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General · 6th September 2012
Ray Grigg
Canada's media guru, Marshall McLuhan, wrote that we invent things and thereafter they invent us. So, what invention are we being transformed into by the things we invent? Perhaps, if we truly understood the character of our inventions, we could anticipate the way they shape our perceptions, our awareness and our behaviour — how they form us as individuals and as societies. But we don't. Consequently, we move blindly into the future, discovering after the fact how we have been shaped by the things we invent.

One of the most powerful and pervasive of our recent inventions has been the Internet, the digital magic that has compressed time into microseconds and space into irrelevance. The distance between individuals — wherever they may live — has been obliterated. McLuhan's notion of the “global village” has become reality through the World Wide Web, Facebook, Twitter and Google. We extoll the wonders of this connectivity, of knowing nearly instantaneously the events that occur everywhere around us — London, China and Mars are now closer than our next door neighbours. We know that we created the Internet. But what has it created?

Studies outlined in Newsweek magazine (July 16/12) give us an indication. In the US, one of the most connected societies, the effects of heavy use of the Internet among those under 50 years old are depression, loneliness, obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, and even psychosis. The average American spends eight hours a day gazing into screens and receives 400 text messages per month; teenagers manage seven hours per day and average 3,700 texts per month. The Internet has accelerated human minds to the hyper speed of a frenetic buzz, their consciousness absorbed and mushed into the intensity and immediacy of ubiquitous digital signals. If 38 hours per week online is considered a reference for addiction, many people have reached this benchmark by mid-week. “This an issue as important and unprecedented as climate change,” notes Susan Greenfield, a pharmacology professor at Oxford University (Ibid.).

Studies in China, Korea and Taiwan suggest that many millions of people are literally addicted to the Internet, with a rate as high as 30 percent among teens. A Chinese study found heavy Internet users have “abnormal white matter” in their brains to accommodate the neurological changes required for excessive attention, control and immediate action — the same physiological characteristics of those with obsessive-compulsive behaviour and attention-deficit disorders. Other Chinese studies found “structural abnormalities in gray matter” that were identical to those addicted to drugs and alcohol — impairment to those functions related to speech, memory, motor control, emotion and sensory processing were typically 10 to 20 percent. One in eight Asians is deemed to have an “unhealthy attachment” to the Internet. An American study found 10 percent of iPhone users “fully addicted” to their devices, compulsively checking e-mail, text messages or their social network “all the time” or “every fifteen minutes” (Ibid.). Internet Addiction Disorder is now accepted as a treatable diagnosis in China, Korea and Taiwan.

The extreme examples are arresting: a young couple whose real infant died of neglect while they kept alive a virtual baby; 10 heavy users of the Web who died of blood clots from being immobile too long; universities unable to conduct campus addiction studies because they couldn't find enough students who were willing to disconnect from the Internet; a man reduced to a psychotic wreck by the torrent of compliments and criticisms inundating his popular blog; the high-schooler who only ended his 24-hour-a-day iPhone use when committed to an asylum; a teenager who simultaneously maintained four separate avatars, with his real self “usually not my best one”; and another teen who confronted the onerous task of replying to 100 new messages on his phone with the plaintive question, “How long do I have to do this?”

Serious as these problems are at the personal and psychological level, they suggest a society becoming progressively disconnected from the real world in which real people must function realistically. An objective and rational connection to reality becomes increasingly crucial as the speed and power of our technological world accelerates its disturbing impact on the planet's ecosystems. As communities, we can't make considered and apt decisions if we are disengaged and psychotic, if we are distracted and dysfunctional. And we can't sustain thoughtful and persistent strategies if we are depressed and impulsive. The compulsive tendencies that accompany Internet addiction lock its victims into the repetition and inflexibility that has been the source of our problems. How do we break loose from the bonds that are creating our present environmental difficulties if we can't be open, flexible and genuine, if the psychological and sociological conditions of our age are eroding our ability to act realistically?

Societies make their own futures. Granted, some exigencies surprise and disrupt our plans and intentions. But mostly we are the saviours and the victims of ourselves — probably truer now than at any time in our history. With our potential, as Susan Greenfield reminds us, “We could create the most wonderful world for our kids but that's not going to happen if we're in denial and people sleepwalk into these technologies and end up glassy-eyed zombies.”

Our hope must be that we become fully aware and carefully watchful of the way in which our inventions invent us. Education, study and diligence can spare us from being victims. We have much to know, very much to do and little time in which to act. The Internet has the incredible potential to suture our world into a comprehendible and manageable whole — it can be our salvation as easily as our ruination. We just need the mindfulness and discipline to use it wisely.