Rethinking Internet Addiction

When I first read the news reports about internet addiction in the early and mid-2000s I dismissed the idea. How, I thought, could anyone be addicted to the internet?

Again in the mid-2000s I started reading more about information overload and personal productivity. I read about Inbox Zero and the transformative power of Getting Things Done. When confronted with a problem created by technology, namely too much information, many people in the technorati went looking for a technical solution. If technology created a problem then there must be a technical way to manage the problem, whether that solution involved programming a better email client or a more self-help inspired message of building better time management habits. I call both of these trends technical approaches because they were based on optimizing existing systems, both external and internal.

Somewhere along the line there were studies and discussions of multitasking and the attention economy. The rise of social media and online advertising made our collective attention very valuable for businesses of many kinds. There is a long history of media and advertising through changing technical distribution formats, from the printed newspaper, to radio, then television, and now the internet. In a sense nothing was changing, instead it was just morphing into a new technical substrate, a new medium of exchange.

But the material on multitasking and attention did show something important. We, as individual human beings, just are not very good at understanding ourselves. Each of us think that we are good multitaskers, able to sort out the wheat from the chaff, to successfully negotiate this brave new world of online communication. But we’re not. Even people who have grown up with digital technologies their whole lives, the so-called digital natives, are not very good at multitasking. The interruptions to their attention inevitably cause disruptions in their concentration and productivity.

So I’ve started to reassess my dismissal of internet addiction and begun to wonder what other kinds of psychological distortions are new technology fostering. I started last week to discuss one of those ideas, which I called collectionism, in a library data management setting. I’m working on linking that idea with the problem of hoarding.

At the same time addiction is moving closer to the center of my concerns about technology. There is a growing recognition that many of the websites we use are designed to be addictive. Academic books like Addiction by Design, which I’m currently reading, study the design of gambling machines in order to create addictive behavior on the part of players. There are plenty of books on the idea of making ideas sticky or easier to spread. The whole study and creation of viral phenomenon online is one area that feels not too far removed from addiction. I recently listened to a podcast called Note to Self which talked about designing online games and addiction. A book, called Hooked, by Nir Eyal was mentioned during the discussion.

So it seems that addiction is becoming an economic goal for some online companies, which raises a raft of concerning ethical questions about software and technical systems. Internet addiction is transforming from an activity that is, at least partially, under the control of the individual, into something that is built into the system from the start.