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The Trouble with "Addiction"

Technologies as Reflections of the Human Condition

I think technologies such as the Internet and online games are also far more than just tools that people use and "become addicted to". To some degree, they also reflect the human condition. Sherry Turkle, who is well-known as the author of "Second Self" and "Life on the Screen", recently gave a talk at Stanford about her more recent work with how people perceive and relate to robots. An interesting finding was that children and the elderly readily express feelings of love and affection for robots, especially if the robot needs to be taken care of (google "Paro" or "My Real Baby"). In the Q&A section, someone asked about whether under-privileged children reacted to robots in significantly different ways than normal/over-privileged children (i.e., because of their different levels of exposure to technology in general). Turkle responded that there were no significant differences, except that when asked whether they would want to take Kismet home with them, under-privileged children often mentioned they wanted to take Kismet home because Kismet wouldn't hit them or hurt them.

As Turkle mentioned elsewhere in her talk, technologies can be reflections of the human condition. In this case, the technology had evoked a response that revealed something very important (and troubling) about these children's lives. Now, we could very well argue that these children have developed a psychological disorder, an aberrant expression of affection and irrational attitudes towards inanimate objects. And it wouldn't be hard to do that, if you heard the kinds of things they say and do for the robot. But I think that would be missing the more important point, that talking about "irrational attitudes" would be a way of *not* talking about and dealing with prevalent child abuse.

This is also what's partly frustrating with the emphasis on "online gaming addiction". To ask whether teenagers are getting "addicted" to online games is a way of not asking why our schools are failing to engage our children. To ask why some people get "addicted" to their fantasy personas is a way of not asking how we expect people to derive life satisfaction from working at Wal-Mart. MMOs are seductive because they empower some people in ways that the real world does not. The people who we let fall through the holes of our social fabric are caught by an alternate reality where they feel a sense of satisfaction and purpose.

Creating labels such as "online gaming addiction" gives us the illusion that we've identified a new problem in our society instead of talking about the real and chronic problems in the world we live in. Instead of talking about why our education system is failing us, or why a tedious 9-5 existence is inevitable for so many, we have created a way of not talking about those problems. People who find empowerment in an unsatisfying world are labeled as "addicts". We brush aside the larger social problems by labeling their victims as deviants. And along with that, all the nuances, complexities, and multiple factors in behavioral and psychological problems are ignored in favor of a simplistic single factor model.

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Posted on November 30, 2006 | Comments (60) | TrackBack (0)

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