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  •   Joel Achenbach
    Joel Achenbach
    E-mail: achenbachj@washpost.com
     
    Net-Heads Caught in the Web
    By Joel Achenbach
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, August 24, 1999; 12:25 p.m. EDT

    I'm delighted that you are reading these words, a new midday online column at The Washington Post's Web site, but my elation is tempered by concern that you may be a deeply disturbed, sick individual, one of the 11 million people who, according to actual experts, are suffering from some form of Internet Addiction. I don't want to be an enabler.

    The latest alarm about Internet Addiction was sounded this week at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. A certain David Greenfield released the results of a study showing that 6 percent of Internet users meet the criteria for addiction. Said Greenfield, "Marriages are being disrupted, kids are getting into trouble, people are committing illegal acts, people are spending too much money."

    The big issue here is whether we should consider Internet Addiction a genuine menace to modern society, or just the Disease of the Week.

    It seems that every new, popular technology inspires an eruption of doomsaying and paranoia. For a couple of decades the television was the singular technological evil, destroying family communication, undermining democracy, and turning impressionable young minds into Cheez Whiz. The problem with technologies that we like is that we like them too much. In the wrong hands, even the simple credit card, a piece of plastic, can turn into plutonium. If you go back far enough, I guarantee that the defenders of cultural normalcy were terrified by the invention of the toaster. (Because, as you know, once you start getting really deeply into toast, it leads to harder stuff English muffins.)

    There's something odd about the new cyber-crisis. Researcher Greenfield is a psychologist in West Hartford, Conn., who operates a Web site on Internet Addiction at www.virtual-addiction.com (it has been observed that treating Internet Addiction on the Web is like holding an AA meeting in a bar). He has also written a book, soon to be published, on Internet Addiction.

    "You've got something that's kind of like a drug," he said this morning. "Every time you click on a banner or hypertext or a link, it's like pulling the handle on a slot machine. You never know what you're going to get. There's a real rush while you're waiting for whatever comes up."

    Still, it's hard to embrace yet another addiction. The criteria are notoriously squishy, making it hard to distinguish the addict from the mere enthusiast. I particularly reject the legitimacy of those purported diseases and disorders for which I would be a potential poster child.

    All that said (and pardon the hairpin turn), there clearly is something going on out there that is driving the addiction scenario. There are horror stories of people spending 100 hours a week online. In 1997, a Cincinnati woman was arrested after she locked her three small kids in a room, unsupervised, while she chatted online. Nathan Shapira, a University of Florida professor of psychiatry who has studied what he calls Problematic Internet Use, reports that one of his subjects got involved in a multi-user domain and did not sign off for seven days. He missed his classes, and police were called, and finally he was found in a college computer center.

    "I've been very surprised at how destructive the Internet can be in people's lives," Shapira said. But he also said it's still unclear how often such situations merely reflect some other disorder. The seven-day man, for example, had a severe psychological illness. The question is whether the Internet can incite compulsive online behavior in otherwise disciplined and healthy people.

    For the big picture I called Marshall Blonsky, the semiotician, a professor of communications at New York University. Blonsky said he's been, at times, a compulsive Web surfer. He has signed on at 11 at night and stayed online until dawn. He compares his state of mind in those hours to a kind of unconsciousness. The real addiction, he said, is the addiction to speed.

    "Ours is a culture of speed. And the minute you say speed, you also say surface. And the minute you say surface, you say an impatience with duration, with time. The experience of the Internet is not the experience of reading, of reading a narrative, of scrolling down, that's the old way, that's the 20th century. The experience is the experience of hot hands, fast hands, of engagement and disengagement, of moving on, of replacement, of image replacement."

    Blonsky speaks quickly, in steady verbal bursts, the ideas bubbling up from some limitless intellectual magma.

    "The experience of single duration is replaced by fragmented multiplicity. It facilitates the feeling that you can indulge in anything, and that you can replace everything. Guess what? That's the society of consumption."

    I'm never sure exactly what Blonsky is talking about, but yes, he's onto something, it all comes back to consuming, to the ravenous appetite for more, bigger, faster.

    I want to try to bring this line of thought to its natural conclusion but the clock shows the morning is getting late and we need to get this posted. Everyone's on pins and needles because the Federal Open Market Committee of the U.S. Federal Reserve is meeting at this very moment and is going to say something later today about interest rates, which will result, I'm predicting, in the stock market either going up or down. Hurricane Bret is in the mountains of Mexico but Tropical Storm Cindy is coming toward the U.S. and there's some other mess of wet stuff out there, a "disturbance," that is expected to turn into Tropical Storm Dennis.

    See, everything's happening faster now.

    If you wish to send in comments on Internet Addiction, semiotics, the weather, or anything else, send an E-mail to achenbachj@washpost.com. Anyone sending more than five E-mails will be referred to the proper psychiatric authorities.


    © 1999 Washington Post Newsweek Interactive

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