Compulsion

Following up on my last post, I’ve been thinking a little more about the Internet and habit. I think we might profitably benefit from conidering things  of this form: if something bares the nature of being compulsive, this can be a reason on it’s own to avoid that something.

We can think of it like this. Something compulsive can be damaging in that the time and energy spent on a compulsive activity reduces the time and energy that can be spent on other activities. There are a few dangers that I assume to be obvious. There can be a reduction of the good, in so much as we realise it in diverse forms – we may excessively use the Internet, rather then play a guitar, or talk to friends face to face. There can be negligence or distraction from life, not necessarily to the degree that is damaging (though this in the worst cases happens), but to the degree that some cost is incurred to make up for the distraction (delayed work or chores, etc). And to link back to my first post – there is the sense that compulsion could reduce the amount of control over your behaviour, though I see that as an extreme concern.

With respect to the first two dangers, I don’t want to get into the territory of favouring one form of activity over the other. That is, I don’t want to discuss if one activity is better, or if “real life” should be favoured over “virtual life”. I think it stands on its own that humans do many things in their lives and should do many things. What is of concern is when one activity becomes more pressing at the expense of other things and does so purely by degree of engagement.

To motivate why I think this is profitable – I firstly don’t know how reasonable it is to point to an activity and count what it’s benefits and costs are, without accounting for how compulsive that activity is. If we believe that something can encourage further engagement with itself purely by use, then this is something to account for. When this encouragement is excessive (where excessive is something contextual), then we classify this engagement as compulsive (note that we would consider addiction to be the extreme of this. I’m not sure where the distinction between addiction and compulsion lies, except by matters of degree).

A thought that might cross your mind is that such separation from benefits or costs, or even just attributes is not possible. We might consider that the benefit, cost or attribute has direct influence on the degree of compulsiveness.

This not necessarily a rebuttal to the idea of considering compulsiveness as a separate point, but does complicate matters. Is it the case that we engage in something compulsive purely because the activity itself encourages continual engagement, or is the benefit the reason to continue (the social aspects that might come with that activity, etc)? I can’t separate the two notions cleanly. But what I can argue is that, alongside these aspects, there is a way in which compulsiveness can itself be the reason to act and that there are times when it is the only reason we continue to act. For instance, there are things designed to be compulsive (such as the uses of Skinner Boxes in design). In that sense, what keeps an engagement live is not any benefit derived but a simplisitic need to keep going for as long as possible. If we can argue for compulsion by design (and indeed we sometimes advertise things as such), then we can argue for compulsion as motive.

Why is this important? To reiterate, if certain things, either by design or otherwise, are compulsive then this will be necessary to consider, when speculating about engaging with said thing. That is, the compulsiveness, separate from any other tangible benefits or costs, is itself an important matter for reasoning.

If someone judges compulsion to be a sufficient threat in engaging or continuing to engage in a activity, then it follows they would give up the activity. To which it might be casually responded – are you lacking in willpower? Why can’t you just stop ?

This is worth considering, because we often wonder why it we can’t stop. Use the Internet too long, play a video game too much, fail to stop – it’s easy to think this is a little failure on our part and perhaps an aspect of laziness. Which might well be true, but it doesn’t seem to engage with the idea of compulsion at all.

That is, things in this life are sometimes overpowering in their draw. I take this for granted – I see it as a brute fact about things, or about activities – that some of them are more capitivating to humans then others and that capitivation is a quality seperate from other qualities. If you accept that idea, then you accept the idea that there are things that can temporarily overwhelm a human mind from engaging in proper reasoning. And hence like with Ulysses and the Siren song, you’ll want to find a way around them.

Another example to help put this in perspective, though one drawn from the extreme end of behaviour. Suppose we have an alcoholic. They choose to quit alcohol and embrace being teetotal. They stay away from occasions with drinking. We might very well judge them for lacking in willpower, but even so is that useful? Does it make sense to ask an alcoholic to be around drink and be tempted? That’s rather subjective, but that’s the point – there are somethings it can be judged for a person to not be worthwhile to go near and for that to make sense as a decision for that person to make.

Following on from that, we get an interesting conclusion. Consider the alcholic example, but suppose all his prior friends are people that drink and drinking used to be their main way of socialising. If they want to continue the friendship, they either have to find another form of socialising or insist the alcoholic tempt himself. But what this draws out is the very fact that some addictions are embedded in some forms of life. And this applies to compulsion to. So we might view a part of friendship as being an acceptance of the limits people set themselves.

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