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Raw Data Podcast, Episode Six: Under the Influence

It feels a bit dishonest to discuss internet addiction when the internet is directly responsible for my livelihood, and I’ve come to view it as a utility rather than a diversion. Can one be addicted to electricity, or to running water? I’ve voluntarily gone camping, but I do think that life without electricity would be unfulfilling, objectively worse than life with it—maybe not for the first few days, but forever? Absolutely—and I would say the same about the internet. What’s interesting is that if you’re over 30, you can probably make the comparison directly, and it’s not a stretch to find life without the internet more arduous than life with it. Is this dependency on the internet obligatorily negative?

"My name is World, and I'm addicted to the Internet." "Hello, World."

Treatises on addiction link problematic behaviors to negative physical and mental consequences: you’re addicted to something when it gives you a disease, or makes you feel badly about yourself, or causes you to lose friendships and jobs which, in turn, leads to negative mental consequences. The internet does serve those functions for some; more commonly, it facilitates an underlying addiction like gambling or shopping, which could thrive without the internet but manifests itself in conjunction with online dens of vice. Twelve-step programs and addiction treatments are also available online, and software exists that will act as a counselor or a sponsor, or will email someone you’ve designated as such when you visit websites that you’ve indicated are problematic. For an addict with the self-awareness to use these resources, they provide an interesting dichotomy, like an e-cigarette that cuts off its user after a certain number of puffs. For an addict who’s unwilling to admit a problem, though, there are no self-aware programs that trawl for addicted internet users and send concerned pop-up ads. That responsibility would have to lie with your ISP, or with a particular platform.

Is "purge-watching" when you go outside and take a walk instead?

Providing addictive content has become a badge of honor—and of profitability—on the internet. Netflix has made “bingeing” more culturally acceptable than Doritos ever did, and their inclusion in the popular vernacular has made them as monolithic in their sector as Google. In the same way that we’re not going to Bing directions to the store, no one wants to Hulu and chill. And Netflix has full visibility into these behaviors; they know that the average active subscriber watches 2 hours of streaming video per day*, but they also know who is at the tail end of that distribution, either watching more than is humanly possible because of shared login credentials or watching enough that one’s first response would have to be “that guy is watching ten hours a day—is he okay?”   

Interestingly, not only is Netflix not asking that guy if he’s okay, no one seems to think Netflix should. When Farmville was popular on Facebook, and users reported waking up in the middle of the night so as not to lose time-dependent extra turns, I never saw calls for Facebook to address the problem and reach out to users with patterns of behavior that pointed to addiction. On the other hand, prescription drug manufacturers, tobacco companies, and alcoholic beverage manufacturers are all expected to directly address the addictive potential of their products, and to actively restrict access in ways the government deems effective. So far, government requests to regulate internet access are motivated by national security and financial concerns (e.g., CISPA and net neutrality arguments), not public health.

You know what's right for you: "just say no" or "say no every once in awhile".

In the court of public opinion, internet addiction is taken about as seriously as caffeine addiction—sure, you can decide you’re going to use the internet less, but no one’s going to congratulate you for checking your email less often, or ordering decaf. The more drastic the action taken, in fact, the sillier it sounds: I once emailed a person who was going on a “digital hiatus” and had set up an auto-responder indicating that every email she received during this time was going to be automatically deleted, and that if I had sent something that I really wanted her to see, I would have to send it again after the end of her hiatus. I found that sentiment so self-important and bizarre that I never contacted that person again, and still suspect the auto-deletion aspect might not have been true.

A synonym for addictive is “habit-forming”, but of course there are good and bad habits; you know what parts of your online activity are productive or a waste of time, just as standing in front of the mirror could be indicative of self-absorption or tooth-brushing. Our online stimulus peddlers seem happy enough not to meddle in our choices—though again, they’re certainly aware of them, and if the idea that Facebook “knows” every time you log on is enough to change your behavior, all the better—and as Nir points out in this episode, technology didn’t create our ability to be addicted, it only designed around the pathways. If you’d like to gain more control over your online habits, try to break your response cycles to notifications, or try not responding to emails right away, or not listening to every podcast episode as soon as it becomes available—but don’t try it with Raw Data. You never know what you might be missing.  

*The response to those who think this sounds high—and it does sound high to me—is that the average TV owner watches 5 hours per day. But I have to imagine that those 5 hours are the result of having a TV on—as background noise, or due to forgetting to turn it off—but not actively watched. Netflix, on the other hand, will pause the auto-played next episode to ask if you’re still watching, requiring a click, so those two hours are much harder to excuse as background noise.


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