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.

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.”