The latest statistics from the UK Online Measurement Company show an explosion in internet use amongst Britons. The average surfer spends over 22hrs browsing the web each month – a figure up 65% from three years ago. I doubt it will be long before the press pick up on this and churn up fears about the spread of internet addiction. Excessive internet use is often portrayed as an ill of society demanding treatment in rehab. A quick search of the Daily Mail finds reports that internet addiction makes people depressed, Blackberry users are compared to crack heads, and there has apparently been an epidemic of on-line “friend addiction” amongst women.
Of course, there are genuine and important concerns. Consider South Korea – with ubiquitous, super fast internet connection it is considered the most wired country in the world. Pretty much every child is connected to the web and the country enjoys the highest levels of academic achievement. However, terrifying incidents of neglect and violence have highlighted the dangers of excessive internet use. According to one report three out of ten adults are addicted to online games. This has led the government to start imposing gaming curfews to block access to this internet drug.
As we become more wired are we headed towards the same fate? Are we going to become hooked to instant gratification? Are we destined to become socially inept in the real world? Are we destroying our attention span and memory? Unfortunately there will be victims of all the above, and hopefully we will be able to help those that do injure themselves or others through excessive internet use (ideally without restrictions and punishments).
But to talk of an “internet addicition” is to disguise the fact that there are actually many different types of “addiction” allowed by the internet- addiction to fast paced multiplayer games (such as Call of Duty) , to massively multiplayer games and worlds (World of Warcraft, Second Life); social network addiction (Twitter, Facebook), addiction to surfing, to receiving the latest news, to forum communities – the list grows as the internet grows. What will be the next drug?
The problem is that the internet is so irresistible – pretty much anyone can find something to get hooked to. So isn’t using the word addiction too casual a use of the term when used in this context? When you casually consider what addiction is you begin to see that anything can be considered addictive – shopping, exercise, socialising, writing, watching TV. Even the act of speaking and thinking can be considered addictive if we go far enough.
The world wide web is becoming part of us. A quick look at the future of internet technology will show you a world where we are constantly connected. Digital eye-wear that tracks our retina is just around the corner – soon this will be replaced by retinal implants. In the next decade everything will have an IP address – from your light switch to your shoe. There is now a massive demand for innovation and technological advancement, meaning the pace of change will continually accelerate .The predictions about our online future are endless – but it is pretty certain that the digital world will totally surround us in unimaginable ways.
Addiction is, according to one expert, a “primary and universal form of motivation”. It impels us forward and can be considered a force for good as well as something that can lead to social and mental debilitation. I would never suggest there aren’t dangers – the rise in internet gambling and the damage to childrens development to name two. There is also a fear that we are heading towards a matrix type scenario – a world where the body becomes redundant – useless baggage we would love to shed as we enter into a digital euphoria. This cyberpunk disdain for the body (predicted in science fiction as far back as 1984 with William Gibson’s Neuromancer) is a world where only the eyes and ears matter as we constantly demand to consume media and information – this is something to start considering more seriously, especially in the study of literature.
But I don’t think we have anything to worry about quite yet. The internet is an extension of our brain and a tool we are impelled towards – we are like eager children playing with a new toy. I hope the fascination with the web diminishes as it becomes ingrained into everyday life. Or will we see a surge in net junkies and face a public health scare like never before? I think, and hope, we are too sensible for that.