or a vegan chooses their diet or a man or a women will prefer crafts and tools to mass produced goods or… any human project really that has attempted to find a life on the outside or away from technology and that may seem a little strange. And my concerns are small in comparison to their concerns, but I suspect at their root they have the same basis – a rejection of false choices and a striving towards a life chosen for oneself.

The desire to have your life as you wish it must by necessity require a discussion and debate about the technologies you use. It is not necessarily the case that an outright rejection takes place. But when that debate is trampled over, when it is bypassed, something is taken, something is lost. If we are not afforded control over our lives (and by this I mean substantial control) then that faculty to think and reason and concern ourselves degrades or produces a regression, an overreaction.

I’d like to close on something that George Bernard Shaw wrote, that Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society pointed out to me. Shaw is talking about writing and reading habits in a Capitalist society.  In the passages before he becries the ignorance of productive processes that has been engendered in people. In some senses I can’t help but feel that it comes to the same space that our worries about Internet Addiction do.

“… we should die of idiocy through disuse of our mental faculties if we did not fill our heads with romantic nonsense out of illustrated newspapers and novels and plays and films. Such stuff keeps us alive; but it falsifies everything for us so absurdly that it leaves us more or less dangerous lunatics in the real world.”