Internet dystopia of the day, Paul Graham edition

By Felix Salmon
August 11, 2010
Paul Graham, one of the visionaries of the internet's early years, has a decidedly dystopian view of its future, and that of society itself:

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Paul Graham, one of the visionaries of the Internet’s early years, has a decidedly dystopian view of its future, and that of society itself:

Increasing numbers of things we like will be transformed into things we like too much… At the extreme end of the spectrum are crack and meth… Checkers and solitaire have been replaced by World of Warcraft and FarmVille. TV has become much more engaging, and even so it can’t compete with Facebook…

The world is more addictive than it was 40 years ago… and it will get more addictive in the next 40 years than it did in the last 40…

You can probably take it as a rule of thumb from now on that if people don’t think you’re weird, you’re living badly… we’ll be increasingly unable to rely on customs to protect us… It will actually become a reasonable strategy (or a more reasonable strategy) to suspect everything new…

I’ve avoided most addictions, but the Internet got me because it became addictive while I was using it. Most people I know have problems with Internet addiction.

I think this is exactly wrong. For one thing, it’s trite and far too easy to blithely compare “Internet addiction” (whatever that might be) to real physical addictions like those to heroin or cocaine. Graham would surely consider me an Internet addict, but I can testify from the past two weeks, when I went on a largely off-the-grid vacation, that the withdrawal symptoms don’t last for more than 24 hours. After that, going offline is easy, and lots of fun, and any necessary email checking feels like a chore: it triggers no rush of immediate pleasure.

And I’m far from convinced that the rate of adoption of highly-addictive things is increasing. Graham mentions that cigarette use is down; he doesn’t mention that crack cocaine use is down too. He does suggest that “the recent resurgence of evangelical Christianity in the U.S. is partly a reaction to drugs” — but I doubt it would be possible to find any correlation at all between the rise of evangelical Christianity and the prevalence of addictive drugs in those communities. And even television is, I think, much less addictive than it used to be: when I do watch it, I generally want to turn it off, rather than keep it on.

What’s more, the Internet is in many ways anti-addictive: there’s always something else, something better, to move on to. It’s not some monolithic entity to which one can become addicted; it’s a vast range of sites and usages which wax and wane in our days. Google replaces Yahoo, Facebook replaces MySpace, Twitter replaces RSS, and ever onwards. It’s a great tool for living life fully — especially for young people in, say, small evangelical communities, who find friends and peers they could never have been in touch with pre-Internet.

“Addiction” is a term which gets bandied about far too loosely. I daresay that Graham is right that when he wants to think deeply about one specific thing, it’s good for him to take a long hike rather than sit in front of his Internet-connected computer. But that doesn’t mean he’s addicted to the Internet, it just means that the Internet isn’t particularly conducive to helping people think deeply about one specific thing. (On the other hand, it’s excellent at helping people make connections between ostensibly different things.)

And for all of Graham’s anecdotes, he provides no quantitative data backing up his claim that the world is becoming increasingly addictive, at an accelerating rate. I suspect what we’re seeing here is much closer to curmudgeonliness than it is to accurate diagnosis. And that Tyler Cowen is right: the Internet, even at the margin, is something to be embraced, rather than something to be feared, suspected, and best avoided.

(via Jelveh)

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