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“Addicted” to gadgets?

There’s been much written lately about the impact of electronic gadgets on our everyday lives.

First, there have been reviews and articles about Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Second, the New York Times ran a long feature on Monday called “Hooked on gadgets, and paying a mental price”.

I am always skeptical about arguments that suggest that technology is altering our lives in unprecedented ways, or that the pace of technological change is faster than ever before. Society has experienced new waves of new technology before; it is hard to see how today’s situation is so different.  And, given the impact of the recession, it hardly feels like we’re living through a truly innovative period. Facebook and twitter, while important, do not make for an innovation revolution.

I’ll resist the temptation to make any comments about the Carr book, since I haven’t read it. But I found the Times piece problematic.

Throughout the article, the experience of using electronic gadgets was presented in terms of brain chemicals and addictive behavior. It notes:

Scientists say juggling email, phone calls and other information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information. These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement – a dopamine squirt – that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people fee bored.  

This type of analysis says much more about our pedestrian social prejudices and our anxiety about losing control, than it does about any inherent influences of technology upon us. References to “addiction” reflect the therapeutic outlook that psychologizes everyday experience. This outlook assumes we are vulnerable and highly susceptible to outside influences, including electronic gadgets. We are supposedly at our gadgets' mercy, and they are taking over our brains.

In the Times story, Brenda Campbell tries to get her husband Kord to stop checking his email over breakfast and pay attention to her and their children. I read newspapers – real papers, not devices - over breakfast and have a tendency to tune out my wife and sons. Both Mr. Campbell and I are being anti-social, and the fact that his preoccupation takes an electronic form is really neither here nor there.

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