Is Technology Addiction the Real Problem?

In this thirty minute talk, Robert Scoble discusses a wide array of fascinating new technologies that are just now coming to market. What a lot of these technologies have in common is their high degree of personalization. Technology is getting better at figuring out what we want and giving it to us exactly when we want it.

Near the end of the video, Scoble delivers his thesis: When it comes to technology, privacy is not the issue. People are going to get used to their lack of privacy. The bigger concern is addiction.

I agree that on the surface, addiction seems like a menacing issue. We are all familiar with modern stories of technology addiction like the World of Warcraft player profiled in this short film:

But if we are going to talk about addiction we should agree on a basic definition. The one that I have always subscribed to is “continued use in the face of consequences.”

Let me illustrate with a few examples: Suppose you are so addicted to using your smart phone that you are constantly sending texts while driving. As a result you rear end someone with your vehicle. You experience various financial costs, including higher insurance. But instead of learning a lesson, you get your car fixed up and go right back to your old behavior of texting while driving. Continued use in the face of consequences.

In case that doesn’t sound familiar enough, here’s another example. You have a bit of work you need to get done. You sit down to do it, but every ten minutes or so, you can’t resist checking Facebook. You do this even though on some level you kind of hate Facebook and wish it would go away. Inevitably when you check Facebook, at least one link or comment catches your eye, and what was supposed to be a momentary break turns into about half an hour of time wasted. Repeat ad nauseum. Continued use in the face of consequences.

Now these are ordinary, everyday examples, and as such there is a way in which they feel different from the obsessive World of Warcraft player who does nothing else but play a game for 400 days straight. And yet pinpointing the source of this perceived difference is not easy. When it comes to severity of consequences the texting-while-driving example is by far the worst, since in this case the addict is risking large amounts of money and possibly even his life. By contrast, the worst thing that could happen to the World of Warcraft player is a gradual deterioration in his health that probably follows from sitting around all day.

And yet the texting-while-driving addict may strike us as more normal, not because he is any less addicted, but because he still appears to be engaged with the outside world. He is leaving his house; he is driving somewhere; he is communicating with a friend via text. By contrast the World of Warcarft player (even though he plays what could be described as a social game) never leaves his house, makes excuses to his friends about why he can’t go out, and spends most of his time engaged in an alternate fantasy world.

To make the point even more clear, let’s compare World of Warcraft addiction to Facebook addiction. What is the difference really? They are both social networks populated by avatars of real people. The difference is that while World of Warcraft is a virtual world, Facebook is more of what you might call a mirror world.  Facebook attempts to model and integrate with “real life” as we know it, whereas World of Warcraft has no such aspirations.

Now imagine that technology begins to systematically remove the consequences from these addictions. Self driving cars make it so that texting while driving is no longer a concern. Miracle health drugs make it so that you can sit around all day and play World of Warcraft without becoming obese. Intelligent personal assistant software and attention-enhancing drugs make it so that you are able to stay on track while doing your work and avoid being sucked into the distraction of Facebook.

Using my original definition, no consequences means no more addiction. We have just “cured” our addicts.

For this reason I feel like technology addiction is going to be a transitional period—a moment in time when our technology is good enough to lure us into self destructive habits, but not good enough to protect us from the consequences of those habits.

At the end of the day we are left with a new issue that I think will turn out to be more important. And it relates to our level of “engagement with the real world.”

If I give you a holodeck where you can fulfill your wildest fantasies, and you elect to never leave…the correct term for that is not addiction. At least in so far as you suffer no consequences from doing so, and the power bill that keeps the virtual reality machine going continues to get paid on time.

Rather what is interesting about the holodeck scenario is that you have just completely turned your back on the real world. You have withdrawn into your own mind, into a personalized solipsistic fantasy world where you are the one true god. Moreover, you have decided that this private heaven is preferable to the world we all share together, the real world where you don’t always get what you want, and things are often out of your control.

What’s interesting about such scenarios is that with consequences removed from the equation there is not necessarily anything wrong with such behavior, and yet on some level it is still viscerally disturbing.

In the future we are all going to be hopelessly dependent on our technology. That’s already true. In a way it’s a moot point. The big question will be, do you want to withdraw into a world of your own choosing? Or do you want to stay here in “the real world” with us?