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Techno Addiction vs. Our Human Needs

Is "ease of communication" blocking us from happiness?

The headline for the cover story in Newsweek magazine of July 16, 2012 blares “iCrazy: Panic. Depression. Psychosis. How Connection Addiction is Rewiring Our Brains.” Perhaps it’s a bit hyperbolic, but there seems to be little question, as the article points out, that for many of us — particularly young people — to use the word “addiction” for our need to constantly be connected is not too far—fetched. Obviously, if you confront anyone on their possibly addictive behavior, you are likely to get denial, so this concept is highly controversial. And yet, how can it not be an addiction when I am trying to talk to someone and he or she is frequently looking down at their iPhone? Or if, as the article points out (and I find this number hard to believe) “the average teen processes an astounding 3,700 texts a month.”

I do not have an iPhone, I have never texted, and I am not on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter, which probably puts me in the minority of people in the United States, but still it’s hard for me to go a day without checking my e-mails. And it’s likewise hard for me to be unable to check the Web for more than a couple of days at a time. And yet I would say that on a scale from 1 to 10, in terms of how often I need to check in, in today’s world I’d be a 2 or less.

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What I find particularly disturbing is that psychologists have not said a great deal about modern technology and its potentially harmful effects or, if they have, it certainly hasn’t made the front pages very often. A notable exception is Sherry Turkle, a licensed clinical psychologist and Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT. Her 2011 book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More fromTechnology and Less From Each Other, has received a good deal of attention. An opinion piece she wrote for the New York Times (April 22, 2012) opens with the lines “We live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection.”

And there it is. Conversation, perhaps our most basic human behavior, is losing out to e-mail and texting, not to mention Facebook and all the rest. Studies of what makes us happy have consistently shown that one of the things we need is a genuine social life. We need to get together with other people. Journalist David Brooks, writing in the New Yorker (Jan. 11, 2012), cites psychologist Daniel Kahnemann and economist Alan B. Krueger as finding that “the daily habits most closely associated with happiness are social,” and these include “socializing after work” and “having dinner with friends.” He also states that research indicates that “joining a group that meets just once a month produces the same increase in happiness as doubling your income.”

There is no mention of e-mailing, texting, Facebooking, and tweeting adding to one’s happiness. And Turkle makes it clear that for many people, addiction or near addiction to these modern day means of communication add a great deal to people’s stress; and she is especially concerned for young people, for whom what was once called the “identity crisis” is very much tied in to technologies whose overall psychological effects are really not known.

Actually, concern about the possibly harmful effects of modern technology on human life have been around for a long time. I, myself, first became concerned in 1982, long before personal computers, cell phones, and iPhones had become a part of everyday life. I wrote a book proposal, with the title “Techno-addiction,” which certainly could be apt for how we live today. (I had an agent, who was unable to find interested publishers.) But Ralph Waldo Emerson had certainly beaten me to it in 1847, when he wrote, “Things are in the saddle and they ride mankind.”

However, I don’t think anyone has ever put it better than Freud, when he wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents (1939), “If there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice.” Yes, even the telephone is not the same thing as face—to—face contact. Nor is Skype.

In an opinion piece I wrote for New York Newsday in 1994, titled “Hooked on High Tech,” I mentioned hearing the late American composer Virgil Thompson a few years before “talking about his years in Paris in the 1920s. ‘We didn’t have telephones,’ Thomson said, ‘so everyone carried around a little appointment book. When you ran into someone, you both took out your books and arranged to meet at a particular time and place. And we did. Today,’ he said, ‘people say, ‘I’ll call you.’ But they don’t’”

Of course, even the early 1990s was before texting. But if talking on the phone can’t replace actually getting together, is texting any improvement?

In that piece, I quoted a recruiting ad for the United States army that appeared on television frequently in the early 1980s, “Technology is taking over the world. You can try to keep up with it or be left behind.” That statement bothered me then, but the early ’80s were like ancient times compared to today.

But the words “is taking” could be replaced some 30 years later by “has taken.” And, in fact, we use technology to try to cope with the problems we have with technology. In 1982 I referred to “the technology spiral” (which I had considered as title for the book). Talking about such “primitive” devices as the answering machine, I wrote, “This is the technology spiral — people using technology to cope with technology. It is doomed to failure. It is doomed because it overlooks the real problem, that we are human beings with human needs.”

In her book, some 30 years later, Sherry Turkle wrote, “It is poignant that people’s thoughts turn to technology when they imagine ways to deal with stresses that they see as having been brought on by technology. They talk of filters and intelligent agents that will handle the messages they don’t want to see.”

The word “Luddite” is thrown at anyone who decries the effects of modern technology on our lives. But something is out of whack, and many of us sense it. Near the end of her book, Turkle quotes a friend saying, “‘We don’t do our e-mail; our e-mail does us.’,” and she adds, “We talk about ‘spending’ hours on e-mail, but we, too, are being spent.”

So who, or more accurately, what, is in the saddle?




Mark Sherman, Ph.D., is a psychologist and humor writer.


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