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Technology addiction

Nerdliness | Wednesday, December 28th, 2005 | 11 years, 11 months ago

I’ve seen a bunch of stories on Slashdot about addiction to video games, technology, gadgets, email, the web, and other electronic conveniences. Well, what is technology addiction exactly? When do you cross the line between user, enthusiast, and addict? Are you normal for looking up a number in the phone book instead of on Canada411? Are you an addict because you’d rather search Google than drive to the library? How long until adoption-in-progress transitions to full-fledged incorporation?

Video games are particularly easy for technology neophytes to identify with because they are an art form that mirrors reality. They are often the gateway to high-tech living because they help put a human face on the CPU. Is one an addict when they spend as much or more time in simulated worlds (“cyberspace”) as in the physical world (“meatspace”)? Does a Windows desktop have deeper roots in reality than a Pac Man maze?

Ever since playing Police Quest 1 in 4-colour CGA on my old 4.33mhz 8086 I’ve been fascinated with the concept of the simulation of reality. Whether it’s represented by a static series of screens as in Police Quest, a 3D city whose citizens displays dynamic behaviour as in Grand Theft Auto, or a world whose population and ecosystem are based on the actions of the player as in Civilization, computers have allowed us to represent our world in a variety of ways never before possible. Conversely, they have enabled us to perform real world tasks in unforeseen new dimensions.

There are distinct differences between the real world (“meatspace”) and simulated representations (“cyberspace”), of course. In video games we can choose not to save our progress. We can pause the game and come back with the virtual universe and its denizens none the wiser. We can even shut the thing right off, bringing about a sort of instantaneous virtual apocalypse. In the real world, however, we play for keeps. Principles such as entropy dictate that a broken glass is broken forever. For these reasons and more, the variability of cyberspace grants us unique advantages.

Despite their schism, the gap between cyberspace and meatspace is rapidly being bridged. Fax has enabled us to quickly send copies of documents over telephone wires. Graphical computer operating systems help us to multitask (multithread, technically) by making many projects instantly accessible in overlapping “windows”. Instant messages allow us to communicate person-to-person in one of these windows – we can hide the window and do something else quickly without the other participant even knowing. These new abilities could not be done without computers and technology, and our methodologies, and subsequently we ourselves, are evolving.

One of the biggest advancements in communications technology, and coincidentally (or not) one of the clearest examples of resulting human evolution, is the advancement from switched dedicated networks to packet-switched networks.

The public switched telephone network represents perhaps the most successful, most empowering, most reliable and simple-to-use revolutions of human interaction in the history of mankind. A person dials numbers on a telephone, a network is automatically arranged dedicating a solid link (part physical, part logical) with another telephone, and the remote device audibly signals the completion of the network. This link exists as long as both telephones are engaged, even if no one is speaking. This phenomenally powerful concept represents an old way of operating as a human being.

One might associate a switched network with the hunter – a reliable and direct means of ensuring one task is done by dedicating focus.

Packet-switched networks break data into chunks which are transmitted in any order, only to be rearranged at the other end. The link between ends is purely logical, as two consecutive packets may travel entirely different logical and geographical routes to deliver their payload. This concept is representative of multitasking, alt-tabbing, talking on cell phones while driving, telecommuting, picture-in-picture, and countless other ways of splitting our time as successful human beings rather than dedicating it.

One might equate the packet-switched network with the gatherer – a way of thinking where we set out to accomplish a specific goal by plucking useful tidbits from the world around us.

So whats’ the bottom line? We’re transitioning from “hunters” to “gatherers”? Our “male” civilization is “evolving” into a “female” one? “Whole” is becoming “broken”? “Reliability” is giving way to “multitasking”?

It’s interesting to see the rapid evolution of the Internet, like a culture in a Petri dish, contrasted with the slow evolution of the Earth. We live on a planet with legally defined territories that, unless by exception, are not crossed. Countries operate like cells that interoperate by swapping payloads via clouds through protective membranes. The Internet, however, is like a single city with a great mass transit system, a bus stop in every room of every house, and no fares. Goods are sometimes split and reassembled and are delivered in whatever way is most cost-effective.

The underlying principles and physics of these universes are so dissimilar that it seems impossible to meld them in any useful way. In some ways, it is indeed truly impossible. This presents a crux, a split, a fence, a choice. Do we straddle the fence or pick a side?

Entropy itself is challenged by cyberspace thanks to services like The Wayback Machine by Archive.org. In meatspace, something done is done in an instant and is forever condemned to the past. Not so in cyberspace. The Wayback Machine, for example, is an automatic archive service that takes snapshots of internet content and makes them available to the public for posterity. In cyberspace, a broken glass leaves behind not only shards, but an entire legacy of before and after, action, consequence, related occurrences, suggested causes, precedent, theories, instant replays, reverse angles, and more.

A moment in meatspace is over. A moment in cyberspace is catalogued.

An event in meatspace is unidirectional. An event in cyberspace is a temporal web.

Entropy in meatspace is the end. Entropy in cyberspace is a big bang.

Again I ask, where is the line drawn between dependence and acceptance? Embracing and abusing?

I suppose caterpillars look down (metaphorically) on butterflies. How can you possibly eat enough leaves when you spend so much time flying?

For more insight on these and other concepts, check out the World of Ends by Doc Searls and David Weinberger.

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3 Comments

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    Comment by trama — April 11, 2007 @ 6:50 am

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    Comment by imparare — April 15, 2007 @ 1:01 am

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    Comment by brian — April 17, 2007 @ 10:06 am

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