“There are quiet places also in the mind…But we build bandstands and factories on them. Deliberately — to put a stop to the quietness.”
— Aldous Huxley, Antic Hay (1923)
Back in the 1980s crackheads roamed America’s streets in jittery, ashy-lipped hordes. They symbolized the nightmare of excessive capitalism. In the 90s, cheap MDMA exploded out of Europe, sending the price of glowsticks and pacifiers soaring. The temporary autonomous zones that formed at raves and clubs mirrored the growth of niche online communities during the early years of the Internets. What about the aughts? What drug emerged to capture the zeitgeist of the decade?
What new addiction represents this decade of 9/11, international terrorism, global financial panic, planetary climate change, and all-around impending doom? What vice today says “apocalypse” the way blotter acid in the 60s said “free love?”
Sure, prescription drugs are popular. Adderall-addled students drive moms to Ambien abuse. TV doctors pop Vicodin. The King of Pop dies after taking enough meds to sedate Hannibal’s army of elephants. And yet, the scourge of the 00s isn’t the benzodiazepines, but the bits and bytes; it’s not the meds, it’s the media.
28 Years Later…
The 1950s birthed highly addictive media. TVs started to colonize the living rooms of America’s nuclear families. The Atomic Age images of rayguns and rocket ships that filled the collective imagination were joined by a revolutionary innovation, the remote control. Initially, it connected to the TV through a thick cord resembling a garden hose. Daddy, fourth scotch in hand, sometimes got tripped up, so the cord was replaced with new “Flash-O-matic” technology. Essential a flashlight, viewers aimed it at the screen and clicked on and off in a kind of Morse code. The next advance was the Zenith “Space Command 400.” Based on ultrasonics–sound above the threshold of human ears—its design was fairly stable, lasting until the 80s. Viewers could now reliably interact with their programming without even the slight physical exertion of getting up to change the channel. Not that everything was perfect.
The “Space Command 400″ was relatively expensive, and the ultrasonic waves were, for some, just plain sonic. They were known to send dogs and cats into agonized spasms, and on occasion, to deflower—painlessly–chaste young women.
All in all, a small price to enter the Age of Interactivity. From their “Space Commands,” viewers channel surfed and started to skip commercials. That was just the beginning. With the proliferation, in the 70s, of cable and satellite channels, the 96% of Americans that owned TV sets were starting to get their first real taste of media choice. As the channel count rose, so did viewers’ impatience. Why watch repetitive commercials or boring shows when you could just flip around and find something better? Modern remote controls and abundant channel options posed a dire threat to programmers’ grips on viewers.
What’s your drug of non-choice?
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
Programmers needed to make their content stickier. One method was to broadcast images deep into the recesses of our mammal brains, tapping our orienting response (OR). The OR is a survival mechanism, shared by all mammals, that alerts us to unusual visual and aural information. Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov was the first to explain how it worked; here are Fred and Jane: 50,000 years ago, enjoying a brief moment of leisure in the shade. Their primitive tribe has recently discovered language. Fred implores Jane to come back to his cave; Jane declines, and continues naming and explaining her emotions. The deep concentration required for such an act is interrupted by the growl of a drooling saber-toothed tiger. Their ORs are triggered. Within mili-seconds they identify the threat and sprint to the security of Fred’s nearby cave. Assured of safety, Fred clubs Jane with a buffalo thighbone and drags her to the mat at the rear of the cave. They pass on their genes.
These genes have served us ever since. Ancient behaviors tend to be rigid and indiscriminate, and the OR is no exception. This leaves it ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous content programmers. How do they do it? TV’s formal devices—jump cuts, zoom-ins and -outs, bizarre angles, sudden pans, shaky handhelds—trigger the OR each time they appear, drawing attention to the screen while dissipating focus. This puts viewers into a receptive state. Our attention is sharp but our focus is soft, spread out like a net to catch the next bit of information. By regularly triggering the OR, programmers put us into a hypnotic trance. The rate of stimulation has been steadily increasing over time, and now averages about once per three seconds. Commercials, music videos, and action movies can pack in one or more triggers per second. One example of this is Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, which combines an utter lack of dramatic content or visual coherence with constant OR stimulation to produce cinematic crack.
Even Yoda can’t escape…
SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE
Another major advance down the road of interactivity was the video cassette recorder (VCR). If the remote gave viewers some control over broadcast space, the VCR did the same for broadcast time. The true value of VCR technology wasn’t apparent until the porn industry adopted it in the early 80s. Once forced to trek to seedy theaters with sticky floors, porn consumers could now watch from the privacy of their own homes. The VCR remote, equipped with fast-forward, rewind, play/pause, and record, proved itself immensely useful. Viewers now could pause to re-lubricate, fast-forward through stilted dialogue, and replay, over and over, the money moments. For civilians, the VCR granted the power to record and stockpile TV shows, classic films, and goofy high school talent shows. Most importantly, viewers were freed from the tyranny of schedule programmers at the TV stations.
This trend away from scheduled viewing has only intensified during the information age with the mating of the TV and the computer. Their offspring is “silicon crack,” the collection of technologies–Digital Video Recorders (DVR), streaming video from hulu.com or veoh.com, torrent downloads, On Demand cable and satellite TV—that enable us to watch whatever, whenever. And with all this control, what have we done? Watch even more TV. Because we only have to watch the shows we want, viewership is at an all-time high. Savvy editing and ultra-convenient features have entranced Americans into a mind-numbing five hours of TV a day. Clogged TiVo queues are extensions of their plaqued arteries. The national pastime is now TV, followed closely by heart attack.
GUILDS GONE WILD
As Americans sit at home mesmerized by the boob tube, a different flavor of data is preferred in South Korea. It has one of the most wired and highly educated populations on the planet, ranking second only to Sweden in usage of information and communication technology. Korea also has, according to government studies, over 500,000 infodicts. Most are hooked on online games. To deal with this problem the government established the Center for Internet Addiction Prevention & Counseling, at the time, the first of its kind in the world. There are now dozens of public and private treatment facilities throughout the country.
Far outnumbering the treatment facilities, however, are the PC Bangs (pronounced Bongs) dotting the urban landscape. There is an array of styles, from grimy sub-basements to stylish third-floor cafes. Enter a typical PC Bang and you are assaulted by blips and zaps that ricochet off thick clouds of tobacco smoke. Boys in school uniforms taunt each other through headsets. Salarymen chain-smoke through games of video poker. There are no couples canoodling in private booths, no silent manga reading.
The computers are set in long rows, like urinals at a major sports arena. It’s not taboo to peek at your neighbor’s screen. You’ll encounter a shockingly large dose of StarCraft, a Real-Time Strategy Game (RTSG), World of Warcraft, a Massively Multi-Player Online Role Playing Game (MMPORPG), and hundreds of other miscellaneous titles. The best aspect is the price: generally 1,000 won (roughly equivalent to 100 yen) per hour. At that rate, almost anyone can afford to binge for days on end.
Which is precisely what many infodicted young Koreans do. There are infrequent yet regular cases of overdosing. The most amusing of these are gamers who squat at the PC Bang playing nonstop for 80 hours plus at a clip. Like the lab rat that will forego food, water, and sex to press a lever dispensing cocaine, these game junkies often meet sad, undignified ends: dehydration, exhaustion, deep thigh thrombosis, massive cardiac failure, air-conditioner induced hypothermia. Those that manage to pull themselves away from the screen often behave with homicidal irrationality. There have been multiple instances of MMPORPG guild members forming offline nerd-gangs that brutalize or murder real people for virtual slights.
DOPE, I MEAN
What could cause such behavior? There has been surprisingly little research done on the problem. Certainly, the visual and auditory spectacle of most games keeps the OR buzzing. But, games also stimulate a more typical circuit of addiction, the dopamine pathway. Pleasurable actions promote the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter, into the brain, causing an orgasmic wave that reinforces the original behavior. This occurs with many chemical drugs as well as with compulsions such as shopping or sex. Or receiving new information. Families and friends of drug abusers would do well to visit any site that discusses a number of options for addicts because the information contained in such a site could prove to be very useful.
Drs. Edward Hallowell and John Ratey, Harvard psychiatrists, theorize that anticipating new information excites the brain the same way as the pharmacological foreplay of rolling a joint or fixing work. New email notifications and cell phone ringtones caress neurons until a squirt of dopamine is released.
To recapture that feeling you check Twitter or Facebook or Myspace…The Crackberry is the new crack pipe. Ashy lips and track marks have been replaced by strained eyes and calloused thumbs.
New addictions produce novel disorders. The infodict has what Dr. Hallowell terms attention deficit trait (ADT) or pseudo-ADHD. Characterized by texting while driving at high speeds, or splitting attention between the TV, instant messenger, and SMS, it’s easy to identify. Unlike ordinary ADHD, which is a constant neurological state, pseudo-ADHD only manifests in the presence of interactive technology. Circular, to say the least. And now that over 4 billion people own some type of mobile device, a purely academic distinction. In poor, rural communities across the globe cell phones are increasingly commonplace. As the digital age encroaches on even the most analogue of villages, it brings with it hyperactivity and scattered attention.
If Indy doesn’t make it what chance do we have?
HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE…
Some techno-utopians claim that this hyperactive, multi-tasking mindset is an adaptation to our fast-paced modern world. Science disagrees. Studies by psychologists show multi-tasking impairs learning; U.S. consultants calculate that frequent info-crack breaks cost businesses hundreds of billions of dollars annually. It also makes you dumb. A University of London study found that an info-fix could cause a temporary “fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.” Ouch.
But there is a silver lining. A number of psychiatrists authored a paper titled Evolution and Revolution in Child Psychiatry: ADHD as a Disorder of Adaptation, in which they posit that the symptoms of ADHD–hyperactivity, impulsiveness, a tendency towards unfocused scanning–while currently disadvantageous, were once beneficial. Up until 10,000 years ago humans were hunter-gatherers. They had to stay mobile, on a constant search for antelope and edible mushrooms.
Danger was everywhere. Chuck that spear and ask questions later. Keep your head on a swivel. Spot that creeping tiger or hostile tribe. We flatter ourselves with the idea that today’s world is so high-velocity. Really? Your ass has been anchored to a chair your whole life. For high-velocity living try outrunning a pack of starving dingoes while clothed only in a loin cloth.
So, pseudo-ADHD won’t help you in our sedentary, post-industrial society. But it might prove useful in a post-apocalyptic one. You’ll be hunting feral cats and gathering cans of dog food from abandoned supermarkets. Speeding down deserted freeways pursued by cannibals with Mohawks and leather pants. And you’ll survive because you’re attentive to everything but linger on nothing, because you’re hyper, unfocused, and obsessed with checking every new bit of info you catch in the net.
Now, go mainline some media.
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