the Real World Ends
By William Kanapaux
the near-ubiquity of the Internet evidence of its utility—or
of its alarming addictiveness?
Are you hooked on the Internet?
Psychologist Kimberly S. Young first asked this question way
back in the mid-1990s. And while the debate over Internet
addiction has never been fully resolved, her question is even
more relevant today.
Young’s research into Internet addiction and cyberdisorders
caused quite a stir in 1998, when true-life stories of bad
times on the information superhighway culminated in her book
Caught in the Net. Psychiatrists and addiction specialists
questioned whether an attachment to a machine and the virtual
world it enabled could be considered an addiction at all.
Five years later, the book’s examples are outdated. It tells
of college students pulling all-nighters in computer labs
to play MUD (the old, text-based “multi-user dungeon” games)
and Net-addicted housewives running up outrageous Internet
access charges. Our Web-connected world has moved far beyond
the one that Young describes.
But the book’s main concern is as timely as ever. If things
have changed as much as they have in five years, how much
more will have changed five years from now? The ever-evolving
technology that makes up the Web is sure to continue compelling
us to while away our hours online, especially as it extends
its reach into cell phones and other wireless gadgets.
The proliferation of broadband connections in the home means
that a growing number of computer users are always just one
click away from the Internet’s expanding universe. Anyone
who knows what it’s like to download a 300-page Acrobat file
or a significant chunk of software in less time than it takes
to fill a cup of coffee understands just how obsolete a 56K
modem has become. And mp3 downloads? If you don’t have broadband,
you’re wasting your time.
The Web has gotten flashier too. All sorts of souped-up coding
an extension of your own mind. Or make your mind seem like
an extension of some larger consciousness—albeit one that
suffers from bad posture, sleep deprivation and a lack of
exposure to sunlight.
But is it addiction to be held in thrall by the Net? Even
after taking into account that most Net addicts are probably
in denial, it’s hard to imagine that any more than 10 percent
of Internet users can be classified as addicted. One 1998
study of 18,000 Internet users found that only 5.7 percent
met the criteria for compulsive Internet use.
The bigger problem seems to be Internet dependence. As Web
technology reaches its tendrils into more aspects of our lives,
few seem to question the potential downside. Sure, there will
always be the occasional story about a cybersex affair destroying
a 20-year-old marriage, or Internet porn fanatics losing their
jobs because they can’t control the urge to download, or students
flunking out of college because they can’t tear themselves
away from chat or interactive gaming. And worse.
But what about the rest of us? Those of us who wonder how
in the hell we just spent two hours immobilized in front of
a monitor the size of a television, our brains and eyeballs
sucked dry in the vacuum of cyberspace?
Sure, a portion of that time is related to professional work,
but the Internet has increasingly encroached upon our personal
lives as well.
The official line from those who profit from the Internet
is that Web-based technology makes our lives better, bestowing
knowledge and freedom upon us while enhancing our chances
for love and friendship. A grandmother gets to experience
her newborn grandchild from hundreds of miles away, even as
she looks for the best deal on airfare. A boy gets a date
with a girl across a crowded lecture hall through the miracles
of wireless Internet and instant messaging.
The list goes on. The good times never end.
But is it possible that our increasingly inclusive cyberculture
is doing more psychological harm than we care to admit? That
the people we feel we know online—whether it be through e-mail
or list-servs or message boards or chat rooms or interactive
online gaming—are eating up a serious chunk of our time?
If cornered, avid Internet users are likely to defend those
hours spent in cozy cybercorners as time spent with friends.
That would be friends made on the Internet, of course, as
opposed to friends made in that three-dimensional space known
as RW (Real World), where things like touch, smell and body
language all play a key role in our interactions.
And yet, people tend to develop just as strong an emotional
attachment to online friends as Real World friends. Sometimes
stronger. How does this happen?
Perhaps it was inevitable. As the World Wide Web evolved,
people grew more comfortable communicating with friends and
loved ones through e-mail and instant messaging. Maintaining
relationships through the Internet quickly became second nature.
At the same time, people embraced the information-gathering
capabilities of the Net, which brought them in contact with
people and places outside their normal lives.
Once we got used to the Internet as a medium for maintaining
relationships, it wasn’t such a great leap to develop meaningful
feelings toward people we only knew online. A protocol emerged:
First comes chat and message boards, then comes e-mail and
instant messaging and Web cams. And, after all that, maybe
a Real World meeting.
Because online communication lacks the closure found in normal
interactions, it’s not too difficult to see how people might
devote more and more time to it. E-mails need replies. Message
board and list-serv threads need reading. Research needs to
be done for the upcoming fantasy-baseball draft.
In her book, Young suggests that people get addicted to the
Internet for any number of reasons, mostly involving dissatisfaction
and avoidance. One person doesn’t like his job, another wants
out of her marriage. But as the Internet itself becomes harder
to avoid, it’s possible that getting drawn into the cyberchasm
will become a commonplace side effect, rather than a driving
desire to avoid Real World unpleasantness.
Otherwise well-adjusted people are spending increasingly greater
amounts of time in cyberspace and devoting a greater percentage
of their curiosity, creativity and intellect to do it. But
why? Why devote so much time to a medium where any connection—no
matter how meaningful—can disappear with a mouse click?
In many ways, the Internet has become the boob tube for the
new millennium. It titillates and stimulates, delivering all
forms of entertainment from downloadable DVDs to Internet
radio to a wickedly funny comment from an online friend. And
the Internet changes each time we interact with it, making
it all the more compelling to use.
With each use, we forge a new identity. An Internet persona
that becomes as much a part of us as our Real World functions
of colleague, friend, neighbor and loved one.
Maybe you’re not addicted to the Internet, but can you imagine
life without it? Can you identify the point at which the real
you ends and the virtual one begins? Are they one and the
same, or would you feel as if a part of you had died if you
gave up the Net today?
Kanapaux is a freelance journalist living in Albany