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into things we like too much… At the extreme end of the spectrum are crack and meth… Checkers and solitaire have been replaced by World of Warcraft and FarmVille.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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I think when people use the term “addiction” like Graham is here, they mean it in the emotional sense instead of the physical. Drugs addict physically, potentially causeing physcial harm if taken away too suddenly. Emotional addiction is when someone chooses their addiction (internet, sex, gambling) over neccessities (homework, bills).

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

“Addiction” is even messier than you think. With some exceptions, the physical/psychological distinction is really blurry. Cocaine, for instance, doesn’t have much in the way of physical dependence; rather, the use of it is very self-reinforcing from a reward perspective (in an almost identical fashion to gambling).

Context is important too. It’s easy to think you have control of your behavior when you’ve gone fishing, but when you have to sit in front of a box for your job (and when your job has ill-defined boundaries) that’s another matter.

As for crack and cigarette use dropping, that’s largely due to causes at the level of social norms and economic effects, both of which are pushing in the opposite direction when it comes to the Internet. (There are undesirable knock-on effects here as well — the decline in cigarette use is at least partially responsible for increases in obesity. What trouble would we start looking for if they took away Twitter?)

While I think things like Internet rehab are a bit much, it’s not unreasonable to look at the ways in which it’s effecting our behavior. You don’t have to look far to see very reasonable (and otherwise self-controlled) people resorting to very complicated meta-strategies in order to constrain their own behavior. Others (such as yourself) may simply be lucky in that their methods of learning and working are compatible with multi-tasking and multiple information streams, and that they are rewarded in life for this.

His broader thesis might be a bit much, but when it comes to the Internet I swear companies must be hiring slot machine designers to tell them the correct reward dribble rate.

Posted by absinthe | Report as abusive

I’m afraid you’re undestimating the addictive nature of the internet and even your roll in it.

I know I would rather live in a $200,000 house in a great community in Maine (like the one I live in now) than a $1,000,000 house in the same community with no internet access.

In your “gone fishing” notice you inculded the date of your return… yet I can tell you I checked it every weekday of your vacation… and while I might be the only one to post it I can guarentee you several hundred… perhaps several THOUSAND others did as well… habits are habit-forming after all.

Please comment on GS spinoff of their prop desk… can’t belive that news came out with you up in the woods!


Posted by y2kurtus | Report as abusive

This Spiegel article (HT Yves Smith from a few days ago) I think dovetails quite nicely with what Felix is saying here. geist/0,1518,710139,00.html

For many of today’s youth, youth that grew up with the internet as an ever present entity, their reaction to it is different than those of us who were on the “cutting edge” of internet adoption.

Posted by GregHao | Report as abusive

Thumbs down! Giving you the benefit of the doubt, Mr. Salmon, you are a fairly intelligent and open-minded individual… also a very busy one with undoubtedly a full plate of work, meetings, appointments etc going on. Therefore it is VERY difficult for you to feel the addictive power these applications (I’m looking at you Facebook and Twitter!) have because you simply don’t have time to get hooked in. This is where you gap in logic is, because only an extremely small % of the general population is in this position. Most people have too much free time (though they don’t realize it nor utilize it) and end up getting caught up in these types of applications (and TV frankly). Denying this or brushing it aside as an old man’s lamenting on the state of the youths is really just looking the other way in what could be a serious issue.

Posted by CDN_finance | Report as abusive

What’s wrong with addiction? If I weren’t addicted, I wouldn’t have experienced the delightful and hilarious irony of seeing Mr Salmon criticise someone else for writing an article based on anecdote rather than research.

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

“I think this is exactly wrong”

I think it is not wrong at all.

There are many types of addictions and because it can be linked to the pleasure response, it doesn’t even have to be a pleasureable experience… but one which evokes those same hormones in spite.

I am guessing you don’t smoke and rarely get drunk? Those with a severe addictive personality will easily become addicted and have great difficulty quiting. While it is lovely you aren’t one of them (us) it is hardly correct to pooh pooh.

Remember the couple who were playing an internet game where they were to nurture and protect a child… as their own lay dying from neglect and starvation in it’s crib?

There are many types of addiction and while I was also able to remove myself physically from the internet for vacations as well, that is not a threat to remove you from the internet entirely… and that might be a trigger for withdrawal which might surprise even you.

I would like to point out you said checking the internet was a chore after the first 24 hours… Why were you checking the internet whilst on vacation? the Internet couldn’t function without your presence?

Although not yet recognized as a disorder, it has destroyed families and had social & emotional implications which will soon make its way into the DSM. As it stands, there is little research and so none of your beloved data to back up claims, but that will come, I assure you. Meanwhile, his analysis has merit.

(without the data you will of course remain a skeptic… but please note that you included your own experience as evidence, rather then data to dispute)

Posted by hsvkitty | Report as abusive

Many, many years ago people spent a majority of their time outdoors. People worked outside, played outside, and were accustomed to being outside.

More recently (though still long ago) people began to work indoors, in large common spaces (industrialization). People’s time was then increasingly spent in large common spaces; some indoors, some outdoors.

Even more recently, people began working in office buildings. They became more accustomed to more separated activities, and activities indoors.

Now we work from computers, work from home, work online. And people spend time online.

I think it’s unfair to call the internet an “addiction” any more than spending too much time inside is an “addiction”. It’s more just become a cultural norm. In places where the internet is less prevalent as a necessity for professional activities, internet is also less of an “addiction” among the general populace.

That all said, I’m still a proponent of people spending more time outside. But just because spending all our time cooped up in a room staring at a box is probably unhealthy, it doesn’t make it an addiction.

And I might qualify that this entire comment is based on minimal anecdotal evidence and flat-out guessing. Sue me.

Posted by skyreid | Report as abusive

_finance mentions too much time. A variety of indicators show we are more socially alone then in years past. Participation in face-to-face social and community functions is monotonically decreasing. What are we doing with the new solitary time? There’s no indication we’re spending it more addicted. Television viewing is as astonishing as ever and a little more so but qualitatively this has not changed. The adjective “more” doesn’t apply. Two career families saps time, single parenting saps time, and painfully long commutes saps time. drewsie points out that addictions are characterized by the pursuit of addictions at the expense of responsibilities, yet data shows that we are spending ever more time fulfilling responsibilities and less time partying. If we are as addicted as before, or even more addicted, we are unequivocally (averaged over the population) spending LESS time on these addictions.

Posted by bigturkey | Report as abusive

I babysat two highly intelligent little kiddies yesterday and had planned several activities for them.

1) A long walk (for them) of a couple of miles, which we did.

2) A reading session of Roald Dahl’s “Treasury,” which is hilarious. They wouldn’t have it — preferred to play games on their personal gadgets.

3) Some comedy in the form of some “Tom and Jerry” cartoons, which I have on video. They enjoyed it.

4) ‘Playing’ chess, to which the little boy, about 6-7 years old, got seemingly hooked.

Dunno what to make of it except it sure doesn’t resemble my childhood, what with books and outdoors play.

Say, Felix, I always appreciate your writing and am glad you had a pleasant holiday away from the madness.

Posted by Warburton | Report as abusive

I suspect that taking away anything one does on a regular basis without suitable replacement will create a problem. That’s not exactly withdrawal symptom, is it?

Posted by NYQ | Report as abusive

“Internet addiction (whatever that might be)”

wtf #1

“the Internet is in many ways anti-addictive”

wtf #2

Posted by rivelino | Report as abusive