Monday, June 7, 2010

Should We Blame the Technology?

Is alcohol responsible for alcoholism? Scientists know what alcohol does to your brain. Will this knowledge deter alcoholics? Does it relieve them of responsibility for their behavior?

No serious person suggests that alcohol is responsible for alcoholism. Blaming alcohol is the way into alcoholism, not the way out.

Responsibility is not a scientific issue. But when science encroaches into ethics, it can very easily mislead.

Often enough, research into addiction makes people feel utterly powerless to fight against it, or even to control it. If that is true, wouldn't it be logical just to give in to it?

The same line of reasoning applies to recent articles about internet addiction. We read about people who are hooked up to email, Facebook Twitter, texting and the like as though they were on an intravenous opiate drip.

They can't live with it; and they can't live without it.

In yesterday's New York Times Matt Richtel described a family, the Campbell family, that, by all appearances, is hooked on electronic gadgets and social media. Link here. Richtel's long and detailed account of how these gadgets have taken over the life of this family should certainly sound a cautionary note.

According to scientists, these Steve Jobs-produced gadgets elicit something that they call "a dopamine squirt" that is positively addictive.

One can only stand back and marvel at the imagination of the scientific mind!

I am not going to belabor the by-now old idea that Steve Jobs is an incarnate devil luring us all to emotional and intellectual ruin.

I prefer looking at another concept that Richtel engages: multitasking. I have already expressed by thoughts about why multitasking is a bad idea, here and here.

Today I want to emphasize how cultural values lure people into addictive behavior. When the culture decides, for example, that multitasking is a desirable, it induces people to believe that if they can multitask-- bouncing between Facebook and Twitter and email in split seconds-- they are enhancing their productivity and creativity.

The culture transmits ethical values. When it tells you that it is a good to do several things at once, you are more likely to try to reorganize your life to correspond to this new principle. If it seems to be making you distracted and disconnected, well then, the only conclusion must be that you do not multitask enough.

One other reason causes you to persist in this most modern form of multitasking: it produces repeated "dopamine squirts," and thus becomes addictive.

But as Richtel points out, multitasking makes distraction into a way of life, causes people to lose focus, and produces fragmented thought patterns.

Unfortunately, multitasking also feels good. And the culture has for quite some time taught us that: If it feels good, do it.

How can something that feels good be bad for you? Well it can, and addictive behaviors must have been invented to ensure that when we grow up we put away notions like: If it feels good, do it.

Of course, you do not need high technology and social media to get addicted to fragmented thinking and incoherent sentences. You could have learned as much by doing psychoanalysis and learning how to free associate. Call it a low-tech addiction.

For those of who trained in psychoanalysis in Paris way back when, the idea that free association is addictive is not news. The French analysts did not exactly use that word, but that was their sense of it.

Free association is an acquired skill. Given that it is socially dysfunctional behavior precious few people have an instinctive ability to say whatever comes to mind, regardless of its relevance or the effect it might produce on a listener.

When a patient wants to show his analyst that he is learning how to free associate, he starts speaking in thought fragments, jumping around from one topic to another, throwing in an occasional bizarrely disconnected. Ah yes, talking about my girlfriend made me think of a walrus!

It is all supposed to lead to Ah! Ha! moments, moments where it all becomes clear, where it all makes sense, and where it all proves that Freud was right. Amazingly, this was theorized before scientists had discovered "dopamine squirts."

If you want to know why some people spend so many years in psychoanalysis-- in the old days I knew a number of people who had had more than 20 years of analysis-- and why they need to see their analysts every day, why they even like doing it every day, and why some of them go into withdrawal when they terminate treatment, then perhaps the reason is that free association is like an addictive drug.