I came across this great study done by the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA),and the University of Maryland the other day. They asked college students from 12 universities on 5 continents to go without media for a day, keep a diary about it, and then send it to them (the irony that this project wouldn’t have been possible without these same media, I hope, is not lost on the investigators!). They’ve made a great blog about their findings: http://theworldunplugged.wordpress.com/
This is a largely descriptive study. While they’ve grouped reactions by type of emotion and type of media, they’re not attempting to explain the WHY of the global reactions, but to typologize what’s going on in people’s heads. One of their most striking findings is the prevalence of “addiction” language to describe the sensation of being without one’s media devices. The group found that this language was salient across the world. They found that the students described not only missing the functions of the devices (delivering e-mail, filling up time waiting in lines) but the physical devices themselves. The feeling of being without the thing (especially cell phones) that one touches more time in any given day than perhaps any other object, was powerfully framed by this addiction language.
In doing the research for my dissertation project, on the effect of “personal” technologies on people’s most intimate relationships, the language of addiction has come up time and again. I always wonder…what is this language doing for people? What is it expressing that other kinds of language can’t? The way many of us talk about our mobile devices, especially when we first get them, is in terms of convenience. But, after our contact with them deepens, something changes in the way we think about them.
Addiction is usually conceived of as a problem that stems from the way our brains are wired for motivation, pleasure, and memory. There have been lots of attempts at explaining the deep connection we have with our mobile devices through neurobiology. Writers like Nicholas Carr, Emily Yoffe, and Sherry Turkle, as well as countless others have made the connection between the way our human brains respond to dopamine and the way our devices feed into our drive to love them. But, being a sociologist…this is all very unsatisfying. If our relationships with our smartphones could be explained only by the chemicals sloshing around in our brains then I’d be out of a job…so, naturally there must be something else.
To be clear, I believe there is merit in this explanation. But, I don’t believe that it’s the end of the conversation. These devices are technologies of relationship, and the neurobiology explanation only gets us as far as the relationship between human and device. Dopamine might explain the way every ding and buzz of our cell phone commands our immediate attention, but it doesn’t get us to and understanding of the ways they affect our relationships with our friends, children, colleagues, and families. To think about them in a way that limits their effects on our lives to the stuff going on inside of our heads, without our conscious deliberation, is to eliminate the most important and interesting part of the story.
I think that the use of addiction language by people talking about their relationships to various kinds of media does not mean we should only look at the brain to figure out what’s going on. Instead, we need to think about the ways that the instituions of work and family have changed, and the ways that the landscapes of our emotional lives have changed right along with them. Perhaps those who use this language are pointing at the fact that their behavior feels as if it’s not under their own control, but instead shaped by forces much more powerful than their own wills. Instead of looking within to the brain, it’s time to look outward to society.