Opiates of the 21st century?

We are now living in a golden age of technology, especially the kind that lies at the intersection of information, interconnection and interaction. Acquiring, using and talking about the latest gadgets, smartphone applications and websites is the norm. Almost everyone does this or aspires to do this.

Living comfortably amidst a permeation of such ether, I was rudely awoken on coming across a 2010 essay by Paul Graham titled The Acceleration of Addictiveness. There have been quite a few writings and books in recent months looking at the impact of this kind of technology on our cognition, attention and other aspects of the mind. Graham mentors and funds a lot of startups in this very technology and hence my surprise to see him discuss so frankly about it.

Graham brings a different perspective to this topic by using the history of cigarette smoking in society. Smoking was an accepted social addiction, until its harmful effects were discovered and social norms evolved deriding it.

When cigarettes first appeared, they spread the way an infectious disease spreads through a previously isolated population. Smoking rapidly became a (statistically) normal thing. There were ashtrays everywhere.

[…] In the last 20 years, smoking has been transformed from something that seemed totally normal into a rather seedy habit […] A lot of the change was due to legislation, of course, but the legislation couldn’t have happened if customs hadn’t already changed.

Today’s technology is bringing us both improvements and addictions at a much faster pace. Since customs (like those against smoking) take a long time to form, it will be disastrous to rely on customs, society or our friends to decide what to accept or reject. So, it becomes our responsibility to observe and decide which and how much of these technologies to engage with.

As for Graham, he says he stopped using his iPhone and compares the iPad to a hip flask! The thought that stuck with me the most was:

Unless we want to be canaries in the coal mine of each new addiction—the people whose sad example becomes a lesson to future generations—we’ll have to figure out for ourselves what to avoid and how. […] We’ll increasingly be defined by what we say no to.

No matter how cool or popular a new technology seems to be, we will need to observe and analyze whether it makes sense for our life before we incorporate it into our lifestyle. Deciding not to go along with any particular popular technology will get increasingly harder, but will be necessary if one wants to lead the life he wishes to. Life without them seems miserable, but so might life with them.

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